An aggressively critical statement by Prime Minister Narendra Modi about “gau rakshaks”, voicing his anger over atrocities against dalits, has on one hand angered members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the RSS, and left many others surprised. It is well known Mr Modi went to the extent of describing “gau rakshaks” as “fake cow protectors”, asking people “to shoot (me) first before harming (my) dalit brothers”. A concern expressed by any Indian over atrocities on dalits shouldn’t surprise anyone, for what’s happening is condemnable and shameful. But the sharp criticism by Mr Modi, who has been silent over so many other critical issues, have made many wonder about what prompted him to do so. There is no reason to doubt his concern on the atrocities against dalits. His anguish may also be real, but evidence clearly suggests that there is also a political compulsion for the BJP to express concern for dalits: the fear that the dalit votebank, which the party had successfully mobilised in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, may now shift.
The Una incident and the dalit mobilisation it triggered against the BJP may not affect the party electorally in Gujarat, as dalits are only a small fraction of the state’s population and are also widely dispersed. But when dalit mobilisation crossed the geographical boundaries of Gujarat, the BJP had to pay attention. Dalit mobilisation against the party has the potential to adversely affect its electoral prospects in many states which go to the polls next year, and in the years ahead. The BJP may not have won many dalit reserved seats in 2014, but the party’s massive victories in many states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Maharashtra were primarily due to a significant shift in the dalit vote. One should remember that of 84 reserved dalit Lok Sabha seats, the BJP managed to win only 40 and polled 28 per cent votes, less than its average 31 per cent voteshare. But evidence from surveys by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) indicates a large number of dalits voted for the BJP in 2014.
The CSDS survey’s findings suggest the BJP had never got as many dalit votes as it did in 2014. Over the last several Lok Sabha elections, roughly 12-14 per cent dalits voted for the BJP, 30 per cent for Congress and 20 per cent for Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party. It is only in the 2014 elections that 24 per cent dalits voted for the BJP, 19 per cent for Congress and 14 per cent for BSP, a clear sign of the significant and decisive dalit shift to the BJP. In all Lok Sabha elections since 1996, dalits voted for the BJP in bigger numbers in non-reserved seats compared to reserved ones. This isn’t surprising as in constituencies reserved for dalits, the dalit vote gets divided amongst various candidates, all of whom are dalits. A significant number of dalits voting for BJP candidates in non-dalit reserved constituencies, for non-dalit candidates, indicates a clear preference for the BJP. In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, in dalit reserved constituencies, 19 per cent dalits voted for the BJP, while in non-dalit reserved seats, 24 per cent dalits voted for it.
The evidence from the survey clearly indicates the shift in the dalit vote towards the BJP contributed significantly to the party’s massive victory in many states. In UP, where one out of every five voters is a dalit, the BJP registered a massive success, winning 71 of its 80 Lok Sabha seats, despite a huge majority of dalits voting for the BSP (roughly 65 per cent). In Punjab, the state with the largest population of dalits (30 per cent of total population), the BJP’s support among dalits was higher in 2014 compared to previous elections. Such shifts in the dalit vote were also seen in West Bengal, Bihar, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Maharashtra. There remained only a few states like Karnataka (16 per cent dalits), Odisha (17 per cent dalits), Himachal Pradesh (25 per cent dalits), Tamil Nadu (19 per cent dalits), Andhra Pradesh (16 per cent dalits) and Chhattisgarh (12 per cent dalits), where the BJP didn’t succeed in mobilising significant votes.
In Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh, a large number of dalits voted for the Congress while in other states dalits voted overwhelmingly for the regional parties. A sizeable number of dalits have been voting for the BJP in Chhattisgarh and MP, and they remained with the BJP even in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. The party, however, failed to make any further inroads amongst them. While the next Lok Sabha election is still far away, some state Assembly elections have become mini national elections. The results of some state elections can change the direction of the national political discourse, one of them being Uttar Pradesh.
After being badly defeated in the Delhi and Bihar elections, the BJP appeared to have regained its confidence after winning in Assam. But the party realises that the Assam victory may not be enough, the results of the UP elections can shape electoral trends for the next two years. A victory for the BJP will help in galvanising the party’s rank and file as well as leaders. But after a defeat in UP, the BJP may find it difficult to reverse the trend. Being sizeable in numbers, dalits will play an important role in both the UP and Punjab elections (and in several other states), so it is important to make an effort to sympathise with them and to ensure their mobilisation. This helps to explain the BJP’s new love for dalits....