An influential Dalit organisation in Uttar Pradesh has offered Prime Minister Narendra Modi conditional support as he wooed the community in the poll-bound state amid a nationwide outrage against the suicide of a research scholar.
Two of Modi’s ministers are in the line of fire over the suicide of Dalit student Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad, with the Congress-led opposition targeting the government for its alleged anti-Dalit policies.
Uttar Pradesh goes to the polls next year and Modi seemed to have made some headway in stemming the rot.
During his visit to the Ambedkar Mahasabha in Lucknow on Friday, Ambedkar Mahasabha leaders like Lalji Prasad Nirmal assured Modi that he could well become “Daliton ke Ram (the lord of Dalits)” and “Dalit Mitra (friend of dalits)” if he were to fulfil their demands – chiefly reservation in promotion, in the private sector and in judiciary.
Modi’s visit to the Mahasabha office is a much needed shot in the BJP’s arm as it is also largely being considered as a part of the BJP’s Dalit agenda in Uttar Pradesh, a state where the ruling party made huge gains in during the 2014 Lok Sabha election after winning 71 of the 80 seats.
“The visit, first by any prime minister to the Mahasabha office, is a master stroke. Closer to the 2017 UP polls you would see more than half of the top BSP?leadership in BJP,” Rajya Sabha MP Jugal Kishore who accompanied Modi in Lucknow, told Hindustan Times. Kishore himself switched loyalties from the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) to the BJP, joining the party on January 15 – the birthday of BSP chief Mayawati.
As Modi bowed before BR Ambedkar’s statue and urn at the Mahasabha office, coincidentally located a stone’s throw away from the state BJP office, saffron strategists mitigating the fallout from the Dalit scholar’s suicide probably smiled to themselves. Modi is the first prime minister in more than a decade to visit Lucknow, the last being AB Vajpayee in 2003.
Modi in fact began laying the groundwork last December at a national conference of Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe entrepreneurs, when he told Dalits that he understood the discrimination they faced as someone who comes from a backward class himself. He went a step further saying “ye aapka sarkaar hai (this is your government)… We are working for your empowerment.”
The BJP is currently eyeing the 23 per cent SC/ST population in the state. It will however face a tough fight from Mayawati, a Dalit woman herself.
“Despite constructing several memorials in Ambedkar’s memory, why did Mayawati not bother visiting the Ambedkar Mahasabha office where the urns of Ambedkar are kept,” asked Kishore in what appeared to be an attempt by the BJP to appropriate Ambedkar’s legacy from the BSP.
The RSS has already tasked its volunteers to befriend Dalits during Ambedkar’s 125th birth anniversary year and the Vishva Hindu Parishad, an RSS affiliate, too has a similar agenda going.
State party spokesman Chandramohan, an RSS man, admitted that the PM’s Mahasabha visit would help send the “right signals” though he refused to see “politics in it” even though the party is now busy giving finishing touches to various Dalit outreach programmes. BJP workers are also being asked to visit Dalit homes to publicise various schemes launched by the Modi government.
Union home minister Rajnath Singh, a former UP chief minister himself, as well as UP Governor Ram Naik also accompanied the Prime Minister to the Mahasabha office.
While the Mahasabha visit had reportedly come about on Naik’s suggestion, Singh – who is consulting on the UP agenda – has been consistent in opposing the BJP’s moves in the past to ally with the BSP. Mahasabha leaders indicated that Singh may pay a follow up visit to its office on April 14, Ambedkar’s birth anniversary. The minister had earlier unveiled a life size statue of Ambedkar inside the Mahasabha premises.
Modi was in Lucknow to speak at the convocation ceremony of Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University where he finally addressed the Dalit scholar’s suicide that kicked up a political storm. He however skipped the politics of the issue, and touched an emotional nerve, saying there was nothing more saddening than a mother losing her son.