To mobilise support for the second Bharat Bandh on August 9, 2018, against the dilution of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of) Atrocities Act, a delegation of the Dalit and Adivasi organisations met several Opposition leaders as well as people in the government. How did the two sides react to these meetings?
Opposition parties and their leaders were cordial and sensitive to the demand for restoration of the original Act. They issued statements and boosted our morale. However, they did not seize the opportunity to connect and provide political leadership to the massive unrest brewing among more than 300 million SC/ST people who constitute about one-fourth of the total voters in the country.
As far as the government is concerned, one of the NDA leaders took the initiative and used this opportunity to provide leadership, as a result of which the Bharat Bandh was cancelled. Not only this, he also used his influence to get several other demands met.
This was not the sole occasion where the responses of the Opposition and the government were different. There are many other such examples — be it the massive mobilisation of Jat, Gurjar and Marathas in Haryana, Rajasthan and Maharashtra; farmer’s issues including suicides, unremunerative prices, growing debt etc; a 13-point roster affecting recruitment of ST, ST and Other Backward Classes in colleges and universities; reservation in promotion; the Supreme Court judgment on Forest Rights Act and the unprecedented press conference by four judges of the Supreme Court; CBI corruption case, etc. The lack of initiative by the Opposition in all these cases has affected the outcome of the 2019 general elections.
As the Indian society is complex, hierarchical and evidently exclusivist, such instances are inevitable. These crisis situations have always posed challenges to the governance and the polity of the country. Both — the government and the Opposition — could use these crisis situations for their benefit. Reservation for people other than OBCs was such an issue which constantly haunted the government and the ruling party. Massive unemployment, non-recruitment in government and the 13-point roster reducing the scope of recruitment of SC, ST, Other Backward Classes and other unemployed also provided a huge opportunity for the Opposition to put the government on notice and muster massive support of all those affected. While the Opposition failed in this completely, the ruling party did exactly the opposite — it used them as an opportunity to reach out to the affected population. It not only diffused the Maratha and Jat movement, but also used this opportunity to advocate for the Most Backward Castes (MBCs) by setting up the Justice Rohini Commission to recommend their share in 27 per cent reservation for the OBCs.
This was a clear signal to MBCs that BJP and its allies stand for them. As a result, in the Hindi heartland, comprising Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana and Delhi, MBCs rallied behind the NDA and voted it to an unprecedented victory. In Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where Yadavs and Kushwahas form the dominant OBC castes, the prime minister portrayed himself as one who comes from MBCs, clearly sending out a message that one of their own is now the prime minister. Another example was the farmers’ crisis, where the Opposition failed miserably. They outsourced political mobilisation of farmers to social outfits or farmer coordinating committees. Opposition parties would attend these events, but the energy that was required to make farmers an integral part of their political course was missing. On the other hand, the government and the ruling party cleverly diverted the agrarian reform agenda to trimester payment to the farmers. And to ensure the credibility of its promise, it got Rs 2,000 transferred to each of their accounts just before the election. The fast action built an aura of credibility and clearly outsmarted the opposition. As a result, a massive number of small farmers voted for the ruling party.
Same was with the Adivasis. The SC judgment threatened the eviction of 18.9 million tribal and forest dweller families from their ancestral homes. As soon as the judgment came, Dalits, Adivasis, OBCs and Other groups came together and called for Bharat Bandh on March 5. implementation of a 13-point roster in recruitment in universities and colleges and eviction of Adivasis became a joint call. Adivasis, who elect 47 MPs and have a say in over 100 parliamentary constituencies, had the potential to change the electoral results. While the opposition failed to sense this opportunity; the ruling coalition swiftly moved and got a stay order from the Supreme Court and put its machinery to convince tribals and forest rights dwellers that they need not worry.
As a result, the NDA coalition was able to reverse its fortunes in MP, Chattisgarh and Rajasthan. That was not all. The BJP and its allies had a better strategy to engage the diverse sections of the society. They did not hesitate in looking within, and removed several influential leaders who created a mess in states such as Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh. The BJP’s better performance in the election is an outcome of the party’s ability to learn fast and reaching out to the unreached.
The author is chairman, All India Ambedkar Mahasabha, and principal advisor, National Confederation of Dalit and Adivasi Organisations