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Is BJP’s caste coalition in trouble?

According to a BJP parliamentarian from western UP, a proposed alliance between the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has put the BJP in a tight spot.

india Updated: Apr 21, 2018 07:59 IST
Kumar Uttam
Kumar Uttam
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Members of the Dalit community block a road as they protest against the alleged ‘dilution’ of SC/ST Act, in Ahmedabad. The Centre has moved the SC seeking a review of its order.
Members of the Dalit community block a road as they protest against the alleged ‘dilution’ of SC/ST Act, in Ahmedabad. The Centre has moved the SC seeking a review of its order. (PTI File Photo)

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s rainbow coalition of social and caste groups that brought it to power in 2014 and led it to overwhelming victories in assembly polls, especially in Uttar Pradesh last year, seems to have hit the skids.

According to four BJP functionaries, who don’t wish to be identified, all three pillars of the BJP’s support base — its core upper caste vote, the other backward classes (OBC), and the new Dalit sub-castes who shifted loyalties — have complaints against the party. The Centre moved the SC early this month seeking a review of its March 20 judgment banning immediate arrests under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, a verdict that Dalit groups called dilution of the law that protected them. About a dozen people died during a violence-marred strike against the court judgment on April 2.

Two BJP leaders said the government’s perceived delay in filing a review plea angered Dalits, and upper caste and OBC leaders.

“The OBCs are the victim of misuse of the SC/ST act. There is a risk of antagonising them,” a BJP leader said requesting anonymity. The BJP successfully courted the non-Yadav OBCs, particularly in UP and Bihar. The upper castes, too, rallied behind the BJP in almost every election after the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. The NDA won 73 of 80 Lok Sabha seats in UP in 2014, and now rules with three-fourths majority.

“The BJP is not the first preference of Dalits in states such as Bihar and UP. In reaching out to them, we may end up losing support among the upper castes and backwards,” a Union minister said, requesting not to be identified. According to a BJP parliamentarian from western UP, a proposed alliance between the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has put the BJP in a tight spot.

“Any slip in our existing support base would be detrimental to our performance in 2019,” he said. “If we lose trust of even a portion of the upper castes and OBCs, we will be badly hit.”

The Dalits, accounting for 200 million of the country’s 1.3 billon people, have a strong presence in UP, Bihar, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Punjab.

Union minister Ram Vilas Paswan said two weeks ago that the government suffered a perception problem among young Dalits, which it needed to address immediately.

“In the case of the SC ruling, obviously the judiciary is an independent branch. But the perception is that the BJP government neither anticipated the ruling nor reacted swiftly to stem the bleeding,” said Milan Vaishnav, director and senior fellow, South Asia program, at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He said the top court’s judgment alone does not have a negative impact on the BJP’s fortunes, but it is part of a larger anti-Dalit narrative that is plaguing the BJP, and this will hurt them electorally. “While the BJP has played savvy caste politics by peeling off sections of the Dalit community and emphasising differences between ‘preferred’ jatis like the Jatavs and the weaker sections, this divide and rule tactic may be overtaken by events,” Vaishnav said.

The so-called dilution of the SC/ST act may not play out directly in the next general elections, but could have an indirect effect by feeding a broader perception that the government is unwilling to provide protection to the marginalized communities, said Gilles Verniers, co-director at Trivedi Centre for Political Data in Ashoka University.