A key puzzle that our narrative addresses is why have Dalits – given their long struggle against upper-caste domination – embraced a right-wing Hindutva party, the BJP, they once derided as “Manuvadi”. Since 2014, the BJP under the leadership of Narendra Modi has obtained massive majorities in both national and UP assembly elections. More importantly, there has been a steady rise in the percentage of Dalits, particularly the smaller sub-castes supporting the BJP. In fact, in the recent 2022 assembly election, despite gaining fewer seats, the BJP gained the support of 41 per cent of the other scheduled castes (SCs), and as much as 21 per cent of the Jatavs, signalling perhaps for the first time, the move of a larger section of the latter towards it.

While the collapse of the BSP provides an explanation, a recent study of Dalit movements across India provides an interesting explanation by highlighting the more enduring legacy of strong identity-based movements than of Dalit parties more interested in the immediate capture of power. Making a distinction between “movement” and “non-movement” states, it illustrates that where, historically, strong social mobilisation of Dalits precedes the formation of a Dalit political party, as in the case of Tamil Nadu by radical organisations, Dalit parties have not been electorally successful. But, due to the long period of social mobilisation, Dalits have retained their pride in low-caste identity and not shown a proclivity to move towards upper-caste parties such as the BJP; they are, in fact, hostile to it.

In contrast, in UP, the BSP was not the end-product of a long social movement but was consciously formed by Kanshi Ram as a movement – party to introduce social transformation “from above” using state power rather than from below, which, he argued, would take a long time. Consequently, once the party lost power and began to decline, Dalits started to move towards the BJP.

More immediately, under the new generational leadership of Modi, the BJP has been successful in taking advantage of the growing weakness of the Dalit movement and the disillusionment of the smaller sub-castes with the BSP, as well as addressing their rising aspirations. It is also because the objective has been two-fold: to obtain the electoral support required in a key state like UP and include them within the saffron fold in order to build a Hindu Rashtra. Feeling neglected within the BSP vis-à- vis the dominant Jatavs, the smaller Dalit sub-castes have been attracted to the BJP and thus been rendered vulnerable to its mobilisational strategies.

A variety of creative strategies and tactics have been employed by the BJP, ranging from promises of development, welfare programmes, cultural inclusion and nationalism to religiosity. Interestingly, each of these strategies has been used in different elections, regions and contexts, where it was believed that the BJP would benefit. The BJP has been the first party to use market mechanisms like employing agencies to manage elections, run highly personalized and plebiscite-like campaigns using social media and charismatic speeches by Modi, which have appealed to the poor. The party has been described as a “corporate behemoth” that has assembled a huge team that is in “constant election mode”, maintaining and widening its Hindu vote bank. It is a party of leaders involved in the “relentless pursuit of power” and one that has the “right balance” between an individual and an “organised party”.

Equally important in the BJP’s success story of mobilising Dalits has been its strategy of “new welfarism”, which has been skilfully marketed as being based on a well-organised, huge welfare state, with Modi projected as the “messiah” of the poor. It has provided a range of goods and services to the poorer sections, many of whom are Dalits, such as bank accounts, cooking gas, toilets, electricity, housing, water and, more recently, free rations and cash. All these give immediate electoral returns as against services such as health and education that would deliver benefits in the distant future.

Thus, through a series of multifaceted strategies, the BJP has deftly obtained the support of the smaller sub-castes in UP by bringing together a new politics of “recognition” of the distinct historical, social and cultural identity of each sub-caste and ‘redistribution’ through the employment of massive welfare schemes and their efficient delivery on the ground.

But the story of Modi’s success in mobilising Dalits contains two complex questions that we took up through interviews and field studies. First, why do Dalits exhibit both political protest against rising atrocities and political preference for supporting/ voting for the BJP? Our narrative points to a disjuncture between the political and the electoral; the former is full of contradictions but it is insulated from the latter. Fieldwork indicates that the smaller Dalit sub-castes prefer to vote for a party that can provide them protection against the locally dominant Yadavs, who rose to positions of dominance in the 1990s and 2000s when the SP was in power and were viewed as a goonda or mafia party. With the decline of the BSP, they view the BJP as the only party that can protect their interests.

Second, does the move by Dalits towards the BJP signify tactical or instrumental support due to the decline of the BSP or conversion to the party’s ideology? Our study suggests that the tactical and the ideological are not separate; they need not be viewed in a contradictory position. While the initial decision was tactical, the chances of ideological conversion increase if the trend continues over a number of elections. Since 2014, the BJP-RSS have attempted to take the cultural mobilisation of Dalits further by providing greater space within the Hindu identity by catering to their feelings of marginalization, acknowledging their specific sub-caste identity, giving space to practise rituals and building small temples to their local deities, thereby according them dignity and respect. These are some aspects that Dalits feel have been ignored by the BSP in recent years.

Our discussion throws up a number of questions of significance for the future of the Dalit movement. If the BJP were to lose power in the future, or if the BSP were to revive itself, would the Dalits still move towards the BJP, or towards other parties? Or do the successive BJP victories since 2014, including in 2022, mean that the saffronisation project has run deep and Dalits will remain with it? Does this mean that the Hinduisation of Indian society is now irreversible, and what does this mean for the Dalit movement?

Excerpted with permission from the Prologue of Maya, Modi, Azad: Dalit Politics in the Time of Hindutva, Sudha Pai and Sajjan Kumar, HarperCollins India.