Cold calculations

Print edition : February 19, 2016

At Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University in Lucknow on January 22, Narendra Modi paying floral tributes to Dr Ambedkar. Photo: PTI

Students raising slogans against Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the convocation of Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University. Photo: PTI

After defensive tactics and firefighting on the Rohith Vemula issue, the BJP may now raise a communal plank with an eye on Dalit votes.

ON January 28, six days after a group of students raised slogans against Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, the dominant discussion on the campus continued to be on the very issues that had triggered the protest. Students gathered in small groups in hostels, canteens and the departments of the sprawling university premises and engaged animatedly with one another and with others, including professors and visitors. They were seeking to address the reasons for the sloganeering against Modi from different perspectives. Broadly, three distinct streams emerged from these discussions. First, the agony and anger on the immediate factors that resulted in the suicide of Rohith Vemula at the University of Hyderabad. Second, the massive sense of disillusionment with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre in general and with the Prime Minister in particular on the failure to fulfil their flamboyant promises on Dalit empowerment. Third, the issue of persisting discrimination and harassment of Dalits in educational institutions and in society in general. The general agreement in the discussions was that, in terms of political fallout, the disillusionment with Modi and the BJP was the most tangible phenomenon in the present context and even the “impulsive” slogan-shouting against the Prime Minister at the university was a concrete manifestation of this.

Talking to Frontline, Ram Karan Nirmal, one of the students who led the protest against Modi at the university, minced no words and held the Prime Minister, his party and the government led by them responsible for aggravating the discrimination against Dalit communities across India. “It is evident that the Prime Minister is just shedding crocodile tears over the suicide of Rohith Vemula. Why did it take him such a long time to state something on this? The fact is that the leaders of Modi’s own party, the BJP, had called Rohith names, including traitor, and only when they realised that it had boomeranged on them did the Prime Minister come up with his sorrowful play-acting lamenting the loss suffered by Rohith’s mother,” he said. “Dalits are the most ostracised community in the aggressive saffronisation of the country that is being led by Modi’s associates in the Sangh Parivar, including the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh [RSS], the Vishwa Hindu Parishad [VHP] and the Dharam Jagran Samiti [DJS] under the protection of his government. Not only Dalit students, even teachers are harassed and tortured under this government,” said Nirmal, who is a top-scoring LLM student of the university. Incidentally, Nirmal and fellow protester Amrendra Kumar Arya were supposed to receive medals for outstanding academic performance from the Prime Minister at the very function where they raised the protest.

Azad Kumar, a PhD scholar, told Frontline that there was a stark difference in the manner in which Modi and the BJP were being perceived by Dalit students now and the way they were viewed in 2014 in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections. “Dalit communities in general and Dalit students in particular were majorly enamoured of Modi and his rhetoric on development and prosperity for all during the 2014 Lok Sabha campaign. There was real hope that Modi had something different to offer and that he would deliver. This feeling among the Dalit communities had contributed to Modi’s electoral sweep. But all those high hopes have vanished now in the background of the consistent inactivity, over the past year and a half, on the tall promises. This disenchantment is not only among educated students but also among other sections of Dalit society. Rohith’s suicide and the developments that followed have, in many ways, highlighted this sense of disillusionment,” Kumar said.

Anil Kumar, a postgraduate student in sociology, said the actions taken after the protest had underlined the anti-Dalit character of the Modi regime and of leaders of institutions controlled by it. “Nirmal and Arya had come for the convocation and had taken guest rooms in a student hostel. But they were literally thrown out of the hostel on the very night of the convocation for leading the protest. Their pleas to stay on until the next morning were not considered favourably. They were roughed up by the police. The news about this is spreading among Dalit communities in Uttar Pradesh. This is adding to the feelings against the establishment and the BJP,” he said.

According to the research scholar Sudhakar Pushkar, this “reverse churning” is palpable across the country and particularly in Uttar Pradesh, which is scheduled to have Assembly elections in early 2017. “The inputs that I am receiving from my home district of Lakhimpur Kheri as well as from diverse regions in Uttar Pradesh and the rest of India all point towards the unchaining of Dalits from the aspirational trap laid by Modi and the BJP during the 2014 elections,” he said.

Dhaniram, a politically conscious Dalit businessman from Naraych village in Eidmadpur block of Agra district, elaborated on the phenomenon referred to by Pushkar: “A number of factors ranging from promises and delineated plans on controlling price rise and corruption, enhancing employment opportunities, and bringing back black money from foreign shores had all added up in generating confidence in Modi in 2014 among Dalit communities. The communal polarisation that was whipped up in the context of the Muzaffarnagar riots too had made a major contribution to the burgeoning support. The dominant feeling among Dalit communities of Uttar Pradesh at that time had a definitive anti-Muslim character, and this was bolstered by development-related hopes. Now, the bubble has burst, and with each passing day the Dalit constituency of the BJP is diminishing. This, in turn, is leading to a revival of the political fortunes of the Bahujan Samaj Party [BSP].”

Political game plan

There are enough indications that this political play highlighted by Dalits from different walks of life has struck sections of the BJP and the RSS-led Sangh Parivar. They agree, albeit in private, that the sequence of developments following Rohith’s suicide, including the forceful response from the student community across the country and the reverberations it has caused in society as a whole, has seriously undermined the BJP’s political plans, particularly in relation to the forthcoming Assembly elections in 2016 and 2017. Of these, the ones in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab (to be held in 2017) will be influenced in a big way by Dalit votes. The strategies of the BJP leadership, including party president Amit Shah, for these Assembly elections were primarily to take up from where it had left off in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. This included the further consolidation of Dalit votes along with that of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and the Most Backward Castes (MBCs). Along with the ploys employed successfully in 2014, such as communal polarisation and the plank of development, the positioning of certain Dalit leaders in key organisational positions in both the States was conceived as part of this.

These moves had been initiated as early as January 2015, with the intention of swinging into high gear after the Bihar Assembly elections in October-November 2015. There was then a sense of optimism since there were reports that sections of Dalit communities and certain key Dalit leaders were keen on joining hands with the BJP, both in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. The government’s active consideration to confer the Bharat Ratna on the legendary Dalit leader Kanshi Ram posthumously fitted well into the scheme of the well-thought-out plans. However, parallel initiatives such as ghar wapsi of the VHP and the DJS came into conflict with Dalit interests, thus causing impediments in advancing the strategies.

In the latter half of 2015, the well-crafted plans suffered more setbacks because of two controversial statements. The first of these came from Union Minister General V.K. Singh, who drew an analogy between stoning a dog and the killing of two Dalit children in Haryana. The second came in the form of RSS sarsangachalak Mohan Bhagwat’s call to review the reservation policy for S.Cs, S.Ts and OBCs. The latter statement is perceived to have been one of the major causes for the BJP-NDA’s defeat in the Bihar Assembly elections.

In this context, the BJP and the rest of the Sangh Parivar started off organisational manoeuvres in 2016 in a desperate bid to strike a balance between its social engineering for Dalit communities and its pursuit of a militant Hindutva agenda. But sections of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar now admit that this attempt to strike a vital balance suffered a blow with the party’s handling of Rohith’s suicide. The initial attempts of the party and the Sangh Parivar were to assert that Rohith’s suicide had “nothing to do with Dalit rights or issues” and that the context of the clash between student groups preceding Rohith’s suicide was the deceased student’s stand in support of terrorism, including that against the hanging of Yakub Memon. This line, officially cleared by the top leadership of the BJP, was presented by Union Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani.

According to a clutch of BJP Dalit leaders and MPs, the damage caused by this self-defeating line worsened by the haughty manner in which Smriti Irani sought to advance the argument. These Dalit leaders, including Sanjay Paswan, national executive committee member of the BJP, and the MPs Sunil Baliram Gaikwad, Ramesh Chandappa Jigajinagi and Ashok Kumar Dohrey, did make bold to express their reservations on this, of course within the limitations of the organisational structure of the BJP. Their voices were not taken seriously until the student agitation on Rohith’s suicide took the form of a nationwide movement of sorts. A hasty course correction was planned, and one of its manifestations was Modi’s proclamation at the Ambedkar University function at Lucknow about his “feeling the pain of a mother’s loss”. But the desired effect of even this rather belated gesture was not much in evidence, going by the students’ protest at the very venue where the Prime Minister made the statement.

Despite these evident reverses, the BJP is trying to stick to some of its organisational plans on the Dalit front. One such came approximately a week after the students’ protest against Modi. This was in the form of the formal entry of dissident BSP leader Jugul Kishore, a Rajya Sabha member, into the BJP. Kishore had fallen out with BSP chief Mayawati as early as 2014, but his entry into the BJP was announced with much fanfare in January 2016.

Evidently, the party is bent upon pursuing its social engineering plans to consolidate Dalit, OBC and MBC votes, although certain components of the Hindutva plank come in the way of this grand plan. By all indications, the higher echelons of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar are hopeful that this can be overcome by once again raising an overarching communal plank as was done at the time of the Muzaffarnagar riots. Could this be in the form of a renewed and vigorous movement to build the Ram temple at Ayodhya? Large sections of the Sangh Parivar do aver that this is a strong possibility, though a final call on this has not been taken.