Savitribai Phule reportedly took on the name of the great Indian social reformer (who died 84 years before the former’s birth) when she was still a teenager. Her mother had the same name as the most powerful Dalit woman in Independent India – Mayawati.
Born Dalit, a member of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) for several years after catching Mayawati's eye (when she was first chief minister in 1995), Savitribai Phule remains an oddity of sorts.
The ‘Sadhvi’ Paradox
A member of the Bharatiya Janata Party for almost two decades till 6 December, both her saffron robes and the prefix of 'Sadhvi' in her name are paradoxes – visual and textual. Usurped by Hindutva votaries as symbols, these two adornments are in complete contrast to her politics.
After all, for the most part, the politics of Hindu nationalism, willy-nilly ends up promoting savarna or privileged castes’ social bigotry, and everything else that former BJP parliamentarian Savitribai Phule’s politics denounces.
Last week, she responded to Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath's claim that “Hanuman was a Dalit”.
“If he really loves Dalits,” she went on to say, “he should love them more than he loves Lord Hanuman”.
"Has he ever embraced any Dalit? He might have been eating dinner at Dalit households, but the cook was not Dalit." - Savitribai Phule
She picked up the baton from where she had left it in April 2018 as BJP’s first time lawmaker from Bahraich. She castigated party leaders for trying to crudely neutralise Dalit anger, post the Supreme Court directive on the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
Phule Tells It Like It Is
At that time, the BJP top brass, in an attempt to reach out to Dalits, directed state and national lawmakers to break bread at Dalit homes. Yet the hypocrisy of this obvious gimmick did not miss Phule's eyes.
At a rally organised in Lucknow she thundered, “those MPs insulted us Dalits,” and she explained her accusation, “they did not eat food cooked at Dalit homes, did not use our utensils, did not drink water from our glasses. They ate food cooked by non-Dalits at the threshold of our homes. This only establishes that they think Dalits are untouchables. They came only to get their photos taken and circulate it in media,” she said.
The BJP would thereby put out now that her departure from the party was not unexpected. That she had been slowly falling out on several issues. It would also contend that her departure had more to do with the inability to work within a structure and conform to party discipline.
Yet, there are questions that the BJP must face.
Savitribai: BJP’s Missed Opportunity
Savitribai Phule symbolises a missed opportunity for the BJP.
She after all, had not walked into the party on the eve of the last Lok Sabha election with an eye to join what was by then, a clearly accelerating Modi bandwagon, to become an MP and maybe more. She joined the BJP and contested assembly polls in 2002 and 2007 unsuccessfully, before being third time lucky in 2012.
The party’s inability to retain a two-decade long member from a depressed section of society has to do more with the failure of its Dalit politics than with personality issues – often the cause for such departures.
In the months that Phule displayed her political restlessness, she voiced criticism over the BJP's treatment of Dalits and the government's policies. She was particularly critical of the initial ambivalence on the dilution of the SC/ST Act and the decision to move ahead on sub-categorising Other Backward Classes (OBCs) into backward, and more backward – the Scheduled Castes into Dalits and Ati-Dalits.
The BJP's social engineering and its success in expanding its social base is based on wooing non-dominant sub-castes among OBCs and Dalits. It has built its outreach programme in these communities by arguing that benefits have been cornered by a very small number of early beneficiaries, and they continue denying others a share of the pie.
Phule’s Stance Against BJP Splitting Up OBC & Dalits
It was due to this strategy that the party performed well in states like Uttar Pradesh in 2014, and again in 2017. Leaders like Phule are at odds with this tactic because their influence within the party depends on caste and united Dalit identity.
It is not without reason that after resigning, Phule accused the BJP of “creating divisions in society” and “plotting to finish the Constitution and provisions of reservation”.
She has also voiced concern against the attacks on Dr BR Ambedkar by fringe forces of the Sangh Parivar. “Some people want to run this country on the 'Manusmriti’, and don't follow the Constitution,” she said.
By picking issues that impact lives of every sub-group dwelling on the margins of society, Phule is countering the BJP splitting up Dalits and OBCs. Her immediate battle is for retaining identity and not for the benefits of schemes.
Cracks Within BJP & Phule’s Next Destination
Phule realised that with the BJP following such an approach, the status of a leader like herself would be that of a ‘Trophy Dalit’, merely to be showcased, but of no real significance within the party. Phule obviously does not wish to remain a showpiece to be flaunted by the BJP, and is keen to wield greater political power.
Her next destination in all likelihood may well be the Bahujan Samaj Party, and Mayawati would possibly see little harm in her homecoming, in the run up to 2019, an important poll for the BSP leader to regain her position of influence in national politics.
The BJP however, will not serve its cause by disregarding Phule's departure, especially as it has come close on the heels of Sushma Swaraj and Uma Bharti's declaration that they will not contest the Lok Sabha polls.
These are signs of unease within the party and likely adverse results on 11 December from Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh may well convert internal disquiet into a cascade of dissent.
(The writer is an author and journalist based in Delhi. He has authored the book ‘The Demolition: India at the Crossroads’ and ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’. He can be reached @NilanjanUdwin. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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