Bhim Army Chief Chandrashekhar Azad is fast emerging as an alternative Dalit leader to BSP supremo Mayawati, who has been steadily losing both popularity and credibility within the community.
The latest and most telling illustration of this came this week, as Dalits in Delhi and adjoining states assembled and marched in a massive demonstration against the recent demolition of a five century old temple of Dalit Saint Ravidas. It had been demolished after the Supreme Court deemed it as an “illegal” structure, occupying protected forest land in the Tughlakabad region of the national capital.
Unlike Mayawati who merely made a token statement condemning the demolition, the Bhim Army chief took the initiative of bringing together various Dalit groups under an umbrella body called the Akhil Bharatiya Sant Shiromani Guru Ravidas Mandir Sanyukta Sanrakhshan Samiti, to protest the demolition and demand that the temple be rebuilt in the same place.
The response was tremendous, and Dalit demonstrators from Delhi, Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh gathered in tens of thousands at the Ramlila Maidan in an unprecedented show of strength.
There is little doubt that by organising such a huge show of strength by Dalits from different Northern states, Chandrasekhar Azad has considerably enhanced his national profile.
“Many Dalits are Looking for a New Leader”
Addressing the vast audience, Azad, the flamboyant mustachioed Dalit firebrand, wearing dark glasses, presented a stark contrast to the far more restrained style of Mayawati, who, particularly in recent years, has failed to arouse the crowd with fiery rhetoric.
Sensing the angry mood of the Dalits, Chandrashekhar Azad inflamed passions further by exhorting each member of the audience to pick up a brick and march to the site of the demolished temple. “We shall have the temple rebuilt within an hour,” he declared to rapturous applause from the gathering.
The Bhim Army chief then proceeded to lead the crowd which turned into an angry slogan-shouting procession, marching through the streets of the capital towards Tughlakabad, creating panic among the authorities. Azad, and several others leading the procession, were soon arrested, while the march turned violent as the demonstrators clashed with the police.
While the marchers were dispersed long before they could reach the demolished temple site, there is little doubt that by organising such a huge show of strength by Dalits from different Northern states, perhaps for the first time in the capital, Chandrasekhar Azad — so far considered as a leader who was influential just in Western Uttar Pradesh — has considerably enhanced his national profile.
With her dramatic political rise, Mayawati had increasingly both elevated and isolated herself, appearing only during election campaigns.
“Many Dalits are looking for a new leader as Mayawati has got recently quite exposed as someone who is very vulnerable to pressure from the present regime. Azad’s performance at the protest rally... against the demolition of the Sant Ravidas temple was very impressive, and he certainly has the potential to lead the community in the future,” said Chandrabhan Prasad, noted Dalit scholar.
“Dalits are Increasingly Losing Faith in Behenji”
The Bhim Army chief’s rising stock among Dalits is directly linked to the rapidly sinking image of Mayawati in the community. She had earned the nickname ‘Behenji’ early in her career, when, as a grassroots Dalit activist, she had tirelessly campaigned across the villages and towns of Uttar Pradesh — often on a bicycle — and had come to be regarded as the beloved ‘sister’ of the community.
“I am afraid the Dalit community is increasingly losing faith in Behenji,” declared Ram Kumar, a veteran Dalit activist from UP.
However, with her dramatic political rise, Behenji had increasingly both elevated and isolated herself, appearing only during election campaigns in a helicopter, like a visiting deity from the heavens.
Successive defeats in the assembly and parliamentary polls over the past decade had further depleted Mayawati’s political stock. An alliance with her arch regional rival, the Samajwadi Party, before the recent Lok Sabha polls, had briefly raised hopes of a political revival, only to be crushed by the Modi juggernaut. Dalits have been dismayed further by her sudden decision to snap the alliance with Samajwadi Party, and also her elevation of family members to key posts in the BSP.
Not surprisingly, Mayawati, sensing the threat from the younger Dalit leader, has been increasingly hostile to him — often without provocation.
“I am afraid the Dalit community is increasingly losing faith in Behenji, particularly after her decision to suddenly break the alliance with the Samajwadi Party, making it easy for the BJP in the coming assembly polls in UP. They seriously feel that the time has come for a younger and more politically aggressive leader like Azad to emerge,” declared Ram Kumar, a leading veteran Dalit activist in Uttar Pradesh.
BSP Supremo “Devi” Mayawati Decoded
Mayawati vs Chandrashekhar Azad
Not surprisingly, Mayawati, sensing the threat from the younger Dalit leader, has been increasingly hostile to him — often without provocation. Ironically, even as speculation has grown over her own vulnerability to the BJP government because of corruption cases against her and members of her family by the CBI, the BSP leader has been accusing Chandrashekhar Azad of being an ‘agent’ of the ruling party, out to ‘destroy’ her and her party.
In contrast, the Bhim Army chief till recently was careful not to criticise Mayawati, and in the beginning, even sought to reach out to her as his ‘bua’ — only to be snubbed. However, in the last week of June, speaking to reporters in Pilibhit in Uttar Pradesh, Azad, for the first time, directly attacked the veteran Dalit leader for inexplicably ending the electoral alliance with Samajwadi Party, and also ‘promoting’ her family members in politics, pointing out that this was against the legacy of Kanshi Ram and the Bahujan Samaj movement.
“Dalits need to get back to social movements to really politically empower themselves,” activist Ram Kumar asserted.
This clearly indicates Azad’s growing ambitions as a Dalit leader, which was further underlined by the Bhim Army launching a student’s wing this month in Lucknow, with plans to launch a branch in Pune before the Maharashtra assembly polls later this year.
Bhim Army Chief Unlikely to Form a Parallel Party to BSP
Yet, for the moment, Azad is unlikely to form a parallel political party to the BSP, knowing his lack of resources and organisational reach. What is more likely is a concerted move by the Bhim Army to lead grassroots agitations on issues close to the Dalit community across Uttar Pradesh, and in other states as well. This is a space that has been increasingly vacated by Mayawati and her party, obsessed as they are with their narrow electoral agenda despite its diminishing returns.
Dalit activists like Ram Kumar approve of Azad’s strategy. “Dalits need to get back to social movements to really politically empower themselves, instead of pursuing just electoral gain which has so badly damaged the BSP that Kanshi Ram had formed,” he asserted.
(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist and the author of ‘Behenji: A Political Biography of Mayawati’. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)