The recent spate of incidents involving beating up and public humiliation of some Dalit youth by cow vigilantes in Gujarat and the foul language used against Dalit leader Mayawati by a senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader, who has since been expelled, has put the BJP on the backfoot.
These incidents, and a few others reported from other parts of the country in the recent past have attracted the nation’s attention when political parties are gearing up for Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Gujarat and Uttarakhand next year. These elections, particularly the one for the Uttar Pradesh Assembly, is being regarded as a semi-final before the next Lok Sabha elections scheduled in 2019.
Nearly 20 percent of the population of UP is of Dalits. They play a cruical role in poll outcomes. All parties try their best to woo Dalit votes but Mayawati has proved her party’s hold often.
The virtual loop telecast of the incident on TV channels, involving flogging of Dalit youths by gau rakshaks in Gujarat, the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, put off several viewers. They were paraded and humiliated in full public view. As if this was not enough, a video of the event was gleefully put on the social media.
What has emerged in subsequent investigations, ironically, is that the cow which was being skinned by the Dalit youth was killed by a lion. In fact, a resident of Bediya village, Najabhai Ahir, had requested the youth, who belong to families of traditional animal skinners, to take away the carcass.
The video led to a public outcry even as there were reports of some Dalit youth attempting to commit suicide. Several others protested and threw carcasses of cows and other animals outside the residences of some officials. They pointed out that their families had been engaged in the skinning of dead animals since ages and asked why they were being punished for doing something which contributed to cleanliness and disposal of dead animals.
As the situation threatened to spiral out of control, the Gujarat chief minister visited some of the victims to assure protection. Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi and Aam Aadmi Party supremo Arvind Kejriwal too visited the victims. The issue took a political turn.
Though Dalits constitute just about 8 percent of voters in Gujarat, they are likely to play a significant role in the consolidation of the anti-BJP vote, particularly in view of the rise of Patels under the leadership of Hardik Patel in the state. The declining popularity of the BJP government in the state would add to the worries of the party which have remained in power for nearly two decades there.
Even as the Gujarat Dalit issue was still alive, came the condemnable statement by the then Vice President of BJP’s Uttar Pradesh unit, Dayashankar Singh, comparing BSP supremo Mayawati to a prostitute. It rocked the parliament. All leaders, irrespective of their party affiliations, roundly condemned the statement. Mayawati, four-time chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, is revered by Dalits and is making a strong bid to wrest power in the state. She has taken strong exception and has declared that mere sacking of the BJP leader was not enough. She said the statement smacked of the “poor mindset” of the BJP and its leaders.
Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley expressed deep regret, criticised the statement and assured action. Subsequently, Dayashankar Singh was divested of all party posts and expelled from the party for six years. BSP, still unhappy with the action taken, even registered a case against him under the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
The comment of party’s top leader in Uttar Pradesh, who was supposed to lead the party’s campaign in eastern parts of the state, and the resentment it caused among the Dalits, may cost the BJP dear in the critical Assembly elections due next year. The BJP, which had won 71 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats from the state in 2014, was looking at forming the next government in the state, which would pave the way for a victory in the next Lok Sabha elections.
The issue is likely to reverberate in the state at least till and during the election campaign. Even the Congress and the ruling Samajwadi Party are expected to harp on it at every election rally. To its credit, the BJP took quick action in throwing out the offending leader from the party and several party leaders condemned the statement outright.
Nearly 20 percent of the population in Uttar Pradesh belongs to the Dalit community and plays a crucial role in the outcome of the elections. All political parties try their best to woo Dalit votes. Mayawati has proved her party’s strong roots time and again. Besides the Dalits, the Muslim community holds the balance of power in the state and constitutes 18 percent of the population. Together they can tilt the balance on any side as it is well known that the winning party in the state may require just 30 percent of the total votes polled.
The BJP will be hoping that the Dalits forget the insult to their leader when they vote after several months in Uttar Pradesh. However, for that the Prime Minister shall have to come out with a strong and unambiguous stand on the comment as well as atrocities on the Dalits by cow vigilantes.
The party may also have to pay a price for the recent developments relating to Dalits on the Punjab Assembly elections due in February next. Punjab, in fact, has the highest percentage of Dalit votes at 32 percent of the population. They dominate in the Doaba region, where some constituencies have voter strength of 40 percent and even more.
So far, the Dalits had largely remained marginalised and unorganised. This, despite their icon Kanshi Ram hailing from the state. The BSP has not been able to win more than a handful of seats and currently has no member in the Assembly. However, the BSP, which had put up candidates in almost all the Assembly constituencies in the previous elections, has bagged 5 percent of the votes, which proved critical in the defeat of the Congress.
This time around, the situation may be different. Over the last couple of years, there have been reports of Dalit mobilisation and assertion of Dalit pride. Hundreds of music CDs evoking Dalit pride are available in the market and doing great business. The popular YouTube too is flooded with music and songs dedicated to Dalit pride.
Thus, this time, the Dalit voter is more likely to vote on community lines and this could seriously impact the final outcome. Mayawati has already toured the state. Even AAP leader and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal are focusing on Dalit votes. He makes it a point to woo Dalits during his visits. He too is expected to highlight instances of atrocities like the one that happened in Gujarat and put the BJP in the dock over its leader’s use of language against Mayawati.
The Sangh Parivar needs to send a strong signal that it would not back excesses by cow vigilantes or harassment of the poor and minorities by lumpen elements who are inflicting more damage to the party than doing any good.