Lok Sabha elections 2019: In UP, BJP woos Dalits, but must win trust
On 21 June 1990, a Jatav bridegroom rode into the Jat-dominated Panwari village in Agra on a horse. By the following day, 11 Dalits had been killed, dozens of Dalit houses burnt, and all but four Dalit families, evicted from the village in what is remembered throughout the region as ‘Panwari kaand’. “They [Jats] were shouting ‘Chamaron, saalo bhaago’,” said Bharat Singh Kardam, the bride’s brother who was 18 at the time.
Now 47, Kardam and his family have lived in Agra city ever since, not daring to return to their village. The last hearing in the case at the district court was in 2015; many of the 15 accused men didn’t show up. One of them is Babulal Choudhary, a Panwari native who was establishing himself as a Jat leader at the time of the riots. Just before the last Lok Sabha elections, the two-time MLA from Fatehpur Sikri left the Jat-led Rashtriya Lok Dal to join the Bharatiya Janata Party. Since 2014, the BJP leader has been the Member of Parliament for Fatehpur Sikri. Through these five years, Choudhary has represented the BJP at a number of its Dalit outreach events in the area. He didn’t respond to several attempts at reaching him.
Choudhary’s transformation underlines the deep fault lines in the BJP’s strategy and politics around Dalits in Uttar Pradesh: the electoral and social dominance of upper castes, the need to win over Dalit voters (making up a fifth of the state’s voters) and the dichotomy of the party’s appeals to them.
Sanjay Jatav isn’t convinced by the BJP. “They [BJP] made promises. They haven’t kept them,” he said. Last year, the 27-year-old from Basai village in western UP’s Hathras district did the same thing that had provoked the ‘Panwari kaand’ and succeeded at it, making headlines. His struggle for his right — to ride a horse to his bride’s house for their wedding began with a petition at the local police station, peaked with an appeal to the Prime Minister, and almost reached the Supreme Court.
Jatav believes politics is power and the Bahujan Samaj Party is the only ally. In Basai village, 500 of the 2,200 homes belong to Jatavs, who are standing together with Muslims and Yadavs to vote the SP-BSP gathbandhan to power, he said.
The BJP, he said, is not good for Dalits. “Atrocities have increased. They have taken away our land to build cow shelters,” he said. “We don’t want a government under which a Dalit man can’t ride a ghodi.”
The Samajwadi Party-BSP gathbandhan’s candidate from the Hathras Lok Sabha seat, under which Basai falls, was Ramjilal Suman, a Jatav. The BJP’s candidate also happened to be a Dalit, but not a Jatav. Rajveer Singh Diler belongs to the minority Dalit community of Valmikis, who along with other sub-castes such as Koris and Dhobis, make up the vote base the BJP is chasing across UP. “They will vote for vikas (development). They will vote for BJP,” Diler said.
Mohan Kumar will, for sure.
A follower of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Kumar, 23, now goes to every election rally by a BJP leader, helping informally in organising meetings, and hanging out with a group of young male friends. All of them are unemployed, and other than occasional physical jobs, the dusty central UP town of Hardoi has little to offer them.
Discussions in his mixed-caste friends circle and at home have triggered some disquiet in the young man who belongs to the scheduled caste (SC) sub-group called Pasi. “No one comes to Hardoi without needing something; like the BJP needs our votes but is not bothered anymore about what we need: respect,” he says.
A SC-reserved seat, Hardoi will vote on Monday. Kumar voted for BJP because of the PM but said his trust in the party has been shattered since 2014 and 2017 elections. Pasis form the second-largest SC sub-group in UP after the Jatavs, and draw their community pride from 12th century king Bijli Pasi, the freedom fighter Uda Devi and close ties to BR Ambedkar’s organisation Scheduled Caste Federation. They hold the decisive vote in the Awadh and Allahabad regions where they often outflank Jatavs as the largest SC group.
In the 1980s, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) founder Kanshi Ram attempted to create an umbrella coalition but the Pasi’s relationship with the BSP has frayed over the past decade, especially after the departure of former state minister RK Chowdhury. “It became a party of Jatavs, who are our competitors, and neglected us, so we drifted to the BJP, which wooed us. But now many feel that the party played a double game with us,” says Ram Dayal Verma, a local historian and writer.
Why? The BJP won points initially by sending senior leaders to community gatherings, giving government recognition to anniversary celebrations of icons, and restoring the crumbling fortress of Bijli Pasi in the outer fringes of Lucknow. “The party was successful in spreading the message that the Jatavs had cornered all benefits, and gave the Pasi community a share in the party structure,” explains Ajay Kumar, a sociologist and fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla.
Pasis consider themselves a warrior clan, and problems first started flaring in 2017 with the Thakurs, who were buoyed by a chief minister from their community and doubled down on their authority, especially in rural areas. Secondly, the community was disappointed that it wasn’t given a cabinet minister’s post, and sitting MPs from the community were dropped.
“We lagged in education and jobs. But now, we are catching up, our boys are learning about Ambedkar and the BJP shouldn’t take us for granted,” Verma says.
Pasis are crucial to the BJP. They live in rural areas and form an important vote in at least 10 seats, according to Ajay Kumar. In straight fights between the BJP and the SP-BSP alliance, large sections of the community are still likely to lean towards the saffron party (the community’s most-popular face, Mohanlalgunj MP Kaushal Kishore, is still with the BJP) but Kumar notes even parties such as the Samajwadi Party, which is grooming a clutch of Pasi leaders, and Congress, which Chowdhury has joined, have started to take note.
What does this mean for the alliance’s chances? In Hardoi, the alliance has nominated Pasi leader Usha Verma, a three-time former MP from Samajwadi Party, from the seat. In 2014, the BSP’s Pasi candidate stood second, but the combined votes polled by the SP and BSP candidates comfortably outstripped that of the BJP. In her campaign Verma has focussed on the SP’s Pasi lineage, and appears confident of a win if the Jatavs vote for her.
This is an example of a broader Dalit consolidation being attempted in some pockets. As Lucknow-based activist Ram Kumar points out, this was spurred by the nationwide protests against the dilution of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act last year that penetrated even rural areas, and a new faculty recruitment system that depressed the number of reserved posts, and upset the educated among the Dalits.
Both were rolled back by the government, but gave ammunition to allegations that the BJP was “anti-Dalit”, which got louder after the BJP dropped eight Dalit MPs in the state as part of a larger purge of incumbent parliamentarians.
At the bottom of the social ladder lies the Valmiki community that continues to be forced into sanitation work across India. In Maholi village, about 20 km from Sitapur town, a group of women gathers around a thatched roof for a few moments away from work. All of them are manual scavengers, and will have to fan out in the searing sun in a few minutes.
Ramdevi says all of them voted for the BJP in 2014, helping the party snatch a seat the BSP had won in the past two elections, but haven’t received enough protection. Last October, a group of boys from their basti were eating from a stall on the highway when a fight broke out over them drinking water from the common jug. The boys were beaten up, and in the middle of the night, their houses trashed by groups of upper-caste men who continue to remain unidentified. “Now I think maybe if Behenji (Mayawati) was there, would this have happened?” she asks.
The BJP, and its ideological fount, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, have grown the deepest roots in the Valmiki community, says Ajay Kumar, on the back of their inter-dining initiatives and their hold over city municipalities because most Valmikis depend on the city authorities for sanitation work and payment.
As a community that faces the brunt of caste discrimination and the ignominies of manual scavenging, Valmikis also hold symbolic importance for the Hindutva project, and this is why Sangh affiliates have focussed on readings of the mythical epic Ramayana, which is said to have been written by a member of the community. An example of this outreach was seen last February, when Modi washed the feet of Valmiki sanitation workers in Prayagraj, drawing criticism from some activists who argued that the act cemented the caste link to the occupation. The BJP has attempted to use images of the event for election events across UP.
In a recent article in India Today, political scientist Gilles Verniers showed that in the UP assembly, the number of upper castes jumped from 32.7% in 2012 to 44.4% in 2017. This number was consistently higher for the BJP than the overall average in other states such as Bihar, Haryana and Rajasthan.
“Since 2013, the BJP has been pursuing in UP a strategy of mobilisation of all groups that are non-aligned with any major party. This is the 60% strategy — mobilise anyone who is not a Yadav (9%), Jatav (13%) or Muslim (18%). In terms of ticket distribution, it means privileging candidates belonging to non-Yadav OBCs and non-Jatav Dalits,” Verniers said in an email interview.
But he argued that “there is no such thing as a non-Yadav OBC or non-Jatav Dalit. These are multitudes of group that are not cohesive. So giving representation to a non-Jatav Dalit means giving representation to a small segment of non-Jatav Dalits. At the end of the day, few tickets get distributed across small groups, which means that most of these groups (Pasis, Valmikis, Dhobis, etc.) get at best token representation, in a landscape that remains dominated by the upper castes.
”Take the breakup of BJP’s candidates for the ongoing elections in UP. “Out of 78 candidates, the BJP has given 36 tickets to upper castes (46.2%), 5 to intermediate castes. (6.4%), 21 to OBCs (27%) and 16 to SC (20.5%). Among the SCs, tickets have been distributed between five SC groups, including Jatavs,” he said.
On the other side, many activists, such as Agra-based writer Arjun Savedia, acknowledge that the BSP, which has now instituted Bhaichara (brotherhood) committees to smoothen intra-caste relations, did not do enough to reach out to smaller SC castes.
In many ways, Agra remains the nerve centre of the BSP and is often called the Dalit capital of the state. Savedia explains that this epithet originates in June 1978, when a procession on Ambedkar’s birthday was attacked, stoking sweeping protests. The ensuing clashes with police killed nine Dalits. “But our self respect had been awakened. We wanted to end the slavery. That is why Agra is important, and why it is more important that we reach out to all Dalit castes in this symbolic city.”
India’s SC communities comprise hundreds of jatis that share a myriad but common history of oppression. Sumeet Mhaskar, an associate professor at OP Jindal Global University, explains that the BJP is not the first to exploit differences between SC sub-castes -- and that the Congress did the same to attract the Chamar community vote towards itself in Maharashtra, often called the cradle of anti-caste politics.
This election, Dalit politics is playing out in a multitude of forms. Of these, two regions appear significant in the way they are re-imagining social constituencies.
The first is Maharashtra, where a new formation called the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) is taking on the two main groupings, the BJP-Shiv Sena and the Congress-NCP coalitions. Bhagyesha Kurane, a researcher at Pune University, explains that the VBA, a brainchild of Prakash Ambedkar, the grandson of BR Ambedkar, is attempting to stitch together a novel coalition of extremely backward castes, Dalits and Muslims. This is a tough call -- Mayawati failed to put together a Dalit-Muslim coalition in UP in 2017 because of social faultlines -- and Mhaskar agrees that many Muslims may choose to go with the bigger opposition coalition. Ambedkar, who hasn’t won a parliamentary election since 1999, rose to prominence during the Bhima Koregaon protests in 2018.
Dalits form a little over 10% of the population of the state, and are scattered geographically; they don’t have electoral heft like their counterparts do in UP or Punjab, Mhaskar explains. “But Dalit politics is beyond just electoral. It is about assertion, social change. Look at Rohith Vemula, Una, SC/ST Act, Bhima Koregaon and others -- it was Dalit politics that was able to push the BJP on the defensive,” he adds.
Mahars, the caste to which BR Ambedkar belonged, are the largest group and have traditionally voted for the Republican Party of India, which he started, and the Congress. The other two large SC castes, Mang and Chamar, are being wooed by the Shiv Sena and the BJP. As the RPI disintegrates into more factions -- there are already 50 -- even the more established ones, such as that of Union minister Ramdas Athawale, who was not given a seat this time, are hemorrhaging support. It is in this background that the VBA is trying to shake things up.
The second place where Dalit politics is seeing a churn is West Bengal, the state with the second-highest number of SCs after UP. For decades, the question of their identity was suppressed by the Left Front, which focussed on economic inequality. Simultaneously, a large chunk of the Namashudras, the second-largest SC sub-caste in the state, quietly organised themselves into a sect called the Matuas. The sect that claims membership of close to 10 million, was started by 19th century reformer Harichand Thakur who shunned untouchability and caste teachings in a series of writings, focussing on education and social reform, remarkably similar to Ambedkar’s a century later.
The Matuas, a majority of whom are refugees from Bangladesh, were a solid base of chief minister Mamata Banerjee, who offered a cabinet berth to the family that leads the sect.
But now, the BJP aims to make inroads, using a squabble in the family. Many of the Matuas, who inhabit the desperately poor border districts, have no identification papers. With its promise of protecting Hindus but weeding out illegal immigrants, the BJP aims to wean away a chunk of the votes from the Trinamool Congress in five seats where the community holds decisive influence. The death of the sect’s matriarch, or Boroma, last month and a mega rally by Modi has furthered the suspense.
“The passing of Binapani Devi will have some impact. There will be some division of the Matua vote but not that much,” said Sipra Mukherjee, an associate professor at the West Bengal State University. She pointed out that the National Registry of Citizens (NRC) has had a bad impact on the community. “This will be a balancing factor for the votes that could have moved to the BJP.”