Bhimrao Ambedkar, in his 125th birth anniversary year, is at the centre of a new electoral realignment in Indian politics. The Congress, BJP, BSP, AAP, and Left parties are locked in a heated battle to claim him as their own. Most political commentators have asserted that the current war of words between parties to appropriate Ambedkar and his legacy is to win Dalit votes. Should this surprise us? After all, the raison d’etre of political parties is to maximise votes and seek office. The more interesting question to ask is: Why is the BJP pushing itself so aggressively to appropriate Ambedkar now, and not five or 10 years ago?
In the past few months, the BJP under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has left no stone unturned in its efforts to woo Dalit voters. The PM has called himself an Ambedkar bhakt, the Devendra Fadnavis government in Maharashtra bought the house in London where Ambedkar lived while studying, and the Centre has announced that it will develop five places associated with Ambedkar as “panchteerth (five holy places)”. These include Ambedkar’s birthplace in Mhow, his house in London, Deekshabhoomi in Nagpur, Mahaparinirvan Sthal in Delhi, and Chaitya Bhoomi in Mumbai. Similarly, the Organiser, the English journal of the RSS, has devoted almost half of its latest issue, which has Ambedkar on the cover, to articles praising him. Further, Modi chose April 5, Babu Jagjivan Ram’s birth anniversary, to unveil the “Stand-up India” scheme. He invoked Jagjivan Ram’s name a few times during his speech.
This is nothing new — the RSS and the BJP have in the past also made attempts to appropriate Ambedkar and appeal to Dalit voters. However, the level of symbolic gestures under the Modi government is unprecedented. The BJP now sees a real possibility of attracting Dalit votes for two important reasons: First, the 2014 election was the first time that the BJP surpassed both the Congress and the BSP by attracting a larger share of the Dalit vote nationally. The data presented in Figure 1 shows that the party, in the post-1990s era, managed to attract only one in every 10 Dalit voters. However, during the last Lok Sabha election, one in every four Dalits voted for the BJP. The ratio was even higher for the NDA: Nearly one in every three Dalits voted for it.
Second, the declining popularity of Mayawati, even among Dalit voters, suggests that there is a leadership vacuum within the BSP. The BJP understands that the BSP and Mayawati may remain important players in UP politics for the next few years, but the BSP’s ambition of appealing to the pan-Indian Dalit population is out of the question for now. Meanwhile, the Congress and the Left have made no real efforts to develop Dalit leadership within their ranks to take advantage of this. This has created enough room for the BJP to use Ambedkar to mobilise Dalits to its side.
It is true that the BJP’s Dalit vote base in 2014 comprised largely of the upwardly mobile sections (urban, educated, middle classes, with high media exposure) and the shift among Dalit voters was largely propelled by Modi’s own popularity as he and his party became the symbolic vehicle representing dissatisfaction with the Congress-led UPA. The BJP was also aided by pre-election alliances with Dalit leaders like Ram Vilas Paswan in Bihar and Ramdas Athawale in Maharashtra, and the induction of Udit Raj in Delhi.
How did the BJP fare among Dalit voters in various states during the 2014 election? The BJP’s gain among Dalit voters came largely at the expense of the BSP and the Congress. In two-party-competition states (Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan and Gujarat), the Congress lost a huge chunk of its Dalit vote to the BJP. In other states where regional parties performed well, the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, the BJD in Odisha and the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu succeeded in winning a substantial portion of the Dalit vote.
The Left Front in West Bengal received a major drubbing and a huge chunk of its Dalit vote base shifted to the Trinamool Congress. The BJD in Odisha gained Dalit votes from the Congress. Similarly, the Congress lost a substantial share of the Dalit vote to the TRS in Telangana, and to the NDA coalition and YSR Congress in Seemandhra.
On the other hand, the BSP lost a substantial portion of its Dalit vote base to the BJP in UP, Haryana, Delhi, MP and Maharashtra. The AAP became the principal beneficiary of the losses incurred by the Congress and the BSP among Dalit voters in Delhi and Punjab. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the BSP’s vote base outside UP is largely made of Dalit electorates. The BSP failed to win a single seat in this election and its national vote share declined from 6.2 per cent in 2009 to 4.1 per cent in 2014. This was largely due to the drubbing it received in UP, where its vote share declined from 27.4 per cent in 2009 to 19.6 per cent in 2014.
Survey data collected by Lokniti-CSDS also helps in underscoring the declining popularity of the BSP and Mayawati. In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the BSP and Mayawati were aiming for the high office in Delhi, after winning a majority in UP in 2007. The party failed to cater to the ambitions of its core constituency. Data presented in Figure 2 clearly shows that the preference for Mayawati as PM has tremendously declined since 2009. Unless Mayawati makes serious efforts to reinvent her organisational machinery, encourages a second line of leadership, and develops a credible political message, Dalit politics is likely to bypass the BSP.
The same holds true for the BJP as well. The symbolism and gestures around Ambedkar can take them only so far. The BJP and its associated organisations must make sincere efforts to include Dalits and minorities, take concrete steps to reduce prejudice and discrimination, and promote their leadership in party organisation and ministerial positions. Else, the BJP, which became an umbrella party in the wake of the 2014 election, will again be reduced to a party that appeals only to Hindu upper-caste sensibilities. Dalit politics will remain at odds with Hindutva politics. The PM has a historic opportunity to live by Ambedkar’s dream of an inclusive democracy that offers political equality along with economic and social equality.