Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

The BJP’s Dalit game plan

Aware that it can't mobilize Muslim and Yadav votes in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP has turned to the Dalits

The recent alliance of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Jan Shakti Party (LJP) in Bihar, and the induction of Dalit leader Udit Raj into the BJP in Uttar Pradesh (UP) seem to be designed to attract the Dalit vote in Bihar and UP. At this moment one can only speculate if the BJP would be able to attract additional Dalit votes in Bihar and UP by way of its alliance with the LJP and having a new Dalit face ofthe party in UP. But forging the alliance has helped the party send out the message that the BJP under Narendra Modi may not be an untouchable to other parties, as many may believe. There may be other political parties which may not be inclined to form a pre-poll alliance with the BJP, but some of them may be willing to form a post-poll alliance with it in case the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) falls short of a majority. After all, in politics there are no permanent friends and enemies. We have seen parties changing alliances frequently.

But is the Dalit vote so crucial for the BJP in Bihar that it had to go ahead with entering into an alliance with Paswan in spite of strong reservations expressed by some senior leaders such as Aswini Chaubey, Giriraj Singh, C.P. Thakur? The Dalit vote is crucial as it is numerically significant in both Bihar and UP. Dalits make up 16% of the electorate in Bihar and 21% in UP—sizeable enough to decide the fate of candidates in many constituencies. There are seven Lok Sabha seats in Bihar where Dalits have more than 20% of the total vote. In another 23 constituencies they account for more than 15% of the total vote. The BJP needs to perform extremely well in Bihar and UP if it hopes to win 200 seats or reach somewhere close to that mark. In Bihar’s multi-cornered contest, even a minor swing of votes for any alliance or party may be crucial. The BJP has a strong support base among upper caste voters and has been able to attract voters belonging to the other backward classes (OBCs). Surveys by the Centre for the Study of Developing Studies (CSDS) indicate a shift among voters belonging to the Yadav and Kurmi castes, who otherwise have been strong supporters of anti-BJP leaders Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar. The divided Dalits remain largely behind chief minister Kumar’s Janata Dal (United)—except for the Dusadhs, large numbers of whom have shown an inclination to vote for Paswan as he belongs to the same caste. The LJP failed to win a single seat in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections and fared badly in the 2010 assembly elections, but Dusadh voters remained loyal to Paswan. Among the dominant Dalit castes, 55% of Dusadhs voted for the Lalu-Paswan alliance and 21% voted for the BJP-JD(U) alliance in 2009. Large numbers of Dalits voted for independents or other smaller parties. Paswan’s popularity among Dalits in general, and Dusadhs in particular, is very high and he has an immense ability to bring these votes to other parties. In such a situation, the BJP would stand to gain in constituencies where there is a sizeable proportion of Dalit votes in general and the Dusadhs in particular.

In UP, there are 44 Lok Sabha constituencies where Dalits constitute more than 20% of total voters. In another 27 Lok Sabha constituencies Dalits range between 15% to 20% of all voters. During the last Lok Sabha elections, the BJP managed to win only 10 seats and polled 17.5% of votes. In Dalit reserved constituencies, the BJP’s vote share was much lower at 16%. The BJP needs a huge increase in its vote share in these constituencies in order to win a sizeable number of reserved seats. The CSDS surveys indicate the BJP has not only taken a lead over its rivals in UP, but is way ahead of them. There remains little doubt that the BJP may be able to win the largest number of seats in UP compared to other parties, but in order to cross its best performance so far, the BJP badly needs voters from other castes, besides its core constituency of urban and upper caste voters. The BJP can’t imagine getting a sizeable proportion of the Muslim vote; mobilizing the Yadavs, too, is difficult as they seem to be in favour of the Samajwadi Party. Aware of this, the BJP has played the Dalit card in UP by inducting Udit Raj into the party earlier this year. The last assembly elections have seen some movement of the Dalit vote away from the Bahujan Samaj Party. It is true that Udit Raj is not a mass leader and has hardly any following among Dalits in UP. The BJP may fail to make substantial gains from this move in UP; but it can hardly stand to lose from it.

Sanjay Kumar is a professor and currently director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.

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