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Why retaining the Dalit vote is a tough challenge for the BJP

BJP president Amit Shah. The Dalit vote is critical for the BJP if it seeks to repeat its 2014 performance. This is especially true for states such as Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh where it had witnessed a significant swing in Dalit votes in its favour. Photo: PTIPremium
BJP president Amit Shah. The Dalit vote is critical for the BJP if it seeks to repeat its 2014 performance. This is especially true for states such as Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh where it had witnessed a significant swing in Dalit votes in its favour. Photo: PTI

Younger, educated Dalits voted for the BJP in large numbers in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, and may be moving away now

New Delhi: The massive protests across the country by Dalit organizations against the Supreme Court judgment on SC/ST Atrocities Act earlier this month and letters written by some Dalit MPs of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to the Prime Minister expressing concerns seems to have put the BJP on the back foot. An analysis of trends in voter preferences suggests that the BJP has good reasons to worry about the ongoing churn in Dalit politics.

Data from a 2014 post-election survey conducted by the Lokniti research programme at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) shows that the 2014 Lok Sabha elections marked a new phase in Dalit politics in the country. Since 1996, the BJP’s vote share among Dalits had remained stagnant at little over 10%, but in 2014, it nearly doubled as compared to 2009. For the first time ever, nearly a fourth of Dalit voters voted for the BJP.

A large section of the BJP’s incremental Dalit vote in 2014 came from young and upwardly mobile Dalits who, according to some observers, were attracted by Narendra Modi’s economic agenda. Support for the party was around 6 percentage points higher among younger Dalits. Similarly, there was greater support for the BJP among educated Dalits.

The fact that educated Dalit youth were at the forefront of the protests following the Hyderabad University student Rohith Vemula’s suicide, the flogging of Dalit youth in Gujarat’s Una district, and the caste violence in Uttar Pradesh’s Saharanpur district last year should worry the ruling party.

It is debatable whether the government’s claims about efficient delivery of various government programmes among Dalits would be enough to overcome the rising tide of discontent, especially among Dalit youth.

The Dalit vote is critical for the BJP if it seeks to repeat its 2014 performance. This is especially true for states such as Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh where it had witnessed a significant swing in Dalit votes in its favour.

In 2017, the BJP had overcome similar concerns over its Dalit outreach by retaining support among Dalits in the Uttar Pradesh assembly election. This was possible as, similar to backward castes, sub-caste identities often become electorally salient even among Dalits. The party had effectively used these fault lines to turn the caste arithmetic in its favour. Its repeated claims about the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) prioritizing the interests of Jatavs over other Dalit groups resonated among non-Jatavs.

This strategy seems to be at play again in the upcoming Karnataka elections. Dalits in the state are divided into two groups —the ‘Left Dalits’ (the Madigas) and the ‘Right Dalits’ (the Holeyas). The BJP is trying to expand support among Dalits by supporting the former’s demand for implementation of the Sadashiva Commission Report on internal reservation. 

The BJP’s ability to retain Dalit support will also depend on the opposition’s own efforts at mobilizing voters. The Congress and BSP would be the most likely beneficiaries in case of any shift in support away from the BJP. Whether the former can effectively take on the BJP in bipolar states still remains to be seen and one should not draw any conclusions at least before the Karnataka verdict is delivered.

The BSP would be the default alternative in Uttar Pradesh where it still holds considerable support among the Jatav Dalits. In other states, the party’s support base has shrunk considerably among all social groups including Dalits. It will be difficult for the party to cash in on the rising discontent among Dalits in other states, although the party is attempting to do this through alliances with other parties. In the upcoming Karnataka elections, it has tied up with the Janata Dal(Secular) and has also announced an alliance with Indian National Lok Dal in Haryana for the 2019 Lok Sabha election. 

Despite the opposition’s weaknesses, the BJP’s ability to retain its Dalit vote share will be put to test in the coming months.

Sanjay Kumar is professor and currently director of CSDS, and Pranav Gupta is a researcher with Lokniti-CSDS.

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