UP elections: BJP banks on welfare plans to win SC votes

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UP elections: BJP banks on welfare plans to win SC votes
© Provided by Hindustan Times Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath have lunch at the residence of Amritlal Bharti, in Gorakhpur, on January 15. The BJP is hoping that government schemes that offer free or subsidized amenities to the SC will translate into votes for the party in the upcoming UP assembly elections. (ANI)

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is hoping that government schemes that offer free or subsidized amenities such as housing, toilets and health care that have been availed of by the Scheduled Caste communities, will translate into votes for the party in the upcoming assembly elections in five states particularly in Uttar Pradesh, where it seemed to work in 2017. In recent elections the party has been able to earn dividends from a newly minted constituency of “beneficiaries” who seem to have shed their preference for voting on the basis of caste compulsions alone.

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In states such as Uttar Pradesh where SCs comprise about 20% of the voter base, the party’s outreach has been designed to underline the benefits that the socially and economically marginalised have derived from a clutch of government schemes. Having gained substantially by tapping into the non-Yadav OBC (other backward class) vote bank in the state, the BJP has focused on SC communities that have traditionally been with the Bahujan Samaj Party, the move did appear to work in 2017.

“The BJP has traditionally not been the choice of the Bahujan Samaj. For years the RSS carried out the Samajik Samarasta (social harmony) programmes that stressed on doing away with separate crematoriums, temples and drinking water sources. But these alone did not erase the divisions on the ground. Political representation and [delivery of] a pacca house and cash transfer have been more effective. We are confident of having gained a toehold in the Bahujan Samaj,” said a senior party functionary who asked not o be identified.

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In 2017, the BJP showed a marked improvement in its performance in the 84 seats that are reserved for the SC candidates in UP. Its tally in the reserved seats increased from 3 in 2012 to 68 and its vote share also increased from 14% to 40%. The party gave tickets to 65 non- Jatav Dalits in these reserved seats. The Jatavs are BSP-loyalists.

Just as it did with the OBC community where it targetted the non-dominant sections, within the SC communities too the BJP’s approach centred around wooing non-Jatav communities such as Dobi, Khatik, Passi and Valmiki that together account for 12% of the SC vote. The Jatavs account for 9%.

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“The BJP’s outreach, ensuring political representation to all including the non-Jatavs and Jatavs and the emphasis on delivery of social schemes helped the party in 2017 and 2019 (general elections). If you look at the composition of PM Modi’s and CM Yogi’s council of ministers, you will find SCs present in significant numbers,” said Guru Prakash Paswan, national spokesperson for the party. He said beneficiaries of social schemes have emerged as a political base and the younger generation of Dalits has “realised that they were fooled by the SP and BSP.”

There are 12 ministers from SC communities in the union council of ministers and eight in Uttar Pradesh.

The BJP has so far announced candidates for 192 seats.

Lacking SC Faces

While the BJP claims to have given more representation to Dalits in government, the problem is the absence of faces that can draw votes. Apart from Baby Rani Maurya, who quit as Uttarakhand governor to contest elections the BJP does not have many prominent faces among the Jatavs. Party leaders aware of the developments claim the BJP is grooming leaders, particularly among the young, educated Dalits and accept that for now the biggest draw has been PM Modi’s popularity and the effectiveness of government schemes.

The party has also been pitching nationalism as a binding factor. In November last, UP unit president Swatantra Dev Singh while addressing a conclave told party workers to “have tea with 10 to 100 Dalit families in their neighbourhoods and villages and persuade them that voting is not done in the name of caste, region and money but in the name of rashtravaad (nationalism).”

A second BJP functionary who is also from a SC community admitted that the representation that the BJP speaks of has not entirely placated the communities. “There is a lot of awareness now. Optics doesn’t cut ice with the younger generation particularly. It is not enough to say there is a minister, the rank and the respect accorded to them matter as well. For instance, there is only one Dalit in the UP cabinet; the rest are state ministers with little clout. Jatavs are the largest lot but again with little representation,” added this person, who too asked not to be named.

The BJP is also pitching the “protection” it can offer from oppression for SCs.

“The composition of the villages was such that the SC’s depended on the upper castes for jobs. There are number of cases where SCs have been subjugated by the Yadvas and for them the BJP is the only party that can prevent the recurrence of atrocities. Irrespective of their castes the BJP candidates will stand up for them,” said a third functionary who asked not to be named.

Contesting claims

BSP’s Lok Sabha MP, Ritesh Pandey rebutted the BJP’s claims about improving the lot of the Dalits and claimed they would continue to vote for his party. “The BSP has Behenji’s (Mayawati) good governance model which included everyone including the most downtrodden. Since 2007 she has given fair participation to all castes and communities. Her cabinet had representation from every caste; it was extremely inclusive. And in her politics religious bigotry was not accepted which is what is the need of the state today.”

Pandey added that the impact of social schemes and housing will not outweigh the concerns that the communities have. “While all this (giving houses and building toilets) is fine, what has affected the youth is the absence of access to higher education and a substantial reduction in scholarship amounts. The state government has squeezed out OBCs and Dalits from getting government jobs by privatising jobs and bringing in contractual appointments in lot of Grade III and IV positions, in which many people of these communities would typically find employment.”

While the BSP dismisses the BJP’s overtures such as senior leaders eating in Dalit households as a political stunt, the BJP’s retort is a long list of atrocities that went unheeded during Mayawati’s tenure as CM. The BJP claims that in that period (2007-12) the state government failed to economically empower Dalits in the state. “The Human Development Index of Uttar Pradesh was below the national average of 0.467 due to poor health services and low incomes,” the BJP claimed.

In a booklet prepared for campaign in UP, the BJP alleged, “…during Mayawati’s tenure an amendment was made to the law for prevention of atrocities on SCs, nullifying the possibility of a direct FIR in cases of rapes.” It also commended the Yogi Adityanath government for “repeatedly invoked the National Security Act against those who burnt the houses of Dalits and committed atrocities against them in Jaunpur, Azamgarh and Lakhimpur.”

Concerns about identity

Chandra Bhan Prasad, a Dalit Ideologue and and scholar affiliated with the Mercatus Center, George Mason University, US said the BJP’s claims of Dalits warming up to the party are questionable and that there is concern within the community about the continuing oppression of Dalits by the upper castes and the administration.

“During the past five years of BJP Rule, upper castes and the police almost merged into one entity, and targeted rising Dalits. Let it be clear, Dalits’ dignity is no more exchangeable for few kilograms of ration and salt packets. And I have observed that before only Dalit intellectuals and activists called BJP names, now even commoners have turned abusive of the BJP,” he said. The reference to ration is the free foodgrains being provided by the Yogi government in the aftermath of the Covid pandemic.

To a separate question on which party stands to gain from the Dalit vote he said, “To the Dalit middle class, defeating BJP is a bigger concern. Dalit Ki Beti (daughter of a Dalit) Chief Minister (one of the BSP’s famous campaign pitches of the last decade) is an idea that has outlived its expiry date.”

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