The Delhi unit of the BJP sent out a routine SMS yesterday to a number of journalists in the city, requesting coverage of the party’s celebration of Ambedkar Jayanti. The city state will go to the polls in six months and wooing Dalits makes perfect political sense in an election year.
In Gujarat, for example, the party is observing Ambedkar Jayanti as Samrashtra Divas (Equality Day) and has launched its campaign for by-elections in four parliamentary and two assembly seats in the state. Likewise in Bihar, it is celebrating the occasion over three days with a series of programmes during 13-15 April to impress the 18 percent strong Dalit vote bank in an early build-up to the Assembly polls.
So, it was not surprising that Delhi BJP chief Vijay Goel held a press conference last Wednesday and slammed Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit for neglecting Dalits. Nobody raised an eyebrow when he made customary promises of providing Dalits with low-cost flats and gas connections, if voted to power. An Ambedkar Jayanti gala in attendance of national leaders such as Rajnath Singh, Sushma Swaraj, Anant Kumar and Ravi Shankar Prasad this afternoon is an obvious part of that campaign routine.
But what gave away the party’s upper caste snobbery was the language of its SMS media invite: “…BJP national leaders will celebrate Ambedkar Jayanti and have a meal with 10,000 Dalits…” Really? What is it about people “having a meal with” other people? If lunch or dinner is part of a celebration, normally, those who attend eat together. But when top BJP leaders bring themselves to “have a meal” with Dalits, they apparently think it is news worth covering.
Evidently, the BJP leadership believes that such insults actually please Dalits, that such a patronising gesture will politically benefit the party in, of all places, the country’s capital. This brazen insensitivity only proves that untouchability, more than six decades after the Constitution abolished it, is still very much a reality both in practice and inside our heads.
Otherwise, when outlandish poll promises and pre-poll incentives suffice for every other voter, why politicians should consider sitting down to eat with Dalits essential for impressing the community? But mind you, the BJP, and its dominantly upper caste leadership, is not the only party guilty of this anachronistic stereotyping.
The Congress enjoyed an almost undivided loyalty of the Dalit vote bank till the Mayawatis, Paswans and Nitish Kumars breached that fortress. When Rahul Gandhi embarked on a high-profile campaign to regain the party base in Uttar Pradesh, the mainstay of his strategy was to win Dalits back. How? By demanding or accepting food from Dalits and spending nights at their hutments.
At different rallies in UP, the junior Gandhi promised he would continue to visit the poor and enquire about their well-being while cribbing about how leaders from other parties travelled in helicopters, AC vehicles and avoided visiting Dalit homes, sharing food or drinking water. Not to be left out, Goel echoed the same symbolism by announcing that he would visit Dalit colonies ON FOOT (emphasis mine) to know their problems.
Would Dalits even bother how and where the politicians travelled, supped or slept if they themselves had better roads, enough to eat and roofs to sleep under? Unfortunately, nearly seven decades after Independence, these basics still remain aspirations for most in the community.
So while the BJP leadership seeks to score brownie points by talking down to Dalits and the Congress hopes to turn the tide in Bihar by appointing a mahadalit (the poorest Dalit communities) as the state party chief, thousands of landless Dalits are marching towards Delhi.
Demanding equitable distribution of land, they have mobilised under the National Alliance for Dalit Land Rights and Ekta Parishad. The trigger for the nationwide movement is the expiry of the six month deadline set for implementing the 10-point agreement reached between the Ekta Parishad’s Jan Satyagraha (a collective of around 2000 outfits) and Rural Development minister Jairam Ramesh last October.
In the agreement, the government committed itself to come up with a National Land Reform Policy to legally identify land for the landless poor and ensure equitable distribution. According to National Sample Survey data, four out of every five SCs are either landless or own less than an acre. In Punjab, for example, Dalits constitute one-third of the rural population but only 2.3 percent of them own any land.
Of course, Dalits themselves are also responsible for their lot. In very few pockets, they have emerged as an informed and decisive political force and their electoral choices are often criticised as opportunistic. At the same time, Dalits in positions of political power — MLAs, MPs, chief ministers or union ministers — have not triggered any significant socio-economic growth at the community level.
Hopefully, the wheel will begin to turn at last. Tired of symbolisms, including those statues and parks, the fast snowballing Dalit movement of the landless is sending out a clear message to the political establishment. With a series of elections lined up till the end of 2014, no party eyeing Dalit votes can ignore the issue of land rights.
On the roads of Delhi this weekend, the new slogan of the landless may have already signalled the beginning of the end of socio-political stereotyping of Dalits. “Give land, take vote; No land, no vote.” I wish they had also chanted their refusal to “have meals” with politicians.