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After protests against the assault on four Dalits by gaurakshaks in Una in Gujarat, the BJP has taken a few belated steps to book the culprits. The party’s late reaction may be explained by the fact that it has never relied on Dalit support for its electoral success in the state.
The BJP has managed to win all assembly elections in the recent decades without the Dalit vote. Even when it polled close to 50 per cent votes (not common in Indian elections, either in assembly or Lok Sabha elections) and the Congress performed badly, it failed to attract the Dalits.
Usually, if there are clear signals about which way the wind is blowing, voters tend to side with the winning team. But even when the BJP has been ahead of the Congress, the Dalits have voted for the latter in large numbers.
In 1990, the BJP formed a coalition government with the Janata Dal, having won 67 assembly seats and having polled 26.7 per cent votes. It went on to expand its base, winning all the subsequent five assembly elections with handsome margins. In the 1995 assembly elections, it polled 42.5 per cent votes and won 121 seats. In the 1998 assembly elections, it increased its vote share to 44.8 per cent though its tally of seats went down slightly to 117.
Post the Godhra riots, the party registered a massive victory, winning 127 seats with 49.9 per cent votes. It continued its winning spree even during the 2007 and 2012 assembly elections by winning 117 and 115 assembly seats respectively and maintained its vote share at 49.1 and 47.8 per cent votes respectively. The BJP maintained its dominant position in the state during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, when it won all the 26 Lok Sabha seats and polled 59 per cent votes.
But Dalits did not vote for the BJP in large numbers even when the party was at the peak of its popularity and had been able to attract voters from various caste groups and widen its support base to many section of voters.
The results of surveys conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) indicate that, on an average, one out of every four Dalit voters voted for the BJP in the past elections. During the 2002 and 2012 assembly elections, it was slightly below 25 per cent (23 per cent in each election) while it was slightly higher (35 per cent and 32 per cent) during the 2007 assembly elections and the 2014 Lok Sabha elections respectively. Though there are some smaller parties which had contested elections now and then, but in a dominant bi-party political competition, large numbers of Dalit voters have voted for the Congress in successive elections, even when the party has lost badly.
How has the BJP managed to win successive elections even when Dalits have turned their back on the party? And why has the Congress not managed to win any election in over two decades?
The narrative of Gujarat elections with reference to caste is always discussed mainly with reference to Patidar and Patels, less frequently with reference to the upper castes and, in some locations, with reference to Adivasis.
The Dalits, hardly about 7 per cent of the total population in Gujarat, is hardly seen as vote bank by political parties. Not only are their numbers few, but they are also spread across the state and not in a position to affect the electoral outcome in a significant way in many constituencies.
There are only 13 assembly constituencies reserved for the Dalits. Not only that, Dalits are more than 20 per cent of the total voters only in Danilimda assembly constituency, while in another 10 assembly constituencies (Asarwa, Thakkarba, Vadgam, Idar, Amraiwadi, Ghandhidh, Kodinar, Lamalpur, Dholka and Tharad), Dalits are between 15-19 per cent of the total voters. There are another 30 assembly constituencies where Dalits constitute between 10 and 15 per cent of the total voters.
With the size of electorate in each constituency being large (little more than 2 lakhs in each constituency), Dalits roughly account for 20,000 voters in roughly 40 assembly constituencies — which is less than the average victory margin in the 2012 assembly elections in Gujarat.
It is important to note that the average victory margin has increased from 17,500 votes in 2002 to 18,896 in 2007 to 21,663 votes in 2012. It is also important to note that while the average victory margin for the Congress has remained roughly 10,000 votes (10,092 in 2002, 10,652 in 2007 and 13,577 in 2012), it is much bigger for the BJP. The average victory margin for the BJP in these election respectively has been 20,667, 23,633 and 26,236 votes.
With average victory margins for the BJP being much higher than 20,000, the Dalits can hardly make a difference to the electoral outcome, even if all Dalit voters turn up to vote en block against the BJP.
But if the BJP believes that it can ignore the Dalit issue in Gujarat, it may be making a mistake. True, Dalit voters may not be in large numbers in Gujarat, but it is hard to believe that the party will be able to justify such an inhuman act in the name of gau raksha or be able to mobilise additional votes by way of invoking Hindu sentiments on this issue.
The successive victories of the BJP in Gujarat in several state assembly elections is not only because it had a very large numbers of “core supporters” but also because it attracted large numbers of “floating voters”, not loyal to any party and attracted to the development plank of the party ruling the state.
Such incidents in Gujarat and elsewhere would certainly result in the BJP losing the votes of its non-core voters in the state. Moreover, it might certainly affect the electoral prospects of the party in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, two states with a very large Dalit population and which go to polls early next year.