Presidential polls: The Dalit push

The BJP’s decision to pick Ram Nath Kovind as its presidential candidate is the latest in a series of moves aimed at consolidating SC votes in its favour — from sharing meals with Dalits to adopting Ambedkar’s legacy.

Written by Liz Mathew | Updated: June 25, 2017 11:57 am
 presidential elections, indian presidential election, ram nath kovind, meira kumar, dalit, bjp, nda, narendra modi, amit shah, india news, indian express Prime Minister Narendra Modi at an Ambedkar function in New Delhi on April 20, 2015. (AP Photo)

At the BJP’s two-day national executive in Bhubaneswar in April, while talking about taking Dalits along, party president Amit Shah had a message: “Our mass base is changing rapidly. So change your behaviour, language and tone accordingly.” The message that went out from Janata Maidan came with its share of symbolism: the venue had been renamed for the national executive after Bhima Bhoi, noted Odia poet and Dalit social reformer.

A series of outreach efforts, all aimed at getting the country’s 16.6 per cent politically significant Scheduled Caste (SC) population into its support base, has culminated in what many see as the BJP’s latest “masterstroke” — picking Ram Nath Kovind, a Dalit leader from Uttar Pradesh, as its nominee for the presidential poll. For a party long seen as one of upper-castes, an assessment cemented by events such as Rohith Vemula’s suicide in January last year and the series of cow vigilante attacks on Dalits, Kovind’s ascension to the country’s top post would mark a milestone in the BJP’s political history, say political observers. It’s a move that has disarmed the Opposition and left them scurrying for an answer.

The BJP’s ‘Mission Dalit’, it seems, is on course.

When it all began

The BJP’s Dalit outreach began immediately after the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah combine led the BJP to an impressive victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The results of that election, in which the BJP polled over 17.16 crore votes, more than double the over 7.84 crore votes it polled in 2009, convinced the BJP top brass that this surge was made possible not just by a mere geographical spread of the party appeal but came with a social expansion too. An obvious guess was that the Dalits, as a big social block, had voted for it.

The party ended up with 40 Dalits MPs in the Lok Sabha and its vote share among the community increased by 12 percentage points, while the Congress’s declined by 8 percentage points. “BJP has the maximum number of MLAs belonging to SC communities across the country. Our party has the maximum Dalit representation in Parliament and state Assemblies. This itself makes one confident about the genuineness of the BJP when we talk of Dalit empowerment,” says BJP Dalit leader Bejoy Sonkar Shastri.

It was then that the party began chalking out plans to create a sustainable support base from among the new social sections that had indicated their preference for the BJP. “We did not want to be happy with just wave votes. It was an electoral imperative to build a sustainable vote bank,” says a BJP leader.

BJP leaders admit in private that the Modi-Shah combine’s ambition goes much beyond the 2019 election. The aim, they say, is to command the kind of dominance that the Congress enjoyed in the second half of the 20th century. The Congress had then used a loose social alliance of upper castes-Dalits-Muslims to command power, before it was ruptured by the ascendance of identity politics in the 90s. The BJP, however, is hamstrung by the fact that Muslims, who form almost 20 per cent of the electorate, harbour deep suspicion of the party. The Dalits therefore remain one social block for the BJP to work upon.

“It was an opportunity and both BJP and RSS did not want to miss that,” says an RSS functionary, who says that in their informal coordination meetings, both the BJP and the RSS decided “to go all out” to get Dalits on their side.

Thus began a series of moves that combined symbolism with lexicon, all aimed at consolidating the Dalit vote in its favour – from pushing Dalit icon B R Ambedkar to the top row in the BJP’s nationalist tabernacle to educating its party ranks with booklets that profess “Sabhi Hindu Sahodar Hain (all Hindus are brothers and sisters)”, to initiating a series of government programmes and policies for the Dalits. Consider these:

> Immediately after the Lok Sabha victory in June 2014, Shah entered into talks with the Republican Party of India (Athawale), a party with the maximum following amongst Dalits of Maharashtra. Shah went to the extent of backing Ramdas Athawale to the Rajya Sabha instead of nominating a BJP MP. In the Bihar elections of 2015, the BJP wooed former Bihar CM Jitan Ram Manjhi, a Mahadalit of the Musahar community. Bhupendra Yadav, BJP general secretary in charge of Bihar and Gujarat, says the alliance with Manjhi’s Hindustan Awam Morcha was part of the BJP’s attempts to incorporate “all sections of the society” into its fold. “If a party wants to rule for a long time, it will have to indulge in social engineering. A party like BJP has to work towards eradicating social evils like caste-based discrimination,” he says.

> B R Ambedkar’s 125th birth anniversary in 2016 gave the BJP an opportunity to adopt his memory in order to attract Dalit votes. The RSS pitched in too, directing its mouthpieces — Organiser and Panchajanya — to bring out commemorative special issues in October 2015. Leaders of the RSS and the BJP started quoting Ambedkar frequently, calling him “a staunch Hindu” and a “nationalist”. The government also acquired Ambedkar’s bungalow in London and released two commemorative coins as part of the anniversary celebrations. Parliament marked November 26, 2015, as Constitution Day and held a special discussion on Ambedkar.

> In May 2016, with the UP Assembly elections of the following year in mind, Shah took a dip in Shipra river along with Dalit sadhus during the Simhastha Kumbha Mela in Ujjain. He later had a community meal with them.

> Ahead of the Uttar Pradesh elections, the BJP roped in a group of Buddhist monks to conduct a six-month-long Dhamma Chetna Yatra. The aim of the yatra, which ended in October 2016, was to project Prime Minister Modi and the BJP as ‘saviours’ of UP’s 40 million Dalits. Party MP Rajesh Verma, who was earlier with the BSP, had suggested that Dhamma Viriyo of the Akhil Bharatiya Bhikkhu Mahasangha could be used to influence the Dalits and brought him to Shah. Shah then held several rounds of discussions with party general secretary Arun Singh, who coordinated with the monks. “We had sensed that BSP’s hold over the Dalits in UP was weakening. It was a time when Viriyo was upset with Mayawati and the BJP had launched attempts to honour Ambedkar. So, Prime Minister Modi’s image could easily be linked to Ambedkar and the Dalits. We used many tools during the yatra — calendars, posters, leaflets and vehicles with photos of Modiji, Ambedkar and Viriyo. It clicked,” says Singh.

> Shah, who had once criticised Congress chief Rahul Gandhi for his visits to Dalit homes, had sat down for a public meal with Mohanlalganj MP Kaushal Kishor in Jogiyapur village of UP in May 2016. Kishor’s stock has since been rising. Last year, the party chose Kishor, who belongs to the Pasi caste, the second largest Dalit sub-caste in the state after the Jatavs, as the head of its Scheduled Caste Morcha. He is now seen as a contender for the post of state president if the BJP decides to go with a Dalit name ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Since that meal with Kishor, Shah has had meals at other Dalit homes, most recently in Telangana. The instructions have gone down and party leaders, from Karnataka BJP leader Yeddyurappa to Union Power Minister Piyush Goyal, have been dining at the homes of Dalits.

> Yeddyurappa was one of the BJP leaders who proposed Kovind’s name for the post of President of India this month. With Karnataka going to the polls in 2018, his presence is seen as a message to the 17.15 per cent Dalit population of Karnataka that traditionally votes for the Congress.

Outreach or symbolism?

“For the BJP, Dalits are just a political card,” says P L Punia, Congress MP in the Rajya Sabha and former chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes. “Theirs is the politics of symbolism. If they are so committed to the Dalit cause, why hasn’t the party done anything for reservation in promotions? Besides, the BJP government has done away with the sub-plan for SCs and STs in the Union Budget. So the BJP’s moves are only for capturing power.”

Shastri, who is also party spokesperson and a former Rajya Sabha MP, counters that by pointing to the government’s moves to “empower Dalits economically”. He refers to the government’s major schemes — the Ujjwala scheme (LPG connection to BPL households), Jan Dhan, rural electrification plans, Swachh Bharat — and claims that Dalits are its “major beneficiaries”. “To critics and Opposition, these may look like political sops, votebank bank politics. But it is actually helping the communities unlike Congress’s quota politics,” says Shastri.

However, less than two years into the BJP’s success in the Lok Sabha election, the party’s Dalit outreach faced a series of setbacks — beginning with Rohith Vemula’s suicide in January 2016, followed by a series of cow vigilante attacks on Dalits.

BJP MP and chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes, Ram Shankar Katheria, however, calls it a “propaganda” against the party. “Ours is a caste-based society and there have always been incidents of atrocities and discrimination against the Dalits — before Independence and after Independence. But when it happens under the BJP’s rule, critics say the party is anti-Dalit. Our party is making a lot of efforts to get rid of the inequality and discrimination.”

He, however, admits that incidents of cow vigilantism did damage the party’s interests. “Both the Prime Minister and the RSS have said several times that they were fake cow protecters and that law would take its own course against them,” he says.

It’s in this context of the high-stakes wooing of the Dalit vote that Kovind’s elevation to the highest office is seen as a masterstroke by some, electoral politics by others.

Sanjay Paswan, former Union Minister and a BJP leader, cites the United Front government’s move to pick Congress Dalit MP and former diplomat K R Narayanan for the post in 1997 — Narayanan was the first Dalit President of India — and says, “Both the choices, Narayanan’s and Kovind’s, were meant for electoral gains. This should be seen as a way by which the elites are trying to incorporate the toiling classes. The parties want the Dalit factor to neutralise the intermediary section, which is that of the OBCs.”

Paswan attributes Kovind’s selection and the Opposition’s response — putting up a Dalit challenger (Meira Kumar) — to a new Dalit awakening. “Thanks to Dalit movements and social media campaigns, Dalits have become the centre of discourse now. No party, including the BJP, can ignore Dalits. In fact, this presidential election is a victory of Dalit movements in the country,” he says, adding,“It’s good that it is happening in the golden period of the BJP.”

“The BJP’s present dominance has coincided with the decline of the Gandhian and (Ram Manohar) Lohia political philosophies, leaving two other roadmaps: that of Deendayal Upadhyaya and B R Ambedkar. This July 17 presidential election is going to prove that the BJP can successfully merge both. It’s a major shift in the country’s political character,” says Paswan.

With ENS inputs

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