There are growing signs of discontentment brewing among Dalit lawmakers of the Bharatiya Janata Party. At least four Dalit MPs have spoken out against government attitude to crucial issues relating to the Scheduled Castes. Dalit discontentment was triggered by the perceived ‘dilution’ of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act by the Supreme Court last month. The Modi government did file a review petition seeking revoking of the Supreme Court order, but the judges exposed them, saying it was on their pleading that they had passed the judgement disallowing arrest of an accused under the said Act without a preliminary police inquiry and, in case of a government servant, without the permission of his/her appointing authority. Moreover, the government filed a review petition only on April 2, the day of the Bharat Bandh called by the Dalit organisations over the delay in filing a review petition. The Bharat Bandh turned violent in the BJP-ruled states and ten persons died. Arrests of protestors continue to be made in the BJP-ruled states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan. BJP lawmakers claim that the Dalit protestors were being slapped with false cases and tortured. The ‘aggrieved’ BJP Dalit leaders have also lamented that the party had not fulfilled even one of the many promises made to the Dalits. They have shot off letters to Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeking his immediate intervention.
A large number of Dalits, who constitute about 17 per cent of the total population of the country, had rallied behind Narendra Modi in the 2014 elections to the Lok Sabha and in the UP Assembly elections. The BJP can therefore ill-afford to ignore the disappointment among them. Grievances of the Dalits against the Modi government have been accumulating. The Rohit Vemula case; the Una, Gujarat case; the rise in the number of atrocities against Dalits in the past four years; the dirty epithets used by some of the BJP leaders, including ministers, about the Dalits; the violent attacks on Dalits across the country in the name of preventing cow slaughter; and a number of other happenings have made the Dalits suspect the genuineness of the BJP love for them. The government’s pleading for the dilution of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act came as a ‘proof of its double-facedness,’ so to say. The alienation of the Dalits from the BJP could prove costly to the party as it has already blown the bugle for the elections to the Lok Sabha in 2019. Before that there would be elections in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, where the BJP is in power.
The brewing discontent among BJP Dalit lawmakers may have serious repercussion for the party in Uttar Pradesh, which has the largest population of the community and also the maximum number of Lok Sabha seats among states. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP will face a big challenge from the alliance of the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party. Some of the Dalit allies of the BJP are willing to guess that the BJP, which won most of the Lok Sabha seats in 2014, might lose 20 to 30 seats in UP owing to the SP-BSP alliance.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has begun to realize the damage the Dalit alienation could cause to the prospects of his second mandate. He has directed party MPs to select two villages having more than 50 per cent Dalit population and spend two nights there to restore the faith of the community in the BJP. There are over 20,000 villages in the country having more than 50 per cent Dalit population. However, with the hardening of Dalit attitude against governments in BJP-ruled states, it is difficult to say how much fruitful for the BJP MPs spending two nights in Dalit hamlets would be. Political parties opposed to the BJP might make it even more difficult. BSP leader Mayawati has already given a call to the Dalits not to allow BJP MPs to stay in their villages. The party leadership has directed its MPs to celebrate Jyotirao Phule’s birthday on April 11. Such tokenism might not work. It is not uncommon to hear Dalit voices expressing resentment in the media that the exhibition of ‘Ambedkar bhakti’ by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the others in the BJP looks hollow to them as the Modi government and the governments in the BJP-ruled states have not taken any serious action on the ground to prevent atrocities against the members of their communities. On the contrary, atrocities have increased in number and the administration is acting with explicit bias against Dalits.