Old Dalit vs New Dalit: How battle for 23 million new voters can play out

As the countdown to Dalit icon B R Ambedkar’s 127th birth anniversary begins, political parties are busy polishing their strategies to woo the community – almost a fifth of India's population – to brighten their prospects for the general elections 2019.


An important part of this political strategy would be aimed at ‘New Dalits’ – as many as 23 million of them will turn 18 years of age and eligible to vote in 2019, for the first time in a parliamentary election. That is 19 per cent of all Dalit votes nationally. In cow-belt states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, the ‘New Dalits’ account for almost a quarter of the Dalits eligible to vote. So, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi gets set to inaugurate a memorial of Ambedkar at Alipur Road in the national capital, his party would be hoping that his words resonate in the young minds of these ‘Naya Dalits’ (New Dalits), and blunt the unrepentant assault of a reinvigorated Opposition fuelled by widespread reports of abominable atrocities on the community.


At least 90 per cent of these New Dalits are literate which makes them more synchronised with the needs of the evolving Indian economy than their parents. The New Dalits, like their fathers, would be almost 18 per cent of the 132 million Indians becoming eligible to cast their vote for the first time in 2019. What differentiates them from their previous generations, however, would be their reduced dependence on job reservations for securing a future for their children. Jobs in public-sector enterprises have declined 24 per cent since 2009 which means that reserved jobs have also declined in tandem.


A quarter of the votes of the New Dalits will be cast in Uttar Pradesh, which also has the highest number of Dalits in the country owing to its high population. In Punjab, where the proportion of Dalits to the total population is the highest, almost 1 million Dalits will become eligible to cast their vote for the first time. Almost 4.2 million Dalits – representing 18 per cent of all New Dalits will be in the four southern states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.


In Karnataka, the only southern state where the BJP has tasted power, more than 1 million New Dalits can cast their votes in the 2019 parliamentary elections. In Gujarat and Maharashtra, where the BJP has a firm, though declining, hold on the electorate, 1.8 million New Dalits will be eligible to exercise their franchise for the first time. In Rajasthan, where caste and communal tensions have grown under the Vasundhara Raje-led BJP government, these ‘New Dalits’ add up to almost 1.8 million.


More importantly, these New Dalits would constitute more than 20 per cent of the Dalit voters in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. These are crucial swing states in a parliamentary election, given their proportionally higher representation in the Lok Sabha. They also are almost about a fifth of the total eligible Dalit voters in smaller states like Punjab, Haryana and Uttarakhand. (See Graphic).


So what do these New Dalits look like? Three-fourths of these eligible voters were in rural India as of 2011, when the latest census data came. Even if a portion of them migrated to urban areas with their families, the number of New Dalit voters in rural India would still represent an overwhelming majority and a massive opportunity for any political party looking to tap them for votes.


These new voters will be more educated than other Dalits in the country. While almost half the Dalits in the country are illiterate, 90 per cent of these ‘New Dalits’ would classify themselves as having received some form of education or would call themselves literate without any educational qualification. At least half of them would have passed primary school and middle school. If these people made it to high school, they would be more likely to be graduates than their fathers. But that’s where their lives are more likely to take a different turn.


The Dalit population growth rate increased at a much faster rate than India’s population between 1991 and 2011. While a far greater number of people from the community now complete high school and graduation, more of these New Dalits would be competing for fewer government jobs. Latest central government job figures show that the number of reserved jobs for those with or without formal education is declining.


According to the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), the number of Dalit sweepers working in various ministries and government departments fell by half from 2009 to 2015. While Dalits (or Scheduled Castes) in India are given 15 per cent reservation in central government jobs, they constitute more than 30 per cent of the staff employed as sweepers in various ministries and departments. On the other end of the spectrum, ‘Group A’ jobs, which carry higher administrative responsibilities, have seen a decline in the number of Dalits holding these positions.


The government is in no hurry to increase the number of reserved government jobs, either. As of date, there are 27,518 vacancy backlogs that have been left unfilled since 2012, with almost a third of them meant for Dalits. Even as the government is in no mood to bloat its rank of workers, the more elite Indian Administrative Service (IAS), Indian Police Service (IPS) and India Foreign Service (IFS) have seen only a marginal rise in vacancies meant for Dalits over the years.


The IAS, whose examination this year was topped by a woman from the Dalit community, had just about 10 more vacancies for Dalits in 2015 as compared to 2009. The Dalit vacancies in IPS and the IFS have increased at an even slower pace. This is in tune with the government’s ambition to streamline the bureaucracy. For instance, the number of IAS officers in service has grown by a mere 3 per cent during the same period (See graphic). The number of Dalits employed in government-run enterprises and banks has also declined by more than 49,000 since 2012 – a decline by almost a fifth. Information from the National Commission of Scheduled Castes shows that while many of the big state governments have employed more Dalits in the lowest rung of unskilled jobs, the highest executive and middle management levels have yet to meet the specified reservation targets.


With the private sector generating the lion’s share of jobs in India, the New Dalits could be forced to compete on merit in the face of declining middle-class government jobs. And that could be the next challenge for parties who want the New Dalit’s vote.

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