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BJP on the backfoot: Dalit movement may harm party in poll-bound Gujarat

Abhishek Parashar | Updated on: 11 February 2017, 7:52 IST

The massive Dalit rally in Ahmedabad on Sunday has sent a strong signal to the BJP. It was the second successful mass mobilisation after the Patidar agitation in which BJP had no role to play; rather, in both cases the demonstrations were held against the party.

The Sunday rally was driven by rising Dalit anger over the recent flogging of Dalits in Gujarat's Una by alleged cow vigilantes. Around 25,000 Dalits from across the state participated and took a pledge not to lift cow carcasses from the streets.

Barely 24 hours later, Chief Minister Anandiben Patel's resignation went viral on social media. Though she cited "the tradition in the party that those who attain the age of 75 voluntarily retire from the post" as the reason for her decision, analysts believe she was asked to resign for failing to address the social unrest emanating out of Patidar quota stir and now the Dalit agitation.

Also read -The unbearable burden of being a Dalit leader in the NDA

It may also have been a way to deflect attention, but no one is really buying the reason give so far.

All this is a far cry from the picture of smooth governance Prime Minister Narendra Modi would be keen on ensuring in a state he ruled with an iron grip between 2001 and 2014.

BJP's troubles on the rise

The alienation of Dalits just before the UP polls does not bode well for BJP and it is in no position to take chances.

"The BJP knows that the current Dalit agitation will not remain restricted to Gujarat alone," says Sagar Rabari, the secretary of the Gujarat Khedut Samaj.

The Patels have been traditional BJP supporters in Gujarat. They have played a pivotal role in BJP's unabated rule in the state for the past one-and-a-half decade. Now, a large segment of the community has switched allegiances after the Hardik Patel-led agitation for reservation.

The Patels have played a pivotal role in BJP's unabated rule in the state for the past 15 years

The BJP has been trying to contain the damage done by the Patidar agitation, but unfortunately for them the incident in Una has tipped the scales again - and not in their favour. Now, the resentment that has been simmering among Dalits for quite some time has found expression in the processions on roads.

It was a bolt out of the blue for the saffron party, which has gone out of its way in recent times to portray itself as a champion of the Dalit cause.

The BJP has, thus far, been confident of winning back the Patels as anti-Congress sentiment among Patels is very deep-rooted. The party's decision to provide 10% quota in jobs and higher educational institutions to those with an annual income of less than Rs 6 lakh was meant to placate the sulking Patels. The state government sent another signal by taking back 391 out of 438 cases registered against Patels during their movement.

Challenges aplenty

Nevertheless, the Ahmedabad Dalit Mahasammelan and its support by Muslims have presented a stiff challenge for the party.

Many Dalits had worked as the foot soldiers of the Hindu extremists during 2002 Gujarat riots. They were pitched on the frontline in the battle against the Muslims. However, both communities are now showing signs of coming together for the first time since the horrific riots.

Jignesh Mevani, the organiser of Dalit Mahasammelan in Ahmedabad, does not agree Dalits were ever against Muslims. "The role of Dalits in 2002 riots has always been over hyped. There was never any bad blood between the two communities. Though it is true that they could never emerge as a political force," he says.

The conviction rate in crimes against Dalits in Gujarat is less than 3%

But both communities are angry - their economic condition has only continued to deteriorate after 2002. Very few initiatives were taken for the economic empowerment of Dalits during Modi's stay in Gandhinagar, and there was a sharp rise in incidents of atrocities against them.

"Around 100 Dalit villages in the state are forced to live under police protection. The conviction rate in crimes against Dalits is less than 3%," claims Mewani.

"We have demanded licenses for weapons so that Dalits can protect themselves," he further adds.

Dalit-Muslim unity

The speculations are increasingly gaining ground regarding an emerging Dalit-Muslim political alliance. However, political analysts believe it is still early to predict its viability.

"The Muslims have extended their support without any pre-condition. We will have to see how Dalits react to this overture. The fate of this agitation in the coming months will clear the picture about Dalit-Muslim alliance," says Rabari.

The industrial policy pursued by the Gujarat government during the last one-and-a-half decades has also taken its toll on farmers and farm labourers. Around 45% of the state's population is still directly dependent on agriculture. A large section of this population is utterly dissatisfied with the corporate-oriented growth model of Gujarat. This alienation played a substantial role in Patidar agitation.

That's why the BJP can no longer claim exclusive rights on the Patel vote bank. It is a strong signal that the discontent gathering against the party during the past two elections is strengthening.

Electoral calculations

Politics in Gujarat has always revolved around the BJP and the Congress. The former has firmly held on to power for the last four elections and swept all 26 seats during 2014 Lok Sabha polls.

One would assume the contest between the two parties to be uneven. However, a closer look at the election data reveals the difference of vote percentage between BJP and the Congress has narrowed at a rapid pace.

The BJP capitalised on sharp communal polarisation during the 2002 assembly elections and won 127 seats. The Congress was restricted to 57 seats - still a respectable score.

BJP garnered 49.85% votes in these elections while the Congress had to contend with 39.45% votes.

The BJP can no longer claim exclusive right on the Patel vote bank

The ruling party has polled 49.12% and 48.30% in 2007 and 2012 state elections respectively. In contrast, the Congress got 39.63% and 40.59% of the total votes in the respective polls.

When Modi and Amit Shah shifted to the national arena, the party's mass base in the state suffered a blow and was left weakened. The post-Modi era has also seen increased factionalism within the state party unit. Anandiben has clearly failed to keep the party together and the results of the local body polls have amply demonstrated this fact.

The vote percentage of BJP has consistently decreased in district and taluka level elections from 2010 to 2015 while Congress votes have increased. BJP had to face defeat in the panchayat elections held this year.

Congress riding on luck

The results of local body polls are a clear indication of discontent against the ruling party among the voters. However, the Congress does not seem to be in a position to cash in on it.

The feud among the various factions has weakened the party organisation over the years. The party has failed to project an unequivocal leader to give voice to voter's dissatisfaction against the ruling party.

Rahul Gandhi's maiden visit notwithstanding, the party has failed to ensure active participation in the ongoing Dalit agitation.

Mevani says, "The attitude of the Congress has been no different towards Dalits. Rahul Gandhi merely shows off by paying a visit whenever something happens to Dalits. The community can see through this tokenism."

Mevani says people like him are working to bring together various Dalit organisations active in the state. "We will not allow the Congress on stage. It is our clear stand," he insists.

But, Mevani is not as severe towards the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).

"We may appeal among Dalits to vote for AAP if it includes all our demands in its manifesto. Although, it is still too early to make a final decision," he says.

Also read -Kejriwal in Gujarat: 'Oppressed Dalits will teach BJP a lesson'

Perhaps, Mevani wants to wait until the results of Punjab Vidhan Sabha polls, where Dalits are an influential vote bank. The BJP has traditionally drawn support from upper castes, Patels and OBCs in Gujarat. Whereas, SC-ST and Muslims have been main vote banks of the Congress. While Patels constitute about 14% of the total state population, Dalits form around 7% of Gujarat's total share of the population.

Dalits are now looking towards AAP - especially if the party includes their demands in its manifesto

If a sizeable chunk of Patidars decides to vote against BJP and Dalit-Muslim alliance comes to fruition, the saffron party might find it hard to defend the bastion of Gujarat.

However, will the Congress be able to capitalise on the divide in BJP votes?

"AAP's raising of Una incident might benefit it in UP and Punjab. But the politics in Gujarat has always been bipolar. Therefore, the Congress is likely to be the principal beneficiary of division within BJP's vote bank. Although, the party has not yet sprung into action," Rabari surmises.

Rabari believes the Congress stands to gain immensely by an early announcement of its candidates and CM designate. Considering that it has done the same in UP, he is hopeful that party will not disappoint in Gujarat.

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First published: 3 August 2016, 6:58 IST
Abhishek Parashar @abhishekiimc

Chief Sub-editor at Catch Hindi. He has been associated with Press Trust of India, Business Standard and The Economic Times.