Modi’s Dalits or Dalits’ Modi: How BJP beat the maze of caste politics in Uttar Pradesh
To cement his supremacy over northern and western India, PM Narendra Modi and his strategists would look to secure a greater share of the Dalit voter base.
To cement his supremacy over northern and western India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his strategists would like to win over and secure a greater share of the significant Dalit population. Till now, though, it hasn’t been the smoothest of processes.
A significant Dalit section of Uttar Pradesh seem to be regular voters of Bahujan Sama Party (BSP) supremo Mayawati, with her vote share not changing much in the past few elections.
Meanwhile, in Gujarat and Maharashtra, there has been an increasing radicalisation of both upper and lower caste politics. The rise of leaders like Jignesh Mewani, Hardik Patel, and the Maratha silent protests against reservations shows a stunningly volatile landscape of caste resurgence and political uncertainty. In this landscape, Modi and BJP president Amit Shah are operators who are ready to do a lot to cement partnerships, as we will see, and democracy in India will take a turn for unlikely strategic tie-ups.
But the desire to include Dalits in their voter base is not new. Before the 2013 Assembly election in Chhattisgarh, the BJP flew a group of Buddhist priests around the state in an attempt to gather Dalit votes. In the elections, they won nine out of the ten reserved seats. This was a precursor to the six month long Dhamma Chetna Yatra from April to October 2016. In these months, Buddhist monks garlanded and inaugurated close to 1,000 statues of Ambedkar and the Buddha. The BJP claimed that they met nearly forty to fifty lakh Dalits by the end of the campaign.
In May 2016, at the Simhastha Kumbha Mela in Ujjain, Shah took a dip in River Shipra, alongside Dalit sadhus. Between 2015 and 2016, Ambedkar’s bungalow in London was acquired and plans for converting it into a ‘shiksha bhoomi’ (land of education) took root.
During the Dhamma Chetna Yatra mentioned above, pamphlets claiming that Dalit students would be provided free facilities at this 'shiksha bhoomi' were distributed. On the 125th birth anniversary of BR Ambedkar, in 2016, the Panchajanya and its English incarnation, the Organiser – weekly magazine of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh – brought out special issues.
Modi held a rally at Ambedkar’s birthplace in Mhow, with talks of it being turned into a major tourist attraction gaining ground. Modi also visited Chaitya Bhumi, the location of Ambedkar’s last rites. The BJP celebrated Panch Tirtha in places associated with the Buddha.
The biggest impediment in these months was the actions of the cow-slaughter vigilantes and the incidents at Una in Gujarat. Overnight, mass Dalit mobilisations appeared, with Mayawati visiting Gujarat. Modi defused these protests, to a certain extent, by making a personal appeal to the Dalits. It was predicted after Una that the BJP would suffer electorally.
But the BJP’s calculations withstood the events. This could be a result of the lack of regional solidarity. Or it could be that cow slaughter or its banning is not a prime electoral influence. What has become clear is that a lot of voters do not consider either banning of cow slaughter or a belligerent assertion of religious values as primary electoral problems.
UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s latest move of shutting down slaughterhouses in Allahabad and other areas falls into this category. It will affect the Dalit vote in northern India as much as it affects the leather business; not enough to change electoral fortunes.
In the 2017 UP elections, the BJP successfully split the Dalit vote between the Jatav and non-Jatav communities. The BJP gave only 23 tickets to the Jatavs, Mayawati’s sub-caste, who form 57 percent of the state’s Dalit population. On the other hand, they selected 21 candidates from the Pasi sub-caste, which is the second-largest Dalit sub-caste in UP. They also selected 36 candidates from other Dalit sub-castes like the Dhobis, the Kolis, the Balmikis, and others, who weren’t as closely associated with the BSP as the Jatavs.
Out of the 85 reserved seats, the BJP won 69, whereas in 2012 it had won 3. They put up a total of 80 Dalit candidates in 403 seats, whereas Mayawati put up 87. They also brought into the BJP, RK Choudhray and Dinanath Bhaskar, senior associates of the Dalit pioneer, Kanshi Ram.
Shah, meanwhile, attended the caste meetings of different lower castes. Smaller communities among the MBCs like the Gaurs, the Lohars, the Kumhars, the Mallahs, and others were negotiated with. The results are for all to see. Mayawati’s vote share has declined slightly, whereas the BJP’s has shot up significantly. The others have plunged.
In spite of the academia and sections of the mainstream media labelling the BJP as an upper-caste party, which it is at the top, they have successfully understood and played the labyrinthine of caste politics of UP. The reasons for this are clear now.
Caste assertion has not been the strategy of the BJP, as it once was. As a matter of fact, on the one hand, they have aggressively negotiated with caste groups, and, on the other, presented the image of a single, powerful leader. Dissociating the image of the leader from the history of the RSS has allowed them strategic manoeuvrability.
If Mayawati could not become the embodiment of a restless youth’s aspirations, Modi played the part perfectly. Most importantly, Modi and Shah fully understand how information and influence work in this day and age. He recently said that news is not imbibed any more through TV channels and newspapers, but through mobile phones.
Modi grasps the central fact that elections today may be influenced by WhatsApp groups and YouTube videos, ironic, given that a global elite had declared the Twitter-triggered Arab Spring as the ultimate culmination of technological advancement and the spread of liberal values.
There are two ways to understand these strategies of Modi and Shah:
One way of looking at this is that the BJP begins, now, to actually carry out programmes and policies for the Dalits and other lower castes in the country. This is the narrative the current crop of Modi followers would like to believe, and there is nothing wrong with it. Except that then the BJP would have truly differentiated itself, becoming, for the first time, an upper caste party working for the empowerment of the lower castes. That would be historic. The upper castes within the party and the Sangh may or may not support it. But if these things happen, it is doubtful they would have much choice.
The other is that Modi and Shah have, through gestures and the promise of aspirational leadership, convinced sections of the Dalit community, and do not intend to devolve actual power to more than a few token seats. But if one were to look at Congress strategies in an earlier electoral age, as the French scholar Christophe Jaffrelot has shown, this was precisely what was carried out.
The Congress never gave real power and say to the lower castes, co-opting instead, the cause and the leadership as part of their own agenda. Therefore, it becomes clear that the rise of Modi and the BJP is the utilisation of previously existing strategies of upper caste parties consolidating lower caste votes. There is nothing new in this and we need not be surprised by better politicians playing the game better.
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