The July 11 assault by cow protection vigilantes on four Dalits found skinning a dead cow in Una, Gujarat, set off widespread and unprecedented protests by Dalit across the state. For the first time in the state’s history, Dalit politics was taking centre stage.

“Bharatiya Janata Party? No. I won’t ever vote for it,” said Piyush Parmar, a Dalit social worker who had come to Mota Samadhiyala village, where the Dalits were attacked, to protest against the assault. “It is their politics around the cow that has led to this.”

Questions are being raised about the impact this kind of anti-BJP sentiment among Dalits will have on the incumbent BJP in next year’s Assembly elections.

Will this attack result in a repeat of the BJP’s loss in the 2015 Bihar Assembly elections, where a statement by Rashtriya Swawamsevak Sangh leader Mohan Bhagwat seeking a review of caste-based reservations, led to Dalit disenchantment? Or will the imposing BJP machine – in power in Gujarat for the past 15 years – be able to ride out this storm?

Dalit unity

Gujarat is no stranger to caste politics. Mass movements, and indeed riots, around caste have been a feature of Gujarati life for the past four decades. The years 1981 as well as 1985 saw riots led by upper castes opposing caste-based reservation. However, 2016 is new because this is the first time Dalits are taking the initiative to fight for their rights.

“This is the first time that Dalits have mobilised in such large numbers, and it is also the first time that there is unity across Dalit castes,” said social scientist Ghanshyam Shah. “In 1981, for example, Dalit castes such as Valmikis did not support the Chamaars and Vankars as they were attacked by upper castes. This time it’s different.”

Of course, Dalit unity in Gujarat can only go so far. Dalits form only about 7% of the population of the state – far below the 17% for India as a whole. This means that Gujarati Dalits are especially powerless and caste atrocities are unusually high as compared to the rest of the country. This, of course, is good news for the BJP, given that this current wave of Dalit disenchantment might not necessarily convert into a whole lot of votes against it.

Patel + Dalit agitation

To add to that, observers such as Shah also point out that most Dalits already vote for the Congress. The party managed a vote share of 39% in the 2012 Assembly elections with its two main blocs being Dalits and Muslims. The incremental impact of Dalit anger would therefore be minimal on the BJP.

However, despite the limited impact of this Dalit agitation per se, the Congress still scents an opportunity.

“On their own, Dalits might be small but remember, the Patels are also virulently anti-BJP now,” pointed out Kunvarjibhai Bavaliya, head of the Congress in Rajkot.

Patel disenchantment has already singed the BJP. In the local polls held last December, the Saurashtra region – which is where Mota Samadhiyala falls – saw the Congress win nine out of 11 district panchayats. The Congress hopes adding Dalit anger to this mix would be the proverbial last straw that breaks the camel’s back.

But Raja Dhruv, media in-charge of the BJP in the Saurashtra region, dismissed talk of Dalit anger making an impact. “Dalit society also has educated people,” he said. “They know the Congress has done nothing for them – these are only crocodile tears.”

This is backed up by most Dalit activists who see the Congress and the BJP to be two sides of the same coin. For instance, in Mota Samadhiyala, Piyush Parmar wants to vote for Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party, the only Dalit-led political party to see success. The only issue is that its poll prospects in Gujarat are non-existent – a fact that will help reassure the BJP.

Punjab and Uttar Pradesh

Even as the impact of this agitation itself will not change the game in Gujarat, it might end up having an impact in two states that go to the polls early next year: Punjab and Uttar Pradesh.

Ever since Narendra Modi took over as prime minister two years ago, the Una assault has been one in a long line of cases where the BJP has come off looking anti-Dalit. These include the suicide of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula at Hyderabad Central University after he was put under pressure by a BJP minister, the banning of a Dalit student group at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, and, recently, the statement of the BJP’s Uttar Pradesh vice-president that Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati to a “worse than a prostitute”.

This anti-Dalit image should trouble the BJP. In Punjab, which goes to polls in 2017, one of every three residents is a Dalit. In Uttar Pradesh, not only is the proportion of Dalit voters high at 21%, the state also has an established tradition of Dalit politics in the Bahujan Samaj Party.

The BJP played bovine politics with the hope of earning votes on the back of upper caste Hindu sentiment. But given that cow politics has turned on Dalits from Muslims, the gains from pushing a bovine agenda are far less clear than what the party would have wished for.