Illustration by Binay Sinha
It happened because his appeal cut across Hindu social groups which had been wary of the BJP so far, or were loyal to their own caste leaders. A large-scale non-Yadav OBC shift to the BJP was a 2014 reality. Further, if Mayawati drew a blank out of the 80 seats in UP in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and won just 19, less than 5 per cent of the more than 400 in UP, in the assembly elections in 2017, it is logical to conclude that a sizeable enough number of Dalit voters too shifted to the BJP. The BJP’s 282 MPs in the Lok Sabha included 40 Dalits, who won from reserved seats and another six belonged to the Lok Janshakti Party and the Telugu Desam Party, both allies. This is the reason the BJP could win so handsomely despite being out of the race for 15 per cent of the vote.
The last few months have brought new questions on this as Dalit anger and assertion are rising across the country. It started much earlier, with Rohith Vemula and Una. But with the rise of young and articulate Dalit leaders, mostly out of student and grassroots politics, and Bhima-Koregaon onwards to the latest protests over the Supreme Court’s order on the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, the post-2014 approach — never-mind-the-Muslims, we will contest in a pool of 85 per cent voters — is looking tricky because continued Dalit anger threatens to reduce it to a perilous 70 per cent. This is the message from three of the party’s Dalit MPs in Uttar Pradesh who’ve complained publicly.
In an article in Deccan Chronicle (August 31, 2016), Sanjay Kumar, leading psephologist at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), confirmed that the BJP had got more Dalit votes in 2014 than ever before. “Over the last several Lok Sabha elections,” he wrote, “roughly 12-14 per cent Dalits voted for BJP.” But in 2014, this number doubled to 24 per cent, putting the BJP’s Dalit vote share ahead of the Congress (19 per cent) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (14 per cent).
The recent Dalit impatience threatens these gains. It is complicated further by the alliance between the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). How potent this can be was evident in the Gorakhpur and Phulpur bypolls. An important fact also is that the BSP, not contesting, was able to transfer its vote.
The three UP MPs who complained are reflecting this new insecurity. New images are also emerging to add to the earlier ones, from Vemula to Bhima-Koregaon, notably that of an upper-caste man firing at a crowd of Dalit protestors in Gwalior. The fact is, the government hardly had a role to play in the Supreme Court order on the SC/ST Act. Nor, on a careful reading of the order, does it seem like a dilution of a good law. The sharp, nationwide Dalit reaction and protests show a pent-up anger brimming over.
This the prime minister and Amit Shah cannot overlook or presume that, come 2019, the ‘Modi magic’ will subsume everything. They cannot afford to lose any of the 24 per cent Dalit vote of 2014. Their overall party tally was 31 per cent and without a fourth of the Dalits again voting for them, it will be impossible to maintain that percentage. The party you’d presume has already maxed out with the upper castes. That is the reason the prime minister spoke out so strongly on reservations and the well-publicised Amit Shah meal at a Dalit home in Odisha.
The latest phase of Dalit assertion is essentially different from the past. With many more going to school and college, and easy availability of the internet, it is a much more aware generation. Its aspirations are not limited to physical protection, food, shelter and preservation of traditional avocations. The young Dalit now wants to break out of that trap. Social media and WhatsApp are also enabling them to network across states. A young leader and first-time MLA such as Jignesh Mevani could attract a sizeable crowd almost anywhere in north, central and western India. This Dalit rise is also more ideological than in the past. The tone and tenor is distinctly Left, and therefore compulsively anti-BJP.
Until 1989, the BJP believed that it wasn’t able to win because of caste divisions in Hindu society. L K Advani first acknowledged it and embarked on a project (through Ayodhya) to use religion to re-stitch what caste had divided. It worked to a great extent. But, it ran its course and caste loyalties did not remain subdued for long. As a result, in the entire heartland, the BJP got power only patchily. In Uttar Pradesh, where it once had a majority, Mayawati and Mulayam/Akhilesh took turns to be chief minister eight times, with Mayawati and Akhilesh getting a full term each.
The combination Modi-Shah employed in 2014 was more potent than Advani’s a quarter century earlier. They brought in unapologetic Hindutva nationalism, combined with Mr Modi’s magnetism and the “achhe din” promise that looked convincing because of his Gujarat record. This again overpowered all caste-based parties as the BJP made a spectacular sweep of the heartland. This would not have been possible without sizeable votes coming in from unlikely sections of Hindu society — the OBCs and Dalits.
The latter is under a threat now. As the caste see-saw shifts yet again, disaffections of anti-incumbency, lack of jobs, rise of a powerful upper-caste chief minister in Uttar Pradesh (the first upper caste in 15 years) have all combined to bring caste back in the equation. The BJP has been quick to realise this, Mr Modi and Mr Shah are speaking. But they have three problems: First, they do not have any prominent and convincing Dalit voices. Second, while in the past the BJP had produced a star-cast of OBC leaders including Mr Modi and Shivraj Singh Chouhan, the post-2014 phase has seen the rise of upper castes, notably in large states like Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh. And third, they may have left it too late, with their party and intelligence machinery failing to pick up the rising Dalit frustration early enough.
The party, however, has joined the issue now. How much damage control it can do will have a crucial bearing on the numbers in 2019.
By special arrangement with ThePrint