By Amulya Ganguli
BJP president Amit Shah’s intemperate outburst against the opposition parties – calling them dogs, cats, snakes, etc. – was a sign more of nervousness about his own party than of disdain for its opponents.
The reason for the uneasiness about the BJP’s prospects is not far to seek. It is obvious that the ruling party is beset by a number of problems – farmers’ distress, joblessness, stirrings among the allies with Telugu Desam walking out of the NDA and the Shiv Sena threatening to have no truck with the BJP in the next general election, sporadic communal outbreaks setting the cat among the pigeons of other allies like the Janata Dal (United) and Lok Janshakti Party, and the indications that the opposition might just be able to get its act together and put up a one-to-one fight against the BJP in 2019.
But perhaps the most upsetting of all these disturbing signs is the palpable alienation of the Dalits with even some of the MPs representing the community in the BJP complaining that the party has done nothing for them in the last four years. The fact that Narendra Modi has called upon the BJP MPs to spend at least two nights in Dalit villages is an unmistakable indication of the prime minister’s realization that the party is losing touch with the community.
Evidently, neither the choice of a Dalit President nor the routine homages that are paid to BR Ambedkar has assuaged the Dalits, who clearly continue to think that the ostensible Brahmin-Bania party has been paying only lip service to the Dalit cause for the sake of votes. Otherwise, the BJP’s and the RSS-led Sangh Parivar’s Manuvadi instincts remain as contemptuously dismissive of the “untouchables” as ever before.
To a considerable extent, the BJP has only itself to blame for antagonizing the Dalits. From the time of the lynching of four Dalits in Una, Gujarat, by gau rakshaks to the hounding to death of the bright Dalit student, Rohith Vemula, in Hyderabad to the prolonged incarceration of the Dalit firebrand, Chandrashekhar Azad “Ravan” in the wake of the clashes between the Rajputs and Dalits in Saharanpur, UP, the Dalits have been at the receiving end of saffron ire.
It is difficult to understand why the BJP should have virtually gone out of its way to rile the Dalits, as the Rohith Vemula episode showed when a Union minister called the Hyderabad central university a den of anti-nationals simply because the ABVP, the BJP’s student wing, had come up against determined opposition from the Ambedkar Students Association.
The fallout of these incidents was the coming together of Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh with the two parties setting aside more than two decades of enmity. But for what happened in Una and Hyderabad (where the BJP made a strenuous effort to prove that Rohith Vemula was not a Dalit at all), it is highly unlikely that the BSP and the Samajwadi Party would have joined hands in UP and scored spectacular victories over the BJP in the Gorakhpur and Phulpur by-elections. Now there is a strong possibility of the tie-up between them lasting till 2019, which cannot but give the BJP sleepless nights.
Modi’s advice to the BJP MPs to reach out to the Dalits suggests that the party has realized that it has made a serious mistake by rubbing the Dalits the wrong way, which has not only re-energized Mayawati, but has also led to the emergence of a new generation of Dalit leaders like Jignesh Mewani and Chandrashekhar Azad “Ravan”, who are known for their bold assertiveness vis-à-vis the upper castes.
But whatever the prime minister and those in the party’s higher rungs may say and do to placate the Dalits, their words and deeds are unlikely to make much of an impact at the ground level where decades of anti-Dalit (and anti-Muslim) sentiments have guided the Hindutva brigade. From this standpoint, Modi’s sabka saath, sabka vikas mantra of development for all has little meaning for the saffron rank and file.
The problem for the BJP is that if the Dalits and Muslims act in tandem, then their combined 30 per cent of the vote share (Dalits constitute 16.6 per cent of the population, Muslims 14.2) will mean that virtually a third of the country will turn against the BJP. The percentage will be higher if the vote share of the liberal Hindus is added to the total.
Modi’s expectation probably was that with investments pouring in, a bouyant economy will bring the aspirational sections of all communities to the BJP’s side, thereby countering the depredations of the gau rakshaks and other saffron hotheads. In addition, the government’s task will be facilitated by the captive television news channels.
But these hopes of the prime minister and the party have been dashed by the failure of the economy to look up. As a result, the negative side of Hindutva politics with its caste and communal prejudices have come to the fore, undermining the BJP’s election prospects.