When Dalit activist Chandrashekhar Azad stepped out of Saharanpur Jail in Uttar Pradesh at 2.40 am on 14 September, he found a large crowd gathered to meet him. The Bhim Army founder, sporting his trademark blue scarf and fecund moustache, was exhausted to the point of passing out repeatedly. But hundreds accompanied him to his home in the nearby Chhutmalpur village and made a beeline to click selfies with the “great Dalit hope”, as ardent supporters see him. Critics, however, view Azad more as the “great Dalit hype”, following in the footsteps of several others who have failed to unseat the reigning champion of the backward castes in Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati.

Azad has neither won any election, nor joined a political party. As one of the six men — three among them Rajput — who were arrested after last year’s Dalit-Rajput clashes in Saharanpur, he could have chosen to lie low. His imprisonment was one of the triggers for the nationwide Dalit protests on 2 April, which were marred by violence that led to further arrests. This, too, could have prompted Azad to be cautious. Nevertheless, the moment he left prison, he said he would do all he could to ensure that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) loses the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

“The Bahujan Samaj is very hassled by the BJP. Farmers are committing suicide. They even drank their own urine to attract the prime minister’s attention. This government couldn’t find work for two people, leave alone the two crore promised jobs. And it isn’t me; it’s people who are saying they are angry with the BJP,” Azad said.

That is why it was a rude shock when the still-youthful Azad — he is only 30 — and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati got into a public spat. Their confrontation began the moment he emerged from jail and started calling her “buaji”, or father’s sister, even though the widely accepted moniker for her in politics is “behenji”. By not using it, Azad is making a statement.

The genealogy of “buaji” is such that Mayawati could not let the remark pass. That she chose to attack Azad speaks volumes about the effect of the appellation. “I have no relation with people like Chandrashekhar Azad,” she had hastily retorted. In his defence, Azad had said, “I only called her buaji out of respect.”

The Bhim Army brings emotional zest to the Dalit social movement, while Mayawati, though she is aggressive, has been facing electoral defeats that make her seem unable to move with the times. The BSP’s political decline has blunted the Dalit social movement, and Azad fills this void.

“But within the BSP, emotional matters have been settled, so to speak,” said Vivek Kumar, who teaches Sociology at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. “Emotions cannot beat organisation and cadre, which the Bhim Army lacks. In the end, rationality will dictate that Dalits won’t want to waste their vote — they will support Mayawati.”

Samajwadi Party (SP) president and former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Akhilesh Yadav was the first to call Mayawati buaji — implying that she was past her prime while he, young and dynamic, was destined to lead the state. This was back in 2014. Ever since, the sobriquet has been extensively caricatured. As the SP does not represent Dalit politics or aspirations the same way the BSP does, his use of the term at a time when they were political rivals served to emphasise the antipathy that exists between the followers of both parties. Now that the SP and BSP are trying to forge an electoral alliance, they seek to paper over the antagonism between the SP’s Yadav voters and the BSP’s Dalit voters.

A truce between the dominant OBC Yadavs and the Dalits, whom they have historically tyrannised, is essential if their alliance is to succeed. Such an armistice would imply that polarising monikers are shunned to cement the so-called Dalit-OBC social alliance. Without this, they cannot challenge the BJP’s post-2014 electoral sweeps.

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“Even Akhilesh Yadav only calls her ‘Mayawatiji’ now. He is very careful about it,” said SP leader Sudhir Pawar. “Obviously, Chandrashekhar wants to embarrass her at this critical juncture by calling her buaji. And undermining her in Uttar Pradesh amounts to helping the BJP.”

Realpolitik also dictates that leaders should steer clear of controversies. “Hence, it is Chandrashekhar’s immaturity to call Mayawati buaji. She had no option but to reject his choice of words,” Kumar said.

Yet, Azad hasn’t stopped insisting that Mayawati is his buaji. When he visited BSP founder Kanshiram’s family in Punjab on 24 September, he said “Mayawati buaji” should be the next prime minister. Those who are acquainted with the BSP’s recent history would recall that Kanshiram’s family and Mayawati are bitterly estranged. The family had accused her of not letting them visit Kanshiram in his last days in 2006. This rift, they feel, had helped Mayawati inherit the party. However, in a 24-page letter to his parents, Kanshiram had severed ties with his family in Punjab. He never broke this pledge. Hence, Mayawati would have, in any case, inherited the BSP.

But when Azad reminds his followers of this controversial history, he is being more political than he admits. “What politicians say carries no weight,” he said. “That’s why I don’t want to join politics. People take me seriously because I’m not a politician.”

The confrontational and rebellious streak that Azad takes no measures to conceal has drawn to him thousands of supporters, mostly young Dalit men. His outspokenness has made him a symbol of the pressure that ordinary Dalits put on their leaders and parties that contest elections on the social justice plank to voice their anti-establishment sentiments. Since he is from outside the political sphere, they view his combativeness as social assertion rather than expedience. “Martyrs are always revered in India,” the JNU professor said. “And Chandrashekhar is being seen as a person who has taken on the upper castes, that too in Modi Raj.”

Any declaration of Mayawati as the future prime minister should not be taken at face value, regardless of who makes it, said Satish Prakash, a Dalit activist and assistant professor at Meerut College. “Such statements can polarise our polity, which is already divided along caste lines.” He is drawing attention to a congenital feature of Indian politics — no national party proffers a Dalit prime ministerial candidate as they feel doing so can push away voters who don’t find the possibility acceptable.

“Every new Dalit icon is seen as anti-BSP and anti-Mayawati,” said Kumar. Earlier Jignesh Mevani was said to be anti-Mayawati, and now it’s Azad’s turn. “How a political outfit constructs an aura around a Dalit leader should not be seen in oversimplified terms,” he said. He was referring to the Congress supporting Mevani in Gujarat by not fielding a candidate against him, thus securing his victory.

Udit Raj, once a strong critic of BSP, joined the BJP. “If these parties were serious about cultivating Dalit leaders, they would have done so within their own parties,” Kumar said. After all, Azad is equally critical of the BJP, but only his remarks about Mayawati are amplified.

The issue is that political outfits lack a credible Dalit face to attract Dalit voters, and so they woo emerging leaders. An array of political parties visiting Azad these days is, therefore, being seen as their need for Dalit voters, who they need to add to their existing base to secure electoral victories. Azad has met Imran Masood, the Congress strongman in Saharanpur, as well as Muslim ideologues such as Arshad Madani from the seminary in Deoband, among several others.

“Let those who spoke about Bahujan interests until yesterday go to the BJP or Congress. Please don’t tell me what to do because of their choices. I have no political ambition and will continue to build our social movement,” Azad countered, adding that he will “not join the Congress, not even any party close to the Congress”.

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It’s important to note that Mevani and Udit Raj, once strongly critical of Mayawati, are no longer as strident in opposing her. This is because to critique the BSP is an established blueprint for new Dalit leaders owing to an inherent limitation Dalit leaders face: They can only appeal to Dalit voters and so must fight Mayawati, their super-leader, for garnering voters.

“We know that Chandrashekhar is preparing ground for his own future political growth by attacking Mayawati,” a BSP leader from Uttar Pradesh said.

Dalit leaders can compete for OBC or Muslim voters, but these communities share a compulsion — their political salience depends largely on their own community’s votes. “That’s why Mayawati cannot ignore Chandrashekhar. She feels that the challenge he poses to her from outside the political sphere today may, in future, become a political challenge, too,” said Prakash.

Soon after Mayawati announced that she will partner with Ajit Jogi’s Janata Congress in Chhattisgarh, Supreme Court advocate Prashant Bhushan predicted that she will lose Dalit voters. “Dalits must stand with young Turks of Dalits like Chandrashekhar and Mevani,” he tweeted. The assumption behind this perception is that Dalits are more or less united in wanting the BJP out of power, and that if Mayawati resists the Bhim Army’s call to ally with Opposition parties, Dalits would split.

That’s why, there’s a haunting feeling in the BSP that Azad is a threat. This is also because the BSP is an unsuitable place for leaders keen to cultivate their own base, as it leaves no room for autonomy and agency.

When Dalits did not involve any of their political parties or leaders in the 2 April protests, it was a clear reflection of their dissatisfaction with their existing representation. This is where Azad draws sustenance. Deftly, he claims that he is related to Mayawati. He said: “We’re both Dalit. That’s why she’s my bua.”

What he means is that they are both Jatav, or belong to the same sub-caste that constitutes around 65 percent of Uttar Pradesh’s Dalit population. Jatavs are the BSP’s last loyal block of voters, while other sub-castes have drifted away, especially to the BJP, in recent elections. “This gives Chandrashekhar hope. He thinks he will eventually wean Jatavs away from behenji,” said the same BSP leader from the state.

This doesn’t mean that Azad’s choices are easy: should he not contest the 2019 elections, he may be forgotten in the hurly-burly of next year’s elections. And if he does, he would perhaps do little but serve the purpose of splitting BSP votes. “On average in Uttar Pradesh, a Lok Sabha winner gets four lakh votes. Several lakh people have come to meet me just since I left jail. So why would political parties want to compete with me?” Azad said. What he means is, since he represents the Dalit social movement, he does not need to contest elections to prove his popularity.

It can be argued that the Bhim Army is not going political because it doesn’t have cadre, organisation or resources to hurt the BSP, at least not beyond Saharanpur. “Mayawati has a state party, a national party and no reason to budge under pressure from the Bhim Army,” Pawar said. In his eyes, a series of recent developments appear to be experiments led by the ruling BJP to test the Opposition’s strength and stability.

In July, Akhilesh Yadav’s uncle Shivpal Yadav floated a new political outfit that can potentially divide the SP’s Yadav and Muslim voters. In August, the SC/ST Act was restored by a central legislation after a Supreme Court ruling in February tempered its most stringent provisions. The BJP had expected Dalits to demand restoration of this law via a large-scale protest in August, at least as vociferously as their April protests, but they did not. In September, Sher Singh Rana, accused of killing backward class leader Phoolan Devi, attempted to mobilise Saharanpur’s Rajputs against Azad’s release. “But Dalits didn’t respond to any of these provocations. Right now, BJP’s caste cards aren’t falling in the right place, but even Azad has no choice but to wait and see how BSP fares,” Pawar said.

If this unarmed combat between the Dalit social movement’s newest icon and its political movement, the BSP, continues, Dalits could split in two — those who are with the BSP and those who are with the Bhim Army. Dalits want the BSP and Bhim Army to stick together, but whether they can actually make this happen is a test they still have to face.

Images from News 18

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