Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s anti-Congress speech at his first rally in Tamil Nadu was not just his usual attack on the Congress: it was also an attempt to court Dalits. What made it significant was not just that the speech comes in the wake of the Rohith Vemula suicide at Hyderabad Central University but also that he made the speech in Coimbatore, a city in the Kongu belt and a hotbed of caste atrocities.
In the speech, Modi said that “lies were being spread in the name of Dalits” and that there was an orchestrated campaign “to instigate the Dalits, the oppressed, the exploited and the deprived against his government.” He promised that “as long as Babasaheb Ambedkar’s name is in the hearts of Indians, nobody can snatch his legacy or end reservation.”
Modi’s attempt to play the Dalit card would surprise many Dalits in the state: he stood up for them in the Kongu belt when neither the Congress nor Dravidian parties had dared although this is a region that has the maximum number of ministers and leaders from OBC communities in the State and also a high number of anti-Dalit atrocities.
OBC leaders and their supporters added colour to Modi’s Tamil Nadu rallies in the run up to the Lok Sabha elections of 2014. When the state, once a progressive and rational pocket in the country for its self-respect movements and anti-caste struggles, slowly slipped into caste politics, the BJP saw a chance to consolidate a strong vote base in Tamil Nadu. It succeeded in getting smaller OBC outfits on board – Kongu Naadu Makkal Desiya Katchi of the Grounder community led by Eswaran, was one such example. S Ramadoss’s PMK with a sizeable vote share of OBC-Vanniyars was another example. It was part of the NDA alliance.
However, at Tuesday’s rally, his first public rally after he assumed the PM’s office, none of these OBC leaders were willing to meet him. Two years after his Trichy and Vandalur rallies before the Lok Sabha elections, the number of people in the audience went from one lakh to less than 35,000 at Coimbatore.
Modi may not be able to make any remarkable shift in the Dalit vote bank in Tamil Nadu but his speech was definitely a wake up call for Dalit parties which remain clueless of how to consolidate 20-21 per cent Dalit vote in the state. Prominent Dalit party Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) of Thol Thirumavalavan, one among the many Dalit parties and outfits in the state, seems to have no idea to unite the Dalit vote. The Dalit vote is currently scattered across various parties including the two major Dravidian parties – DMK and AIADMK, and Captain Vijayakanth’s DMDK.
Leading Dalit writer, also a top leader of VCK, D Ravikumar felt that Modi’s Dalit rhetoric was welcome even if it was shallow. Ravikumar said even if he is making desperate attempts to please Dalit voters, his cabinet ministers, MPs and even ABVP are known for for their anti-Dalit agendas, who call Dalit activists ‘anti-nationals.’ “But now, his party has been abandoned by powerful OBC but still I appreciate the fact that he spoke for Dalits at a time when neither DMK nor AIADMK do that in public. Moreover, when there is no difference between the Congress or the BJP in their Dalit approach, it is Modi’s government that amended the SC/ST prevention of atrocities act, something which was delayed by Congress government for long time. And it was Modi who laid the foundation stone of Ambedkar Memorial and decided to observe the Constitution Day to spread awareness about Dr Ambedkar. All these may be superficial attempts to woo Dalits but definitely they will help the cause of Dalits and makes the debates on issues related to them more popular political parties,” he said.