It’s a definitional issue that goes to the core of the BJP’s existence. The tension between being seen as a ‘Savarna party’, while trying to fulfil an ideological plank built around castelessness, has been a formative one for it. It has mostly navigated these perilous waters with some decent management skills—mixing intelligent cooption with lofty slogans. But ever so often, the state of play can go out of hand.
That a Dalit BJP MP from Robertsganj, Uttar Pradesh, could accuse CM Yogi Adityanath of “rudeness” and PM Narendra Modi had to promise “action” in response to the written complaint would have been inconceivable even a fortnight ago. It shows the degree of nervousness in the BJP after the simmering Dalit anger boiled over during the April 2 protest.
Party strategists are back at their drawing board. Poll-eve calculators are out. Ambedkar Jayanti, April 14, now looms as a day for trying to invert the optics: ‘Modicare’ will be launched on its eve by the PM in Chhattisgarh. Yet, doubts persist on how exactly to figure out the caste dynamic and control it? Even the whisper of a Dalit out-migration could spoil an already iffy harvest in Karnataka. Was the BJP’s Dalit outreach not adequate? Could the alienation resulting in periodic Dalit threats to convert to Islam—the latest one came this week from restive north Rajasthan—be laid at the BJP’s door?
These doubts coexist with a contrarian pull—the view that the BJP may actually have gone overboard in “Dalit appeasement” and may, in the process, end up alienating its traditional Savarna votebank. It’s precisely this dilemma that delayed the decision to file a review petition in the Supreme Court against its March 20 order insulating government servants from automatic arrest under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
It’s clear that the apex court’s ruling represented a big moment of institutional curve. Officials cannot be arrested without proper sanction, it said, and laid down other safeguards, including anticipatory bail and preliminary inquiry before registering a case. Whether one cites legal principles or the history of social relations to interpret it, it was the procrastination of the Union government (and, by extension, the BJP) that was interesting.
Even as it debated and dithered, Dalit organisations called for a Bharat Bandh, and only post facto did Union law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad take to Twitter—on April 1, 12 days after the SC order—with assurances of a review petition. (The SC has rejected the government’s plea for a stay; now law officers, including Attorney General K.K. Venugopal, are working overtime to file the written submission that the court will take up on April 12.)
Whatever the final outcome, the BJP has managed to paint itself into a corner. Even ally and Union minister Ram Vilas Paswan admits the government was tardy. “It’s not that the government is not working for the Dalits, but the work is somehow not reaching them,” he tells Outlook. Reiterating that the SC/ST Act has been diluted and hence the Dalit anger, Paswan says, “But it should not cause any division in society.”
The Lok Janshakti Party president then goes on to list the work done by the NDA government for Dalits—the SC/ST Act was actually made more stringent in 2015, with more acts made culpable. Ambedkar has been regularly honoured. A Dalit is now the President of India. Despite all this, the BJP’s inner dichotomy came into play at a crucial time. While the government was still procrastinating, perhaps watching the wind, Paswan went ahead and filed a review plea in his personal capacity. It was not before he and other Dalit leaders, including minister for social justice and empowerment Thaawar Chand Gehlot, had appealed to BJP president Amit Shah to file a review petition.
The party took its time and reacted only when the situation seemed to be getting out of hand. “The petition has been filed, but it will be almost impossible for the BJP to balance Dalit outrage with the political exigency of keeping its core votebase happy,” a senior BJP leader says, introspectively. “What were the Maratha Morchas all about? Their main demand was repeal of the SC/ST Act, in addition to reservations. Marathas feel Dalits have managed to get ahead. Other intermediary communities like the Jats, Patels and even Naidus, who are empowered, are also seeking special benefits. They are communities with growing aspirations. Dalits too have become more politically conscious and aspire for a better life, especially the younger lot. Their anger has exploded with a sense of continued deprivation. It’s won’t be easy for the government to harmonise their demands.”
The numbers are staggering. Dalits comprise nearly 17 per cent of India’s population—the BJP can’t afford to antagonise them. “The party has already discounted the 16 per cent Muslim population,” admits a party general secretary. “If they alienate the Dalits too, it would add up to one-third of India’s population. Coupled with anti-incumbency and other sticky issues, the BJP has an uphill task.”
Sudha Pai, National Fellow at the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) and former JNU professor, believes the BJP remains a Savarna party that added Dalits in a “downward push” of social engineering. “The party included them in a social coalition, achieving huge success in 2014 and the 2017 UP polls. However, it has done little for the political and social empowerment of Dalits. They remain backward in terms of access to education and health,” she says.
As for the SC judgement, Pai says, “It’s true that the usual safeguards should apply in the SC/ST Act too, but, on the ground, the instruments of state do not function properly and justice is routinely denied to the Dalits.” BJP Dalit leader and spokesperson Bizay Sonkar Shastri agrees. Over 90 per cent of the cases filed under the SC/ST Act anyway end in acquittal of the accused, he points out. After the Supreme Court ruling, it will be worse. Since Dalits are now more aware of the implications, the verdict acted as a trigger, he admits, but says the “leaderless protests” were incited by the Opposition in order to gain political mileage, just like it sought to use issues like the Rohith Vemula case. The BJP leader insists the Vemula suicide was not a Dalit issue as he “did not belong” to the community.
“They are doing this to confuse Dalits,” Shastri explains. “For the past three years or so, social media has been filled with misinformation like ‘the BJP will end reservations’. Our government is clear: reservations are not going to end. The logic for which reservations started still exists. Education and economic indicators are still very low among Dalits.”
“Dalit anger should not cause any division in society.... It’s not that the government isn’t working for the Dalits. But the work isn’t reaching them.”
Ram Vilas Paswan, Food & Consumer Affairs Minister
The Opposition is trying to create a rift in society by projecting “a false impression on social media that Dalits are against Hindu society,” he says. “How can that be? They are an intrinsic part of Hindu society. We don’t want to make an island of Dalits. There are 112 government schemes for the empowerment of economically backward classes and they impact Dalits too. It’s in keeping with PM Modi’s ‘sabka saath, sabka vikas’ motto.”
BJP vice-president and Rajya Sabha member Vinay Sahsrabuddhe asserts the BJP is only interested in development. “It’s easy to fan emotions on identity issues and a partly perceived sense of discrimination and injustice, it’s difficult to be integrationist. The BJP has established itself as an integrationist party and its perspective will be put to test in the coming elections,” he says. A stern test, one might say.