Bhima-Koregaon Raids: How the BJP is Alienating its Dalit Vote Bank

Politics

Bhima-Koregaon Raids: How the BJP is Alienating its Dalit Vote Bank

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Ernest Hemingway once wrote in a private letter “Never confuse movement with action.” Four years ago, when the BJP roared to a mandate that was unprecedented, most people regarded it as action: An unlikely shift in the party’s politics, a steady focus on development, a distinctive burial of the fallout from 1992, and with it, the legacy of its last remaining souvenir, Lal Krishna Advani. A new BJP for the new millennium.

Today, as “urban naxals” are arrested for speaking up for the dispossessed while the convicts in the Bhima-Koregaon case, the men responsible for the actual violence, roam free, that image feels like a distant miasma. All that posturing from 2014 has begun to look like a shape-shifting blur, a hallucination of the gullible mind situated so far back in the past, it feels as delusional as it once seemed inevitable.

The 2014 mandate was a landmark, most significantly for the support the BJP received from Dalit and adivasi voters. As far as narratives go, 2014 served a political premise that the party could have tailored to fit the size of each of its manipulative fingers, a perfectly wearable glove of cross-caste Hindu identity. But in the recent cracking down on human rights activists and Dalit voices, and evoking its broader incapability in dealing with minorities, the party has confirmed that the glove doesn’t fit after all.

Ever since coming to power with that historic landslide victory, the BJP has found itself at a crossroads with minorities, be it ideological, religious, or caste. While Muslims have never been the party’s core constituency, its largely upper-caste make-up, its historic Brahmin-Bania alliance that seeds both support and funds, has traditionally kept the “lower castes” out as well. But the eye-watering turnaround in its vote share in 2014 must have impelled the party to carve that niche in a space it took for granted. Of the share, BJP received 38.7 per cent from adivasis and 24.5 per cent from Dalits, both higher than the Congress.

From a position of strength, of unanticipated power, the BJP – if recent events are taken as evidence – appears to be panicking; the yarn it has spun slipping from their grip.

But what perhaps stood out, more than anything else, wasn’t just the newfound popularity of the BJP among the “lower castes” and other minorities, but the retention of its support – in fact the strengthening of it – from the “upper castes” as well: from 35.3 per cent in 2004 to 47.8 per cent in 2014. The party, itself predominantly upper-caste, had courted the Dalit voter during the 2014 campaign and has since continued its token, synthetic engagement with the community by either appropriating their icon B R Ambedkar or offering the country its first Dalit President.

But such tokenism can only go so far.

From a position of strength, of unanticipated power, the BJP – if recent events are taken as evidence – appears to be panicking; the yarn it has spun slipping from their grip. The government’s engagement, its response to issues faced by Dalits has been farcical. From its response to the suicide of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula, to its pensive stand on the dilution of SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, the government has faltered miserably at each step. Could this be a sign of misreading your own growth?

The elections in Gujarat and the rise of the likes of Jignesh Mevani, whom the BJP-led government tried its best to malign and silence, should have been heeded as a warning. Further, incidents of friction in Una and most recently in Bhima-Koregaon were reminders that the mandate of 2014, is now well in the past. Clearly, the BJP is bent on living in history – on more than one front – rather than creating something for the future. Its alienation of minorities, namely Dalits, Muslims and to some extent rationalists and intellectuals the party entertains only those it can command, and not those it may have to converse with. A rather popular theory states that the party cannot be seen overly inclined to appease Dalits, as it wouldn’t sit well with its predominantly upper-caste business-class backers. But had the government acted in hindsight, played pacifist on the odd occasion, and allayed fears rather than let their loose-tongued repertoire of kamikaze spokesmen add fuel to the fire, it could have saved itself the panic station it now finds itself in.

As things stand, the BJP’s calibration looks helter-skelter, with the mere thought of having to enter the elections of 2019 without their newfound support of minorities, throwing them into fits of rage that result in knee-jerk actions like the nationwide arrests of activists, scholars, and writers on Tuesday. One can deduce the ocean’s uneasy belly, the squall at its heart by looking at the waves  that hit the shore. For decades, the BJP had assumed that Dalits and other minorities were the shore it would never see the sight of. While 2014 offered an unprecedented glimpse, it now seems unlikely to turn into a template.

The cross-caste Hindu unity of four years ago, that voted Modi into power might have now breathed its last. Ironically it isn’t internal strife that has seemingly culled that tense cord of unified Hindu identity but it’s the party that stood to gain the most from it that has perhaps dropped the ball, most embarrassingly on its own two feet. There’s been movement, but the action seems all wrong.

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