BJP President Amit Shah is in Lucknow today to take stock of the party's burgeoning problem of Dalit disenchantment. This comes after five BJP Dalit MPs went public with their angst over the party alienating the castes that voted for it in huge numbers in 2014.
Shah must wonder how it all went sour so quickly. The BJP in 2014 won 40 of 66 Lok Sabha seats that are reserved for backward castes. That is a spectacular strike rate of 60 percent and the BJP now has more Dalit representatives in parliament than any other party. Yet, Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently expressed his concern at the recasting of the BJP as a "Brahmin Baniya party" when he took questions posted on his NaMo app at the party's foundation day on the 6th of this month.
BJP president Amit Shah having lunch with a Dalit family in Jaipur (July, 2017)
Six Dalits were killed in the massive Bharat Bandh
protests on April 2 against the Supreme Court's tweaking of the Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act; the protesters say the changes have rendered toothless a law meant to swiftly punish anyone who discriminates against Dalits. And Dalit BJP MPs are facing pressure from within the community as to why no arrests have been made for the crimes committed particularly in the BJP-ruled states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. Rajasthan also witnessed the burning of Dalit homes as a reprisal for the protest and the authorities did not act effectively or soon enough.
In general election season, as all parties square off for the big fight for the Dalit vote which accounts for nearly 17% of the population, the BJP MPs going public with complaints of the party's indifference - there are 4 from Uttar Pradesh - are those who defected to the BJP ahead of the last general election as part of Shah's much-heralded "Chanakya Niti"
(Shah had publicly said that the wily Chanakya is an inspiration). These MPs are also being "nudged" and "incentivised" to revolt by their former leaders such as BSP's Mayawati, say sources.
Bharat Bandh, called by Dalit groups on April 2, saw massive protests and violence across north India
Mayawati knows that she is fighting for her political existence and that she has to ensure the return of the huge chunk of Dalit voters that she lost to the BJP in 2014 in Uttar Pradesh. Shah is equally desperate to rip apart the early and fragile understanding between Mayawati and her formal rival Akhilesh Yadav after their combined effort led to the BJP losing two crucial by-elections in Phulpur and Gorakhpur.
A top Mayawati aide confirmed to me that three industrialist go-betweens for the BJP and Behen-ji
have conveyed the message that her alliance with Akhilesh Yadav will be injurious to the CBI cases pending against her for alleged corruption during her years as Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister. The aide says despite the warning and her own mercurial temperament, Mayawati remains in close touch with Yadav. Their partnership will next be tested in the by-election for the parliamentary seat of Kairana, the date for which has not yet been announced.
BSP chief Mayawati has said that success of the recent Bharat Bandh left the BJP scared of Dalits
The five MPs are aware that in UP, if the Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav alliance holds, their re-election prospects are dim. A ghar wapsi
(homecoming) to Mayawati's BSP seems like an attractive option given. They are also likely to be concerned by how Shah allocates tickets, casting aside those whose re-election chances seem less than stalwart.
I spoke to several of BJP's Dalit MPs and it is telling that none of them wanted to go on record. The common refrain was that they felt they are merely ornamental for the BJP and never got a share of the real power. Said one "Behen-ji cake hum sab ko khilati thi. Yahan par toh humko nyauta hi nahi aaya
(Mayawati used to feed us cake; in the BJP, we are just about invited to the do)" - an allusion to the token representation of Dalits in Modi's council of ministers (6 of a total of 70 plus)
and in the Yogi Adityanath government.
PM Modi's "stoic silence" shows BJP-RSS is working towards making India Dalit-free, Congress alleged
The BJP Dalit MPs remonstrating the party publicly offers a gigantic leg up for the opposition in its proclamations that Modi's is an anti-Dalit party. Incidents such as in Una, Gujarat, where young Dalits were filmed while being thrashed for skinning dead cattle and the suicide of Dalit and PhD scholar Rohith Vemula two years ago have angered Dalits to the alleged insensitivity of the BJP to the most vulnerable sections of society.
At the start of this year, the clashes that broke out after thousands of Dalits gathered at Bhima-Koregaon in Maharashtra in January have added to the simmering anger of the community.
The new restrictive cattle laws which have destroyed the leather industry which mainly employed Dalits and the Muslims and the rampaging "gau rakshaks"
have added potent fuel to the mix. As long as it was Muslims such as Mohammad Akhlaq, lynched by a mob in 2015 over allegations of beef being stored at his home in 2015, the BJP could maintain a deafening silence but, now even the RSS, the mother-ship of the party, has officially expressed concern to Modi and Shah that the unity of the "Hindu Samaj"
is cracking and remedial measures need to be expedited.
Rohith Vemula committed suicide in his hostel room on January 17, 2016 in protest against the discrimination of Dalits
Immediate damage control has been begun. On Ambedkar Jayanti on the 14th, Modi is dedicating the day to a slew of events commemorating Dalit icon Dr BR Ambedkar and is likely to make a dramatic plea to the Dalits about the BJP being their real champion unlike other parties who use them as a "vote bank ATM". Whether these impassioned theatrics and Shah's dine-outs with Dalits (the last being in Odisha) will stem the rising anger is debatable.
Karnataka which goes to the polls next month has a 19 percent Dalit population and will perhaps be an indication of which way the Dalit voter is leaving.
Try as hard as they can, the impression that the BJP was lackadaisical in fighting the court verdict has gained ground.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi pays tribute to Dr. BR Ambedkar on his 125th birth anniversary
When ally and union minister Ram Vilas Paswan says publicly in an interview
that the BJP removed Gujarat Chief Minister Anandiben Patel for mishandling the Una tragedy but made a mistake by not publicly acknowledging it, the escalating tension between the competing upper caste support base of the BJP and the backward castes that back leaders like Paswan is apparent. Paswan added for good measure that the "BJP suffered a perception problem with the Dalits".
In states like Uttar Pradesh, the BJP has been in some ways guarded about highlighting its work for Dalits and minority upliftment. It is apparent that public ownership of this would upset the core upper-caste BJP base which hails Yogi Adityanath (a Thakur) as the new "Hindu Hridaya Samrat"
(emperor of Hindu hearts) and mutters darkly about conspiracies hatched within the BJP to defeat him from his stronghold of Gorakhpur in the by-election in March.
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath's cabinet has 3 Dalit ministers
All of UP talks about "Thakur Raj"
as Adityanath with zero administrative experience has surrounded himself with fellow upper caste officials. Before Adityanath moved in to the Chief Minister's residence, he got a team of priests to purify it over several days. Now a BJP Dalit MP has written to Modi calling Adityanath "casteist" and accusing the Chief Minister of shouting at him and throwing him out."
Adityanath is unlikely to be reined in. And in that, opposition leaders see a bonus. "We need Yogi to be Chief Minister," said a leader from Akhilesh Yadav's party. "He is the glue that will ensure our alliance with the BSP sticks and that the Yadavs and Dalits forget traditional differences and unite against a common enemy."(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.