The BJPs Dalit Dilemma

What is BJP’s real position on Dalits? Does the party want to win over them or does it want to win in spite of them? These are some of the questions the nation is asking and most of all Dalits themselves, a community still seeking an equitable and just existence in a lop-sided and biased social structure.

Narendra Modi-led juggernaut that brought the BJP into power in 2014 would not have been possible had it not been for a large section of Dalits voting decisively in favour of the party.

But today, the Dalits stand as alienated as ever, with no party sincerely committing to uplift their community, offering them fair opportunity to live and work as equals in free India. Every political party has used them one way or another to get past the post and it doesn’t seem to end anytime soon.

UP Elections and the Dalit factor

UP is the most politically important state and is usually the path to power at the centre. The Dalit voter base in UP has always been large and its collective voting power has been amply demonstrated when Mayawati came in from nowhere and built a strong party of and for Dalits (BSP), on a foundation set up by her mentor, the late Kanshiram.

But the same Mayawati has also tasted defeat in her home state, thereby confirming that the Dalit voter base cannot be taken for granted and also the fact that Dalit voters alone cannot always guarantee political power.

Mayawati has realized that and has been trying to widen her appeal and support base from other castes including upper castes. So, with 2017 Assembly elections round the corner, how do political parties stack up and how are they planning to play the Dalit card?

The ruling Samajwadi Party is facing anti-incumbency in certain pockets of UP. Results in the last Assembly elections show that a large section of Dalits moved away from BSP’s fold and voted for SP. This time, it seems unlikely that Dalits will remain with Akhilesh Yadav, who is yet to form his own identity outside the shadow of his father.

The Congress is waiting and watching, as BJP continues its ambivalent approach to Dalits, and is hoping to gain from those Dalits that move away from SP and in favour of the Congress. Congress party in UP is itself tied up in knots and remains unclear on Priyanka Gandhi’s role in a state where Rahul Gandhi was supposed to take lead.

The late introduction of Raj Babbar is unlikely to swing voters in favour of Congress. The party is hoping to cash in on Muslim votes since they are unlikely to go with BJP or BSP, which does give it a better chance at improving its results over the last elections. But if it is hoping to come to power, it will need an alliance with Mayawati’s BSP.

Mayawati’s chances of coming to power on her own strength are dim and her party’s performance will depend on how she is able to rally Dalits to vote for her party.

Which leaves us with BJP. If the party hoped to come to some kind of understanding or alliance with Mayawati in UP, that chance just blew away with BJP’S now former Vice President in UP Dayashankar Singh’s unfortunate and obnoxious remark on the BSP Chief’s character.

Dalits being repeatedly targeted

There is a growing feeling within the Dalits that they are being unfairly targeted by BJP ever since they came to power in 2014. BJP party high command’s failure to reign in hardline elements within the party has only added to this growing sense of alienation by the Dalits and they are reacting in any which way they can.

It started in the run up to Bihar elections, when BJP MP and ex-MOS of External Affairs Gen VK Singh publicly drew analogy of Dalits with street dogs. That set in motion a strong backlash from the Dalit community that was very vocal in their protest.

RSS too has had a role in deepening the chasm between Dalits and BJP. Its attempt at re-writing history by supporting books which show Muslim invaders were responsible for creating Dalits as a low caste meant to do menial jobs like skinning dead cows. While this drew wide condemnation from all sections, it only helped in Dalits moving further away from the BJP and the results showed in Bihar’s elections.

Hyderabad University’s Dalit student Rohit Vemula’s suicide was both unfortunate and untimely for the BJP. It was not just the death but the party’s poor response to the incident that saw all political parties side with mostly Dalit protesters who were supporters of Rohit Vemula. BJP’s poor handling of the incident left it in poor light in the eyes of Dalits.

Continuing the trend of embarrassing the party high command was Rajya Sabha MP Dr Subramanium Swamy of BJP who tweeted calling Rohit Vemula’s supporters Communists and running dogs. This came on a day and time when PM Modi was addressing a convocation ceremony at Ambedkar University and where he spoke with emotion on Rohit Vemula’s unfortunate suicide.

And the most recent one just happened in Mumbai, when Ambedkar Bhavan was demolished in Mumbai, capital of BJP controlled Maharashtra, drawing large Dalit protesters to take to the streets.

Can BJP and the Dalits ever come together?

How can a party answer that given the long list of repeated faux pas that its party members have been making. Every party has its share of loose mouths but when its party high command comes across as reticent in coming out strongly against such elements, an impression is formed that perhaps it’s part of the party’s overall gameplan. So it this the case with BJP?

The answer to that now seems immaterial as the damage has been done. With the latest episode of Dayashankar Singh’s terrible remark about Mayawati, there is no way that BJP will be able to win over her in the forthcoming UP elections.

So can BJP dislodge a well-entrenched SP without BSP’s help? Unlikely. The fallout can only favour Congress which is desperately trying fighting for its own political survival. But will it be enough remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, BJP is likely to unleash its damage control team across UP in a last minute bid to revive its hopes. Let’s see if the party loose mouths remain in leash till then.