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Bhim Army’s efforts to woo Dalits put on test, BJP alleges its rivals were behind Dalit rally

BJP leaders feel that the Bhim Army is trying to take up the space seen as being ceded by a weakening BSP.

Written by Liz Mathew | New Delhi |
May 23, 2017 4:47:03 am
Dalit protests, Bhim Army, BJP, Bhim army protests, Dalit rally, Dalits jantar mantar, bhim army jantar mantar, india news, indian epxress news Bhim Army founder Chandrashekhar Azad addresses Sunday’s rally. (Source: Express photo by Abhinav Saha)

The Bhim Army’s huge rally in the national capital having served as a show of strength, BJP leaders have acknowledged it as a challenge to its own efforts to consolidate support among Dalits but stressed that the party will handle the situation “ideologically.”

BJP leaders feel that the Bhim Army is trying to take up the space seen as being ceded by a weakening BSP. “The Bhim Army is a socially regressive organisation; it asks people who failed class X to join them. Besides, their protests are sponsored by outsiders,” said Bizay Sonkar Shastri, a former MP and BJP leader from UP.

He claimed Christian missionaries have been “eyeing” the community that forms the core support of the Bhim Army for the last 175 years. “Several books, including G W Briggs’s The Chamars, give evidence that Christian missionaries had urged Jatavs to join them as they were ignored by Hindus. Many leaders have used the same tactics to keep the community with them. Now the Bhim Army too is being sponsored by outsiders,” Shastri said.

Thousand attended Sunday’s rally where Bhim Army founder Chandrashekhar and other leaders highlighted attacks by Thakurs on Dalits in Saharanpur. BJP sources conceded that they were concerned following the success of the rally.

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“Nowadays, one cannot write off such a development as isolated, so the party is watching closely. Public rallies and outbursts against the BJP and its ideology could inspire or influence other groups too,” agreed a party leader. “This is also like the agitation that happened in Gujarat [against cow vigilantes] and Maharashtra [a silent protest by Marathas against reservation].” Recent uprisings of this kind have given rise to leaders such as Jignesh Mewani and Hardik Patel, he noted.

BJP general secretary P Muralidhar Rao, however, told The Indian Express, “There are attempts from outside the BJP against the party’s successful attempts to consolidate various support bases. Naturally, other parties and groups are worried. The BJP has been earning the trust of a new base and other forces will try to destabilise it. But the BJP has its own way of handling it. It has to be an ideological solution, otherwise it will not be sustainable. The BJP will do everything to retain its Dalit support base.”

In its efforts to expand its traditional support base, the BJP has initiated a series of moves in the last few years. In Chhattisgarh, it deployed Buddhist priests to gain Dalit votes in the 2013 elections and won nine of the ten reserved seats. In Uttar Pradesh this year, it organised a yatra with Buddhist monks visiting Dalit areas across the state, highlighting the prime minister’s initiatives and garlanding 1,000 statues of B R Ambedkar. BJP chief Amit Shah took a holy dip at Valmiki Ghat of the Kshipra in Ujjain while the RSS too has made efforts to reach out to Dalits,

“Besides, the government has launched several programmes in honour of Ambedkar. The prime minister held a rally at Ambedkar’s birthplace in Mhow, and Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan adopted a village there,” a leader said, adding such efforts will continue.

Leaders agree Dalit support is crucial to the BJP. “No party can be a national party without the support of Dalits,” a leader said.

Assembly elections are due in Gujarat later this year and Karnataka in 2018. Although the BJP leadership in Gujarat managed to overcome the tension following an agitation after Dalit youths had been flogged by cow vigilante groups in Una, leaders are worried the Bhim Army protests could rekindle sentiments and damage the party’s prospects.

Dalit votes are crucial also in Tamil Nadu, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, part of a region from where the BJP hopes to win 120 Lok Sabha seats in 2019. In Karnataka, where it has launched its South Mission, the party wants to split the Dalit votes that have traditionally gone with the Congress. BJP leaders will visit Dalit villages and highlight government initiatives.

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