The Dalit vote is not a monolith despite the BSP - Hindustan Times
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The Dalit vote is not a monolith despite the BSP

May 17, 2024 11:14 PM IST

Dalits, accounting for 16.6% of the country’s population, can play an important role in determining the shape of India’s democracy and electoral outcomes

Who will the Dalits vote for in the ongoing Lok Sabha elections? The question is being asked by many for two reasons: One, the hold of Dalit-led parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in the North, the Republican Party of India (RPI) in Maharashtra, and the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) in Tamil Nadu has weakened substantially, and two, mainstream political parties such as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress are aggressively courting Dalit voters.

Noida, India- April 14, 2024: People seen on the occasion of the 133th birth anniversary of Dalit icon BR Ambedkar at Rashtriya Dalit Prerna Sthal, sector 95, in Noida, India, on Sunday, April 14, 2024. (Photo by Sunil Ghosh / Hindustan Times) PREMIUM
Noida, India- April 14, 2024: People seen on the occasion of the 133th birth anniversary of Dalit icon BR Ambedkar at Rashtriya Dalit Prerna Sthal, sector 95, in Noida, India, on Sunday, April 14, 2024. (Photo by Sunil Ghosh / Hindustan Times)

Dalits, accounting for 16.6% of the country’s population, can play an important role in determining the shape of India’s democracy and electoral outcomes, if they evolve similar political choices across states. They account for a sizable chunk of the population in states such as Punjab (31.9%), Uttar Pradesh (20.5%), and Tamil Nadu (18%). And they have a significant presence in Bihar, West Bengal, and Himachal Pradesh.

However, an analysis of the voting patterns among Dalit populations over the past few decades does not throw up any pan-India trend. They have voted for different parties in different states, for a range of reasons. In some states (UP, Maharashtra, and Tamil Nadu), they consolidated their votes in favour of Dalit-led parties (BSP, RPI, and VCK). Elsewhere, their vote has been split between the various national and regional parties.

Three trends are visible in the political choices of Dalits in the ongoing elections. First, a single pattern in voting will likely be elusive this time too. The so-called Dalit vote may get divided among various national parties. A few regional parties may also net some of their votes. Second, if at all there is a pan-Dalit trend, it would be of preference for the dominant national party, which has acquired their trust by providing them with increased participation in politics, development and governance. Third, the response of Dalit voters to OBC-centric politics (read: caste census) of the INDIA bloc.

Even as a sizable number of Dalits could vote for the BJP in the North, votes in the South could get divided between the Congress, the BJP and regional parties. The Congress is likely to get a good number of Dalit votes in Karnataka and Telangana, where the party is in office.

In UP, the state with the largest number of Lok Sabha seats, the main contenders for their votes will be the BSP and the BJP. Despite the BSP being Dalit-led, their vote in the state may get split along the Jatav/non-Jatav line — Jatavs are estimated to constitute 11.7% of the Dalit population there. Jatav loyalty is likely to remain with the BSP while non-Jatavs may go with the BJP. While the BSP benefits from the identity quotient, a section of voters could gravitate towards the ruling party because of a desire for further development, and also because of the appeal and success of the Centre’s existing social sector and welfare schemes. Perhaps in acknowledgement of this, BSP supremo Mayawati has been constantly attacking the labharthi (beneficiary) politics of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre.

The BSP started the poll season by attacking both the BJP and the INDIA bloc, of which the Congress and the Samajwadi Party (SP) are members. Just before the filing of nominations, the BSP dropped previously announced candidates for some UP constituencies and fielded new ones. Soon after, Mayawati dropped Akash Anand, her nephew and her chosen successor, after he made statements critical of the BJP. A section of analysts said this was done under pressure from the BJP, but Mayawati and the BSP have been consciously avoiding trenchant attacks against other parties and social sections for decades now because the party understands that it can’t come to power solely with Dalit support. To get the support of other social groups, Mayawati has stressed an inclusive diction that doesn’t stoke political animosity and social tensions. She has even advised the BSP’s elected representatives not to organise victory rallies and to exercise restraint in their political lives. She has maintained that the BSP is not just a political outfit but also a mission.

The decision to change candidates must also be seen in this context. It may have been taken not to benefit the BJP but for pragmatic reasons. In Jaunpur, UP, days after the BSP replaced its candidate Srikala Reddy Singh, her husband, former MP Dhananjay Singh, shifted support to the BJP. In the 10 years of its rule at the Union level, the BJP has also managed to seed and strengthen a “Hindutva consciousness” among the Dalits, and in the changed political milieu, this would add to the appeal of the party. That said, some may still look beyond the BSP/BJP binary and thus fragment a section of the vote between the Congress-SP and the other parties in the fray.

The INDIA bloc’s focus on a caste census may lead to some disillusionment among many young Dalits. This is because of the importance a caste census gives to the Other Backward Classes (OBC) cores. Many parties in the INDIA bloc are known to voice the aspirations of OBC voters. Young Dalits feel marginalised in this OBC-led political universe. If this undercurrent grows at the grassroots, it may significantly benefit the BJP and the BSP.

In Punjab, the Dalit votes will get split among the Aam Aadmi Party, the Akali Dal, and the Congress since the BSP is a pale shadow of the party it was in founder Kanshi Ram’s homeland. In fact, wherever a Dalit identity-based alternative is absent, Dalits go with the perception of winnability, follow the dominant social group, vote for candidates belonging to their own castes, or decide based on personal connection.

As is apparent, there is no single pan-Dalit political choice, though the labharthi politics of the BJP gives it an advantage. The Congress, which still has traction among Dalits in the South Indian states, may have to try hard to retain this influence amidst the changing form and context of Dalit mobilisation.

Badri Narayan is director, GB Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad. The views expressed are personal

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