Dalits constitute 20.7 per cent of UP’s population and their vote is intensely sought after group by political parties each with its own strategy. The BJP has deployed borrowed weapons like Ram Das Athawale, Ram Vilas Paswan and Udit Raj and non-Jatav Dalit leaders.
The Samajvadi Party government has tried to reconfigure the Dalit vote by recommending the inclusion of 17 non-Yadav OBC castes in the Dalit fold to unsettle the political calculations of the BJP and BSP. Mayawati’s party BSP invokes the memory of her previous rule.
However, the Dalit response was unambiguously clear when we heard their electoral articulations on the ground. Our field work in the election-bound state revealed an unprecedented consolidation of Dalits across sub-castes behind the BSP, so much so that presuppositions of a divergence between Jatavs and non-Jatavs doesn’t hold the ground in the coming election.
There are 66 Dalit sub-castes in UP. Six of them, namely Jatav-Chamar, Pasi, Dhobi, Kori, Valmiki and Khatik, constitute 87 per cent of the community’s population. The remaining 60 Dalit sub-castes like Musahar, Sapera, Basor and Tantwa, in the words of social scientist Badri Narayan, are numerically meagre, spatially scattered and internally fragmented, making them electorally insignificant vis a vis the six predominant castes.
Contrary to the argument that non-Jatav Dalits like Pasis, Valmikis, Khatiks and others are swayed by the Hindutva discourse and that this can have a significant bearing on the elections, we found that while Dalits shared some of Hindutva’s anti-Muslim outlook in riot affected districts like Muzaffarnagar, Shamli, Mau and Gorakhpur, politically it didn’t translate into a positive vote for the BJP.
In fact, the same set of non-Jatav Dalits like Valmikis in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli and Pasis and Khatiks in Mau and Gorakhpur expressed a strong preference for the BSP while admitting that they voted for non-BSP parties in previous elections. This indicates that the gap between their socio-cultural and political outlooks may get narrower in some contexts or further widen in others.
While Jatav consolidation behind the BSP has been a dominant trend in UP on account of both Kanshi Ram and Mayawati belonging to that caste and their conscious policy to place them in leadership positions within the party, the consolidation of non-Jatav Dalit castes like Pasis, Valmikis, Dhobis, Koris and Khatiks behind the party is primarily the result of rampant anti-Dalit hostilities during the Samajvadi Party’s tenure. It also is the result of their successive disenchantments with the Congress and BJP to which parties they shifted their support in significant numbers in the 2009 and 2014 Lok Sabha elections respectively.
The pro-BSP sentiment of non-Jatav Dalits was artculated by a Kori Dalit at Ayodhya: “SP ke raaj me hum logon ki police me sunvayi nahi hai” (police were non-responsive to us Dalits during SP rule). Similarly, a group of Pasi respondents living in makeshift accommodations by the road near Jhansi falling in Bundelkhand region of the state pointed to the abandoned apartments in Kanshiram Awasiya Colony nearby.
The housing project was built during Mayawati’s tenure for Dalits and other poor sections. However, within six months of the SP coming to power in 2012, water and electricity supply to the colony got discontinued, thereby forcing the Dalit inhabitants to abandon the place and shift to makeshift accommodations. In another instance, a Valmiki youth at Shahjahanpur mentioned the discrimination in selecting villages under the Adarsh Lohiya Gram project of the SP government wherein the selected villages are given funds for infrastructural development.
In contrast to the BSP’s policy of Ambedkar Gram wherein the selected villages used to have a significant Dalit population, the Lohiya Villages are primarily composed of villages with lesser Dalit population. Besides this policy of pitting the memory of Lohia against Ambedkar during SP rule, the Dalits are also taking into cognizance the increasing instances of impunity in relation to violence and crime against them in the last five years.
Further, there is a massive non-Jatav Dalit disenchantment against the BJP which got 45 per cent of their vote in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. The BJP government at the Centre is considered a non-starter by a majority of the non-Jatav Dalits. To compound their disillusionment, everyday hardships on account of demonetization and a complete lack of tangible benefits in sight have further pulled them towards the BSP.
Thus for Jatav and non-Jatav Dalits alike, the political developments of the last five years signify a loss of power to the community, which is leading to their unprecedented consolidation behind the BSP. In fact, a Pasi Dalit respondent at Faizabad said he voted for Modi in 2014 as Mayawati was not in the race for the PM’s post; now he would vote for the BSP rather than Modi as the latter would not be the CM.
The interplay of Dalits nostalgia for BSP rule and their disillusionment with other parties is likely to make BSP the prime contestant in the coming election on account of an unprecedented consolidation of Dalits whose numerical significance would be too formidable to be matched by rival parties. It could be reasonably inferred that BSP may witness the highest ever percentage of Dalit votes in 2017.
(Sajjan Kumar, a Ph.D from the Centre for Political Studies, JNU is associated with People’s Pulse, a Hyderabad-based research organization that specializes in field work based political and electoral studies).