New Delhi: The emergence of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as the single largest party in the Karnataka assembly elections bears the leitmotif of a reinvented party that has gone beyond its traditional voter base of upper caste and traders.
By bringing within its fold the backward castes, Dalits and scheduled tribes, the party that celebrated its 38th foundation day last month has been able to expand its electoral footprint to 21 states since 2014—including Tripura in the Northeast of India.
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The latest case in point being Karnataka, where Dalits account for 24% of the population. Representative of the political transformation that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has brought about in the BJP, the party also extended its outreach programme in the state to Vokkaliga, who are believed to be the second largest caste group in Karnataka after the Lingayat.
“While the BJP has been assumed to be a party of North Indians, they have also been attempting to make inroads into the Southern states. Reaching out to Dalits, tribals and backward castes is not a new effort on part of the BJP but has been there from the time of Bharatiya Jana Sangh itself. The groundwork has been in play for a long time," said Dr. Arvind Kumar, assistant professor at Dr. K. R. Narayanan Centre for Dalit and Minorities Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia.
The BJP which traces its origin to the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, has been trying to expand its voter base in states such as West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Kerala and Telangana, where it has traditionally been weak. With the BJP managing to win only seven of 164 seats across these states in the 2014 general elections, the party is hopeful that the popularity of Modi and the party’s winning spree in assembly elections will extend to these states as well.
“While reservation still remains a contentious issue, the BJP has always taken a politically correct stand on it. It’s not that Dalits don’t vote for the BJP, but to presuppose that their vote bank will remain with the BJP without catering to their real issues is a utopia," cautioned Kumar.
The Karnataka results come in the backdrop of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government being targeted over its economic policies like demonetisation, increasing fuel prices, and the implementation of the goods and services tax (GST). Also, there have been concerns over Dalits feeling alienated in the context of recent protests over the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
However, some believe that the BJP’s meteoric rise is purely driven by smart electoral strategy rather than an en masse solidification of Dalit votes behind the party.
“No doubt that the BJP has been doing social engineering to get a large chunk of Dalit voters under its fold. However, I am doubtful that a large chunk of Dalits have voted for them. While the BJP’s long term agenda may be to broaden its social base, the reason behind its consecutive wins is not social in nature but electoral," said Kumar Rahul, assistant professor at the political science department of Ramjas College , Delhi University.
“The party’s single point is to disunite the opposition vote. It has been a running theme, be it Uttar Pradesh or Karnataka," Rahul added.
As part of its efforts to increase its social base before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP leadership had also asked its public representatives to explain initiatives like the Ujjwala Yojana and Mudra Yojana to the Dalit community and other socially backward communities.
While the Ujjwala programme aims to provide free cooking gas to poor families, the Pradhan Mantri Mudra Yojana is the government’s loans scheme for the small and micro enterprise sector.
With the next set of assembly elections slated for Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the BJP has also been consistently using the nationalism narrative to consolidate the voter base in its favour and wean the urban vote bank away from the Congress.