After leading the BJP to a full majority in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi virtually took it upon himself to facilitate a tighter embrace between the BJP and Dalits.
He personally steered a year-long overdrive to signal the Hindutva party’s commitment to Hindu iconoclast B R Ambedkar who has over the years emerged an icon for Dalits across the country.
Starting with laying the foundation stone of Dr Ambedkar International Centre in New Delhi on April, 2015; setting up a committee under him to celebrate the 125th birth anniversary (May, 2015); laying the foundation stone of Dr B R Ambedkar International Memorial at Indu Mills compound (October 2015); inaugurating Dr. Ambedkar Memorial in London (November, 2015); Constitution Day (same month); to visiting Ambedkar’s birth place in Mhow in 2016 — Modi took as many as 10 steps between April 2015 to April 2016 to mark his outreach towards Dalits.
This culminated in installing Ram Nath Kovind, a Dalit from politically crucial Uttar Pradesh, as the President of India in July 2017. His pro-active aggressive stance to co-opt Ambedkar into the saffron party’s lexicon, in fact, sent rival political parties on the backfoot.
Yet, the BJP has appeared to be playing catch-up on most of the major issues concerning Dalits and backward classes that have grabbed the national limelight so far.
His year-long drive faced its first test in May 2015 when Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle of students in IIT Madras was derecognised and the ruling party members brazened it out.
A few months later, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat advocated a review of the reservation policy in an interview to Organiser in September 2015. With elections in Bihar round the corner, the Prime Minister had to step in to allay the apprehensions it set off.
Next month, in an election rally at Bihar’s Nalanda, Modi had to assure that the “rights given by Babsaheb Ambedkar for the socially backward classes will never be taken away by my government”. But the damage had been done.
Even before BJP could recover from it, the suicide by Rohith Vemula, a Dalit research student in Hyderabad Central University in January 2016 created a political controversy. Modi’s efforts to woo the Dalit community took a hit and in a damage-control exercise, addressing the sixth convocation of Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University in Lucknow, the PM sought to douse the fire by saying that “mother India had lost a son” and “I can feel the pain”.
The incidents of alleged anti-India sloganeering at JNU helped BJP divert the Dalit narrative to national vs anti-national discourse. However, this attempt at retrieving lost ground on Dalit issues was soon frayed with the incident in Una in BJP-ruled Gujarat.
Seven Dalits were assaulted by cow vigilantes over allegation of cow slaughter in Una taluka in July 2016. The political furore caused by it also added to reasons behind replacing Gujarat chief minister Anandiben Patel. But this too went on to dent BJP’s appeal among Dalits.
Early in January this year, the attack on Dalits commemorating the 200th anniversary of Bhima-Koregaon battle (of 1818) in BJP-ruled Maharashtra created a controversy that led to widespread Dalit protests in the state.
Soon, the UGC issued a circular that tweaked the implementation of the reservation policy in faculty recruitment in universities on the basis of a High Court ruling. The issue created anxiety among Dalits stoking fears that it would cut their representation on campuses. Last heard, the Government was planning to withdraw the circular after challenging the High Court order in Supreme Court.
Even as the Government works to find a way around the UGC circular, came the Supreme Court ruling to ring-fence the alleged misuse of SC/ST prevention of atrocities act on March 20. What is interesting is that BJP’s alliance partners – Ram Vilas Paswan’s LJP and Ramdas Athawale’s RPI – stepped forward to push for a review before the BJP could take credit.