Barely three days into the new year and the political landscape is changing fast. Mumbai was the focus of two upheavals. The first was the death of 14 young people in the fire which engulfed the 1 Above pub in Parel. It was a predictable case of arcane and archaic regulations being imposed but not followed. Worse than the deaths was the callous ‘I do not care as my position is safe’ attitude displayed by the BMC leaders. Municipal governance in our metros is abysmal.
Then we had the explosion on Tuesday following the bicentenary celebrations of the Bhima Koregaon battle. It proved once again that history divides Indians more than it unites them. The monument celebrates the valour of the Mahar soldiers who helped the British deliver a final blow to the Maratha Empire. There was no chance the Peshwas would ever have recruited Mahars as soldiers. The British learned from the French to build up local armies by recruiting the rejected castes wherever they needed to. They trained them, paid them regularly and earned their gratitude and valiant support. The British may have been oppressors for the old ruling classes. For Dalits, they were the liberators.
It was out of these roots that Bhimrao Ambedkar came. He along with other leaders of backward castes like Ramasamy Naicker — the Periyar trusted the British more than the Congress which they considered to be a high caste Brahmin organisation. Ambedkar had to compromise with Congress when Gandhiji’s fast unto death compelled him to sign the Yerawada Pact sacrificing reserved seats for Dalits. His defeat was to cost Dalits 50 lost years of advancement. The Periyar was more effective and his Dravid movement has kept Congress out of Tamil Nadu since 1967.
What we see now is the dynamics of the struggle over the Dalit vote bank. Mayawati has lost her prominent position. Narendra Modi realised the importance of the Dalit vote bank and convinced his Hindu orthodox party to become inclusive. The UP elections showed the results. Even so, the BJP hardcore has no love for Dalits and are readily drawn into violence against them. Hence Una and the Dalit anger. The new generation of young leaders of Dalits flexed their muscles in Gujarat and they are now moving on to the national stage.
The battle lines for 2019 will be drawn around Congress representing an inclusive Hindu identity. The Opposition will paint the BJP as anti-Dalit, recalling the suicide of Rohith Vemula and other incidents. Modi has to insist that he meant what he said about Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas. He has launched Mudra, honoured Ambedkar fulsomely and played his OBC identity as a calling card for the less well off.
Modi had to win over the core BJP supporters to extend its reach to OBCs and Dalits. This is how he secured a 100 more seats in 2014 than Vajpayee had won in three previous elections. Modi needs to keep the hardcore BJP cadre willing to be friendly to Dalits. His difficulty is that the more elections he wins the more arrogant the BJP MLAs and MPs become. To win again Modi needs to hold the Centre ground. The ideologues in his party want to push the Hindutva agenda. Can Modi keep them back?