The Bharatiya Janata Party’s decision to drop its lone Dalit face, Union minister Ramvilas Paswan, as a star campaigner in Uttar Pradesh, where seven-phase elections are scheduled from February 11, has given rise to the question: is the party so confident as to believe it does not need to make any effort to win Dalit votes, or has it simply given up on Scheduled Caste voters in the wake of the resentment caused by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leader Manmohan Vaidya’s anti-reservation remarks on January 20?
The quiet omission of Paswan – leader of the Lok Janshakti Party, which is a part of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance – from the BJP’s new list of campaigners, submitted to the Election Commission on Thursday, for the third and fourth phases of the Assembly elections on February 19 and February 23 went unnoticed as its highlight was the much hyped inclusion of Varun Gandhi, Murli Manohar Joshi and Vinay Katiyar. These BJP leaders had not found a place in the party’s first list of star campaigners issued on January 21.
The absence of a Dalit campaigner in its latest list is significant because until just a few weeks ago, the BJP appeared to be banking heavily on non-Jatav Scheduled Caste voters in the state. With the Jatavs apparently too committed to the Bahujan Samaj Party to be lured away by any other political formation, the BJP has been trying hard to make the remaining Dalit castes shift their focus from challenging the upper castes to actively claiming their Hindu identity. This strategy to expand the BJP’s vote base was reflected in last year’s six-month-long Dhamma Chetana Yatra by a group of Buddhist monks, at the party’s behest. The monks travelled through the state’s Dalit localities carrying the message of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The BJP also appeared to be attempting to rewrite history with its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, attributing the genesis of Dalits, along with other lower castes and indigenous communities, to “Muslim invasion” in medieval times.
The party’s efforts to win over the community were weakened somewhat by protests over the suicide of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad in January last year and attacks on Dalits in Gujarat, including the assault by cow protection vigilantes on Dalit tanners in Una town in July. Despite the setbacks, the BJP continued with its efforts to spread its presence among Scheduled Castes in Uttar Pradesh, in a bid to cobble up a formidable voter base consisting of upper castes, non-Yadav Other Backward Classes and non-Jatav Dalits.
However, in the wake of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh publicity chief Manmohan Vaidya’s call for a review of the reservation policy at an event in Jaipur on January 20, BJP office-bearers admitted there has been a drastic change in the situation on the ground. Despite Vaidya quickly making clarifications, Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati has grabbed on to his statement, and has been referring to it at almost every press conference and rally she has addressed. On Wednesday too, at a public meeting in Meerut, she said, “I have inside information that the BJP government is working towards ending all caste-based reservations.”
Similar remarks by the Sangh organisation’s chief, Mohan Bhagwat, ahead of Assembly elections in Bihar last year are said to have cost the BJP dearly by triggering a massive consolidation of Dalits and backward classes against the saffron outfit.
As it is, Dalits remain suspicious of the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, treating them as organisations with an essentially upper-caste mindset. The crusading campaign launched by Mayawati after Vaidya’s statement seems to have convinced the BJP brass that no matter what they do, allaying the apprehension of Dalits will not be possible in the short term.
This may well be why the party has quietly left out its lone Dalit face, Paswan, from its list of star campaigners.