FOUR DAYS after the Bharat Bandh by Dalit groups over the alleged dilution of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act amid increasing unrest within the community, Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked his party’s MPs to spend at least two nights in Dalit-dominated villages and “restore” the faith of the community in the BJP.
The Prime Minister’s call on the party’s 38th foundation day came even as BJP president Amit Shah reiterated at a rally in Mumbai that the party would not let the reservation policy be scrapped. “The Prime Minister asked all party MPs to spend two nights in villages between April 14 (the birth anniversary of B R Ambedkar) and May 5. He told them to pick at least one village with over 50 per cent population of SCs,” said a BJP MP who attended the meeting.
According to sources, the Prime Minister pointed out that there are “more than 20,000 such villages in the country”.
Addressing party MPs on the last day of the Budget session, sources said, the Prime Minister urged them to “remind people that the BJP was the party that took measures to honour Ambedkar and for the welfare of Dalits while other parties limited their love for Dalits to speeches”. He urged them to “celebrate Ambedkar Jayanti (April 14) in a big way” in their respective constituencies, said sources.
On April 13, a day before the 127th birth anniversary of the Dalit icon, the Prime Minister is expected to dedicate 26, Alipur Road, the house where Ambedkar died and which is being turned into a memorial, to the nation. The move is being seen as part of a series of attempts by the BJP leadership to woo Dalits ever since coming into power in 2014.
On Friday, in a separate interaction with party workers via his mobile phone app to mark the 38th foundation day of the party, the Prime Minister claimed that the BJP faced criticism from Opposition parties because it had the highest number of elected representatives from SCs, STs and OBCs.
“They (Opposition parties) are unable to digest that a poor person born into a backward family is serving as the nation’s Prime Minister. They cannot imagine that when we got the opportunity to elect a President on our own strength, we elected a person belonging to the Dalit community. They cannot imagine that when we got the opportunity to elect a Deputy Speaker, we selected Shri Suraj Bhan, who belonged to the Dalit community, and later Shri Karia Munda, who is a tribal leader,” he said.
The BJP-led government had come under severe criticism for its delay in filing a review petition against the Supreme Court’s March 20 order that laid down stringent safeguards before registering a case under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. On Monday, it filed the petition in the apex court. However, by then, massive protests by different Dalit groups across the country resulted in clashes and 10 people getting killed.
Concerned over the potential electoral damage — the Dalit community is widely believed to have backed the BJP in several elections since the 2014 Lok Sabha polls — the Prime Minister and the party chief seem to be engaged in a damage-control exercise. The party has also asked its MPs to celebrate Jyotirao Phule’s birthday on April 11.
On Wednesday, the Prime Minister claimed that no other government had honoured Ambedkar such as his. “Instead of dragging him into politics, we should all try to walk on the path he has shown us,” he said. On the same day, Shah said in Odisha that the central government would neither scrap the policy of reservation for SCs and STs in education and jobs nor allow anyone else to do so. The next day, Shah had lunch with a Dalit family in the state.
On Thursday, extending his greetings on National Maritime Day, Modi posted on Twitter: “It was Babasaheb who gave topmost importance to Jal Shakti, waterways, irrigation, canal networks and ports. His work in this sector augured extremely well for the people of India.” BJP leaders admitted that the aggression and magnitude of the recent protest has “shocked” the party leadership. “At a time when the BJP has, to an extent, succeeded in making the Dalits entrust their faith in Modi and BJP, such a response to the protest call was unexpected. It was a clear indication that the party has lost its edge among the community, which is bad news ideologically, politically and electorally,” said a BJP leader.
Dalit leaders in the party said they had to “virtually go to every minister and the leadership” to convince them that the “Supreme Court order would harm the community”. “The BJP was not seen as a pro-Dalit party. It had to make a lot of effort to get rid of that tag,” said a Dalit BJP leader.
“By delaying steps to counter such a damaging order from the Supreme Court, the party dropped the ball after making a series of efforts to create confidence among the community,” said another Dalit leader. In its order, the apex court ruled that there should be provisions for anticipatory bail and a “preliminary enquiry” before registering a case under the SC/ST Act. It pointed out that there had been “instances of abuse” of the Act by “vested interests” for political or personal reasons.
At the parliamentary party meeting Friday, the PM also said that the ruling party was engaged in inclusive politics while the Opposition was indulging in divisive and negative politics due to the saffron party’s rising strength, Union Minister Ananth Kumar told reporters. The party will take out a “sabka saath sabka vikas yatra”, Kumar said.