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DELHI’S Dalit Politics

Updated: December 19, 2009 12:59 pm

India’s Dalits, who occupy the bottom-most rung of the country’s caste pyramid but constitute a vote-rich 65 million of its 1.1 billion population, are no longer untouchable for India’s politicians sort of.

Congress members are sleeping in Dalit huts, (bringing their own bedding) and eating with them (bringing their own food) while the poor look on. They are also holding village meetings and announcing welfare schemes to this hitherto neglected constituency.

The reasons aren’t hard to find. State assembly elections are to be held in over half a dozen states over the next few months. Rahul Gandhi, 39, general secretary of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government, is focusing on the Dalit heartland to project the Congress as a `party of the poor.’ Gandhi’s tactics include surprise visits to Dalit households in small villages where, unlike a lot of his party members, he shares frugal meals with them, bathes at hand pumps and sleeps on charpoys.

The Dalit jamboree began in earnest around October 2, the 140th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, when, taking their cue from Gandhi, Congress members of parliament descended on 300 Dalit households in Uttar Pradesh to bond ostentatiously with their less privileged brethren.

Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state at 190 million people, hosts 20 per cent of the country’s Dalits.

Congress’s added impetus to its Dalit agenda is a recent United Nations Human Rights Council’s declaration which notes that discrimination based on the caste system is a “human rights abuse” that adversely impacts the world’s estimated 200 million Dalits.

The Council brushed aside Indian government opposition to inclusion of the word “caste” in the UN declaration. India felt the declaration’s special emphasis on “caste,” highlighting the country’s discriminatory ethos — would bring it unsavory attention at a time when it is trying to raise its international profile.

There is no denying that India’s Dalit population, the largest of any single country, has been subjected to the worst form of discrimination for centuries. It is denied even the most basic human rights like access to clean drinking water and toilets. Tales of atrocities are legion despite the Indian Constitution providing for their welfare. And, despite India’s growing economic and geopolitical heft, their lot remains largely unchanged. The benefits of national prosperity have hardly percolated down to a socioeconomic group who continue to be treated as social pariahs.

Congress’s revitalised Operation Dalit agenda has to be seen in this larger context. Its provenance goes back to January when Gandhi, undertook his ‘Discovery of India’ trip accompanied by British Foreign Secretary David Miliband. The duo spent time with India’s poor in a village near Amethi, Gandhi’s parliamentary constituency in UP.

While an ebullient Miliband provided ample photo ops to the global media — as he tiptoed around cow dung to visit a Dalit milk collection center, a school, a hospital and a women’s self-help group — it was panned by Congtress’s critics as a blatant populist measure and little more.

As Miliband himself wrote in his blog after the Amethi visit: “800 million Indians live on less than 2 dollars a day, 450 million on less than one dollar and I will get a chance to see some of the gap that exists between metropolitan middle class India and the rest.”

Brushing aside criticism that his visits are a political gimmick, Gandhi says he doesn’t believe in the caste system and his purpose is to reach out to the poor. “The frame of Dalit is your frame, not mine,” he told as a

Dalit, I see him as a poor person.”

“I ask my office to arrange for my visit to a poor person’s home in the poorest village. You see him as a Dalit, I see him as a poor person.”

Gandhi’s party’s actions have added to the mounting criticism. Earlier this month, Congress Ministers Sri Prakash Jaiswal, Pradip Aditya Jain, Mohammad Azharuddin and UPCC (Uttar Pradesh Congress Committee) chief Rita Bahuguna Joshi — spent the night in Dalit homes.

However, critics said the visits appeared designed more like outings than a genuine attempt to bond with the poor. The politicians traveled in luxury cars with their retinues and ate chicken while the poor looked on. A few brought pedestal fans, mattresses, bed sheets, mineral water, disposable cutlery and mosquito nets. Some even went to the extent of hiring their own cooks and feasted on delicacies with their supporters.

“Rather than encouraging bonding,” charged a member of the right-wing opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), “the Congress’ Dalit outing has widened the schism between the party and the poor. It has made the latter conscious of a lifestyle they can ill-afford.”

Actually, according to the Congress’ original brief, local politicians are supposed to hold monthly chaupals (village meetings) in villages at the homes of the poor. These meetings are aimed at sensitising the poor of their right to jobs and pensions under the government’s US$8 billion National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. The act, enacted by legislation in 2005, guarantees 100days of employment in every financial year to adult members of any rural household willing to do public manual labor at the statutory wage of Rs 100 (US$2) per day.

The Congress’ stakes in the employment guarantee act are pretty high. The scheme will help the party reinforce its pro-poor image and the Dalit meetings are designed to help the party assess if the benefits are actually percolating down to the poor or not.

However, there’s a larger game plan. Analysts say Congress hopes use the visits to expose the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) supremo and Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati’s poor employment guarantee record. Mayawati ranked 59th by Forbes magazine among the world’s most powerful women in 2008 — is known to focus more on building her own image than attending to governance. This is despite the fact that Uttar Pradesh ranks behind most Indian states on human development indices like education, health and women’s empowerment.

The Congress sleepovers have thus naturally enraged Mayawati, once a Dalit icon herself. She called Rahul Gandhi an actor (dramebaaz) who is trying to erode her base. Despite this mounting criticism from behenji (sister) as Mayawati is referred to, Gandhi continues with his pro-poor programs. He knows that such largesse will play a vital role in determining his party’s electoral fortunes. Unfortunately, in this tug of war between scheming politicians and inefficacious administrators, the beleaguered Dalits have largely been forgotten.

By Neeta Lal

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