After a rough journey, the Dhamma Chetna Yatra, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Dalit-outreach programme in Uttar Pradesh, is headed towards an anti-climatic ending.
When the six-month yatra began on April 24, it was expected to be widely successful in wooing Dalits and was to culminate in a grand closing ceremony on October 14 in Lucknow, graced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The prime minister had been monitoring the rally’s progress and whose message the Buddhist monks were purportedly carrying to Dalits in the state. The finale was chosen to coincide with the date in 1956 when BR Ambedkar, the Dalit icon, converted to Buddhism to break out of the caste shackles of Hinduism.
However, in a change of plan, it has been announced that the yatra will end in Kanpur, instead of the Uttar Pradesh capital, and the closing ceremony will be addressed by party chief Amit Shah, not Modi.
Modi’s presence at the October 14 culmination, where he was expected to address the gathering, had been conveyed to the media by top bureaucrats from the Prime Minister’s Office and senior BJP leaders, when the yatra was flagged off from Sarnath by Home Minister Rajnath Singh.
For last few weeks, however BJP leaders and the prime minister’s office had been curiously silent about the purported grand show in Lucknow, prompting speculation of a change in plans. The suspense ended on Friday, when Keshav Prasad Maurya, the party’s Uttar Pradesh president, told the media in Lucknow that the Dhamma Chenta Yatra would be concluded in Kanpur and addressed by Shah.
The much-hyped rally failed to drum up the anticipated response and at several venues, BJP workers struggled to fill up halls. For instance, Shah was expected to address a massive gathering of Dalits in Agra on July 31, the day the yatra would reach the city. However, the party president cancelled his trip amid reports that the BJP workers had failed to get the targeted crowed of 40,000 Dalits.
The yatra had been planned to boost the BJP’s image among Dalits, who comprise 22% of the population in Uttar Pradesh, which has taken a severe beating in recent months. The damage started with Rohith Vemula’s suicide in January – the scholar had taken the step to purportedly protest alleged caste-based discrimination at the Hyderabad University.
This was followed by the flogging of four Dalit tanners by self-styled cow vigilantes for transporting the carcass of a cow. After the video of the flogging went viral, there were widespread protests in Gujarat and an unprecedented coming together of the scheduled caste to stand up to atrocities against them.
The BJP was perceived as not having responded adequately to the Una incident or taken enough efforts to rein in gau rakshaks who are affiliated to the Sangh parivar and have frequently targeted Dalits and Muslims.
In the midst of this, BJP Uttar Pradesh unit vice-president, Dayashankar Singh, had likened Bahujan Samaj Party chief and Dalit leader Mayawati to a sex worker in the way she distributes party tickets, for which he was expelled from the party in July for six years.
Given this backdrop, senior BJP leaders, who did not wish to be named, explained Modi’s seeming short shrift to the Dalit outreach campaign as a shift in the party’s electoral strategy in Uttar Pradesh.
Instead of wooing Dalits in the state, the party’s strategy is now to snub them and instead placate upper caste voters, particularly the Thakur caste, which comprise a little over 7% of the state but are a very influential community.
This is because the party has realised that winning the support of the Dalits in the state will be a lot harder than thought. The party is also eyeing the base of Samajwadi Party – the other backward castes, which comprises nearly 50% of the population.
This could also be why, Modi, while speaking at a public meeting in Kozhikode in Kerala on September 24, left out Ambedkar from the list of India’s three most influential leaders.
"There were three great individuals who influenced and shaped Indian political thought in the last century...They were Mahatma Gandhi, Deendayal Upadhyaya and [Ram Manohar] Lohia,” Modi had said.
This omission was surprising because the Modi government, since 2015, have been making several efforts to extol Ambedkar and appropriate him.
In April 2015, for example, Modi had visited Madhya Pradesh’s Mhow, where Ambedkar was born, to mark the Dalit icon’s 125th birth anniversary and said: “The credit for someone like me, whose mother washed utensils of neighbours, becoming the Prime Minister goes to Dr Ambedkar.”
The Dalit hostility towards the BJP derailed the Dhamma Chetna Yatra to such an extent that the party had to ask the monks leading the campaign to visit Buddhist Viharas, Ambedkar parks and Dalit bastis discreetly. Simultaneously, the party directed its local leaders in Uttar Pradesh to maintain a distance from the monks even while facilitating their movement and stay at various places.
But foregoing the most talked about anf significant part of the yatra – the grand closing ceremony at Lucknow that was meant to serve as a platform for Modi to woo Dalits ahead of the crucial polls – indicates that the scheduled caste may no longer figure in the saffron party’s poll calculations in Uttar Pradesh