They were considered a critical chunk of votes in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, a bloc that would sway the outcome of the elections one way or the other.
But as results poured in from the two largest states that went to the polls, it became clear that Dalits were neither a monolithic group nor voted en-masse for one party.
The scheduled caste community in Punjab backed the Congress that swept to power with a near-two thirds majority after a string of atrocities and lack of jobs eroded Dalit support for the Akali Dal.
In Uttar Pradesh, the BJP stormed an overwhelming number of reserved constituencies on its way to the largest mandate in almost four decades, belying predictions that the Dalit community would stay away from the saffron party.
Data from reserved constituencies in both states indicated that Dalits had voted on state-specific issues and based on the appeal of leaders such as Congress’ Amarinder Singh and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, instead of any pan-India narrative.
The results from Uttar Pradesh also exposed various fractures within the scheduled castes.
But one common theme across the two states was the collapse of the Bahujan Samaj Party, which was decimated in Punjab and only held on to its core vote in Uttar Pradesh.
In Punjab, the Congress won 20 of the 34 reserved constituencies while the Akali Dal-BJP secured just four seats.
In the Dalit stronghold of Doaba where the community has more than 40% population in each of the 23 seats, the Amarinder Singh-led party won 14.
Despite appointing a Dalit party chief in Vijay Sampla, the BJP failed to make any dent. The Aam Aadmi Party picked up 10 reserved seats in the Malwa region, where it had deployed all its resources.
“The Dalits voted out Akalis for the high-handedness of their goons, be it the fight for lands in villages or attacks on them,” said Dalit intellectual Des Raj Kalli.
The results in Uttar Pradesh were just the opposite. The BJP and its allies won 75 out of the 85 reserved seats and the BSP ended up with just two.
The saffron party’s impressive showing was attributed to both Modi’s personal popularity and BJP chief Amit Shah’s careful consolidation of scheduled castes other than the Jatavs, who are known to be loyal to BSP chief Mayawati.
“The BJP conducted more than 200 meetings with the most-backward castes and in the process, hinduised them,” writer and entrepreneur Chandrabhan Prasad told Hindustan Times.
BJP leaders credited Modi for the inroads into the Dalit votes, a remarkable turnaround considering the saffron party won just three reserved seats in the state the last time.
But experts also blamed the BSP.
Kalli said in Punjab, voters were disillusioned and didn’t consider the BSP a viable alternative anymore.
In UP, Prasad underlined Mayawati’s inability to add to her core Dalit vote — the Jatavs who form around 11% of the state.
“The BSP has to start appealing to the most-backward castes and expand its base,” he added.