'Young Dalits are looking for better educational opportunities, more job avenues in the private sector, which need not necessarily mean job quotas, but a more welcoming corporate world that offers a liberated social environment, essentially a new India.'
Scholars tell Upasna Pandey what young Dalits expect from the next government and why their aspirations are different from what the political parties offer.
Even as political parties debate the India growth story, scholars believe that young scheduled caste voters are moving away from identity politics to a politics driven by aspirations.
Chandra Bhan Prasad, the well-known Dalit thinker, shares his insights as he travels across villages, towns and cities in Uttar Pradesh. He is there to understand what the "young Dalit voter is thinking right now."
Middle aged and elderly Dalits, Prasad says, may still go with symbolism, seeking creation of Dalit parks and going with slogans like 'Dalit ki beti PM' in support of Bahujan Samaj Party supremo minister Mayawati.
But "young Dalits are somewhat upset or disillusioned with the BSP and are looking for better educational opportunities, more job avenues in the private sector, which need not necessarily mean job quotas, but a more welcoming corporate world that offers a liberated social environment, essentially a new India," Prasad explains.
The Congress's election manifesto, he points out, mentioned scholarships for Other Backward Classes, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes students, creating hostels and other facilities for them, so there are specific promises for these sections which make up about 16 per cent of India's population.
The Bharatiya Janata Party manifesto, he says, in contrast, appears vague, only talking about Hindus and Muslims, so there is disillusionment or disengagement.
The Samajwadi Party is seen as hostile to Dalits and the BSP has not made any clear promises in its manifesto.
Prasad cites instances of how the United Progressive Alliance government may have failed to position its national programmes as ones that benefit scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and OBCs.
"One is told that MNREGA (the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) is almost like a sub caste, which includes Dalits who avail this government dole and are not actually employed, it is a fraud. They marry into MNREGA families only," says Prasad. "You meet a Dalit who has a refrigerator at home and his wish is that there is power supply for long so he can get some ice in his fridge. The aspirations are totally different from what the political parties are positioning."
"Today when Dalit youth move to the cities for better jobs or educational opportunities, they expect that the government will make the urban slums liveable, as they are used to a liveable and clean environment in villages. They are aspirational and don't care for symbolism much," Prasad believes.
D Shyam Babu, a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, a New Delhi think-tank, agrees that the Dalit narrative may have been historically about human rights violations, land reforms and other social issues, but the community's new agenda is based on the need for entrepreneurial opportunities, occupational diversity and mobility.
"There appears to be a tremendous pro-BJP wave according to the media," says Shyam Babu, "but I believe the BSP may not fare so badly as there is a lot of anti-incumbency and law and order-related angst against the Samajwadi Party government. The BSP may be able to consolidate and do better than its performance in the 2012 assembly election."
The BSP, he says, "has been ignoring core Dalit voters and focusing on the Muslim vote bank. The young Dalit voter may not be sentimentally attached to the BSP, but may still vote for the party to reduce the Samajwadi Party effect. I am not sure if the BJP will gain in all this."
P L Punia, the Congress MP and candidate from Barabanki, feels, "Dalits are politically more aware now and may vote for more opportunities and the manifesto that addresses their aspirations."
Photograph used for representational purposes only.