Rakesh Sakhkwar, 28, flips out his mobile, taps on Facebook, scrolls down and points to the screen. On his timeline are selfies taken at the site of a scheduled rally. Uploaded by his friend, the selfies capture workers preparing a large stage.
Sakhkwar, a resident of Gwalior’s Dalit-dominated Thatipur village, runs a small business of bottled water.
Asked if he knows that Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad will address a rally in neighbouring Bhind on Friday, he said, “As you can see, my friend is already there. We are all connected and it doesn’t take much for parties or organisations to spread the word about events. News travels very very fast.”
The scheduled rally under the banner of Bhim Army and Bahujan Youth Student Front assumes significance as Bhind, a reserved Lok Sabha seat, bore the brunt of the caste unrest that broke out on April 2, 2018, against the alleged dilution of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
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On the eve of the rally, the BSP, which bagged the Bhind Assembly constituency in the recently held state polls in Madhya Pradesh, is reaching out to people and urging them to be “wary of behrupiyas (imposters)”.
“See, there are a lot of people claiming to be the voice of the Dalits. Kaun behrupi banke aa raha hai, kaun nahi, hume satark rehna padega. And we are spreading that message. We need to guard against forces who are deceiving the community,” Dileep Bodh, BSP Lok Sabha in-charge for Bhind, Gwalior and Morena, told The Indian Express.
If symbols are anything to go by, the BSP, which is eyeing big gains the region in the upcoming polls, has reasons to be alert. On April 2, as families of the victims of the clashes sat mourning, portraits framed and embossed with Azad’s photo by the Bhim Army were laid out.
Sakhkwar, a non-Jatav Dalit, said he has never pressed the “button for Haathi” since he started voting. “I completely support the Bhim Army. When it comes to voting, I will go with the candidate that is most likely to win,” he said.
But not everyone is taken by Chandrashekar’s aura, with the elderly sounding sceptical of his “intentions”. “First he met Priyanka Gandhi. Now he is contesting as an Independent against Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Varanasi. What does he want to achieve by splitting anti-Modi votes? Behenji (Mayawati) has maintained a distance from him for a reason,” Ramji Das Jatav, a 62-year-old labourer, said.
While the state’s Dalit votes have always been largely concentrated in the Gwalior-Chambal region, the 2018 violence and the subsequent developments have altered the dynamics considerably.
Seeking to cash in on the simmering rage among the Dalits, the BSP has fielded four-time BJP MP Ramlakhan Singh Kushwah from the region’s Morena seat. Kushwah’s son Sanju Singh, one of the two BSP MLAs in the state, won from the Bhind Assembly seat this time after switching over from the BJP.
While the BJP has named Union Minister Narendra Singh Tomar, a Thakur, from Morena, there is a buzz that he may be shifted out of the region owing to widespread discontent over his performance among the people.
In the Assembly polls, the BJP managed to win four out of 16 seats from Morena and Gwalior, losing six seats to the Congress. All the six Assembly seats in the Morena Lok Sabha constituency also went to the Congress.
I S Maurya, former head of MP’s BSP unit, has founded Bahujan Youth Student Front, which is jointly organising the rally with Bhim Army. “BSP is fast losing value in MP as one after another leader with mass base has deserted the party,” Maurya said.
Asked about the BSP’s apprehension that the outfit was essentially weakening the Dalits by splitting votes, Maurya said, “We don’t canvass for any party. We are urging people to vote keeping their Constitutional rights in mind.”
The RSS too is reaching out to Hindu voters with a similar message — consolidate like 2014 and don’t let internal divisions give rise to a split. The Sangh is holding “janjagrans”, urging people to vote with “national interest in mind”, spreading the news of Balakot airstrikes and also attempting to assuage the anger of Dalits by planning a grand celebration to mark Ambedkar Jayanti on April 14.
Bhind goes to polls on May 12.