Ahead of the 2019 elections, the race for consolidating the Dalit vote-bank has intensified among all the political parties, more so in Uttar Pradesh, where the community comprises almost 21 per cent of the population.
A day before the ‘Bharat Bandh’ call given by various Dalit organisations over alleged dilution of the SC/ST Act rocked the country on April 2, Kanshi Ram Smriti Upvan in Lucknow witnessed a large congregation of Dalit activists for the protection of the Constitution and the reservation policy.
The rally was organised under the aegis of Namo Buddhay Jan Seva Samiti, run by Bharatiya Janata Party MP from Bahraich Sadhvi Savitri Bai Phule, a turncoat from Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party.
In her signature saffron attire, Phule was all guns blazing at the event, castigating the central government over a purported spurt in cases of atrocities on the Dalits and desecration of statues of Dalit pantheons. Without naming any party, she alleged there was a systematic conspiracy to end reservation through privatisation.
In the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha poll and recent bonhomie between BJP’s bête noire Samajwadi Party and BSP, the race for consolidating the Dalit vote-bank has intensified among all the political parties, more so in Uttar Pradesh, where the community comprises almost 21 per cent of the population.
A diminutive Phule, a first-time MP after her brief and maiden stint as the MLA from Bahraich, over the past several months has been sulking at the BJP leadership for not elevating her stature in the party hierarchy even as several other state leaders from her Dalit community had been given ministerial berths or organisational posts.
It is no secret that the 37-year-old Sadhvi shares an uncomfortable affiliation with other BJP leaders in Bahraich. However, her sudden banner of revolt and acerbic utterances publicly have left the party embarrassed.
Since the process of identifying candidates for the next year’s general election has already begun in the saffron outfit and given her disgruntled disposition, there have been indications that she could be denied the poll ticket.
Against the backdrop of zealous opposition efforts to forge a national anti-BJP front before the Lok Sabha poll and the Dalits trying to reassert politically in the election year, Phule sensed an opportunity to show her strength. The success of the SP-BSP alliance in the recent Gorakhpur and Phulpur parliamentary bypoll has proved that a well-crafted pre-poll alliance could trump the BJP even in its pocket boroughs.
According to political pundits, Phule had organised the rally with twin purposes in mind. First, the attendance at the rally would convince the top BJP leadership about her core support base among the Dalits and her organisational and leadership skills, which could fetch her party support and also a ticket to fight the next election.
Second, if the BJP still does not entertain her according to her wishes, Phule could then bargain with the SP-BSP combine to utilise her Dalit lineage and leadership by fielding her from Bahraich, a reserved constituency.
Recently, Union Minister of State Ramdas Athawale, the president of BJP ally Republican Party of India, had also claimed that the SP-BSP combine would definitely affect the BJP’s performance in the forthcoming Lok Sabha poll and reduce its number of seats in Uttar Pradesh to around 50 from 73 in the 2014 election. This accorded credence to the potency of the alliance and the challenge at hand for BJP to rework its poll match, especially with regard to the Dalits.
Nonetheless, Mayawati has yet not commented over Phule’s Luckow rally. The Dalit czarina is known to be wary of acknowledging any emerging leadership among the Dalit community, which could potentially pose her a challenge.
After the phenomenon of Bhim Army, founded by Chandrashekhar Azad ‘Ravan’ who is currently lodged in Saharanpur jail, had surfaced in the state following violent caste conflicts in the western UP district, Mayawati was quick to brand the 30-year-old lawyer-activist as a BJP agent.
Dalits in UP, especially Jatav sub-caste of which Mayawati also belongs to, had steadfastly stood behind BSP over the past several polls. However, the aggressive Dalit outreach programme initiated by top BJP leadership in consonance with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha poll and 2017 UP poll had managed to dilute the BSP core vote bank by attracting the community towards the saffron bandwagon, especially the non-Jatavs. Phule belongs to the Pasi community.
In the recent Rajya Sabha poll, the BJP candidate had managed to defeat BSP nominee Bhimrao Ambedkar, although his candidature was supported by SP and Congress as well. Since Ambedkar belonged to the Dalit community, the opposition was quick to label BJP as anti-Dalit. This amply indicates the exigency of the political parties trying to get traction with a lucrative vote bank, which is considered to vote en bloc, thus playing a vital role in ensuring poll victory or defeat.
The opposition parties desperately want to cash in on the Dalit anger by pitching it against BJP for resurrecting their political fortunes. The Vidhan Parishad polls scheduled to be held later this month would offer another chance to parties to reflect their Dalit agenda by fielding candidates from the community.
According to sources, BJP is likely to field Dalit candidates to keep the community in good humour. Since BSP lacks numbers to get any of its leaders elected to the Upper House of UP legislature, SP is likely to transfer its extra votes in favour of the BSP nominee to further strengthen the alliance and establish its pro-Dalit credentials.