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Caste Crossfire Development

Day After 2018-09-14 00:00:00

In current scenario when opposition is desperate to come together for coming Lok Sabha elections, it will be almost impossible for Modi to backtrack on its SC outreach programs

By Anil Anand

Clarity of thought and vision, no matter if there is a broader acceptability of that or not, has been the hallmark of both Naredra Modi government and the ruling BJP during the last four years or so. But the one area where the current ruling dispensation is finding itself trapped in the realm of uncertainty is the new dimension that the “upper versus lower castes” battle has acquired in the run up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

At the bottom of this skewed battle is the thorny SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and its handling by the Centre particularly after Supreme Court affecting certain changes to it that were perceived by the political spectrum, barring the BJP initially, as a dilution. Ostensibly, in quest of harnessing the new vote base while taking the olden one far-granted, the clarity of thought and vision gave way to confusion.

The resultant scenario, particularly with the traditional “upper caste’ support base of the BJP threatening to revolt, is that the saffron party is finding itself in a trap with SCs on one side and the “upper castes” on the other flexing muscle. The Congress is also finding itself caught in somehow a similar situation particularly with respect to the upper castes thereby impelling it to recount its “Brahmin DNA” as the party’s chief spokesperson Randip Singh Surjewala drew a surprising parallel.

The Scheduled Castes were already squirming on the alleged dilution of the Act and the preceding incidents of attacks on them at various places in the country leading to those such as LokJanshakti Party, a NDA ally, chief and Union Minister Ram Vilas Paswan and even some SC MPs of the BJP championing their cause building pressure on their own Government to act and annul the Apex Court’s amendments. After initial reluctance, ostensibly with an eye on their traditional upper caste vote bank, Team Modi finally bowed to the pressure and did the needful.

Obviously, in doing this the idea was not to give much margin to political parties such as Congress, Samajwadi Party, BSP, Rashtriya Janata Dal and sundry regional outfits who champion the cause of SCs and STs, and prevent attempts at spoiling the party for BJP in coming polls to three state Assemblies and subsequent Lok Sabha.

As the Modi Government-BJP combine were preparing to reap benefits of the changes made in the SC/ST Act following alleged dilutions by the Apex Court and went on an overdrive to count the measures taken by them for the welfare of Scheduled Castes. In came the “upper caste” bombshell as they not only questioned the intention behind doing away with the highest court’s “safeguards” added to the Act primarily as a protection against false complaints for alleged violation of the Act, but hit the roads in poll bound states such as Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, all currently BJP ruled and in the midst of Assembly elections. They held a threat of using the NOTA option if not vote against the BJP that definitely had a rattling effect on the BJP’s psyche.

The revolt is brewing among the “upper castes” or at least the threat to do so and the SCs not too favourably inclined towards the BJP, the question arises that would this new manifestation of caste war, in relation to elections, dominate the discourse during the coming election season and take toll of much talked about developmental agenda particularly that of Prime Minister Narendra Modi?

The threat is real and the challenge daunting for political parties particularly the BJP. It will be interesting to see whether the strong team of Modi-Amit Shah would successfully complete the tightrope walk by managing both the caste groupings favourably to ensure not only they retain power at the Centre but perform better as the claim is. 

The party had gone all-out to publicize the passage of an amendment Bill in Parliament in the last monsoon session to restore stringent provisions to the SC/ST Act portraying it as part of Modi’s commitment to safeguard the rights of the Dalits.  The idea behind taking higher moral pedestal was that it would help woo the Dalits and bring the marginalized sections under the wider Hindutva umbrella, a model which was successfully tested by them in the last general elections as well in UP Assembly polls.

Did the BJP’s strategists not fathom the counter reaction it can cause in their traditional “upper caste” support base or did they tend to take the latter far-granted? In totality, it seems to be a case of over-confidence wherein the strategists perhaps thought that Modi factor would out-weigh and outsmart anything else and that the party would have its way. Little did they realize that caste rivalries were much more endemic and complex to be resolved by poll eve please-all-games either in the name of development or social empowerment?

The ‘Bharat Bandh’ call given by a clutch of upper caste outfits, though it did not show much affect, and their threats to intensify their stir if the safeguard to the SC/ST Act as added by the Apex Court were not restored, indicate that the move appears to have backfired on the BJP. The incidents of targeting BJP Ministers in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan further buttress this point and indicate the direction which the Lok Sabha election campaign could take.

There was a strong point of view within the BJP that, despite initial reluctance, overturning the Supreme Court verdict on SC/ST Act and going over the top to claim it to be a game-changer for the party could cause more harm to the party than doing any good. Their fears seem to be coming true with the party’s traditional core support base threatening to revolt.

Senior BJP leader and former Union Minister Kalraj Mishra, a Brahmin leader from Uttar Pradesh without mincing the words cautioned his own party and Government. “The Act is being misused on the ground and it is leading to social tension. Innocent people are being framed and arrested under the law,” Mishra said. Realizing the sensitivity of his statement and treading carefully so as not be seen as going against the BJP line, he urged all political parties to come together and make changes to the law. In doing so he left no one in doubt about dilemma that has grasped his own party caught between two caste extremities.

It is well known that the BJP’s impressive electoral victories in UP, 2014 Lok Sabha and subsequent Assembly, were the result of blurred caste lines or what the protagonists of Hindutava described as unification of the Hindu society. But subsequent developments particularly the attacks on SCs and minorities and muted reaction of the BJP’s top leadership to these happenings, led to a drastic change in the scenario which has now been further compounded by developments related to SC/ST Act.

Angry “upper caste” voter is definitely going to be a cause of worry for Modi and his strategists. As it is the core support base of the BJP is angered by the absence of any reference to building ‘Ram Temple’ at Ayodhya in the discussions held at the party’s national executive held in Delhi. The selection of the venue, Dr BR Ambedkar memorial located in Lutyan’s Delhi, to send across a message particularly to the SCs as how much the BJP cared for them, could in itself prove to be a irritant for the BJP’s core support base who would find it hard to accept any assurance from the party leadership on their face value.

The top BJP brass is a worried lot on threats by ‘upper castes’ to revolt could be gauged from the fact that both Modi and Shah held a high-level meeting of all their chief ministers and other senior leaders recently. Top on the agenda was concern over ‘upper caste unhappiness with the party’. The two leaders urged all their CMs and senior leaders attending this meeting to address concern of the protesting ‘upper castes’ and resolve the issue at all costs.

The meeting, it is said, had been convened in the backdrop of detailed internal assessment by the party which in turn was based on feedback from ground zero as well as from other sources. The crux of the feedback was that “all is not well” on ground.

The threats by the BJP’s core support base could also be seen as a set back to its vigorous efforts in the recent past to remove the tag of being only the ‘Brahmin-Baniya’ party. So, it attempted to woo a cross-section of others segments of the society including OBCs, SCs and STs.

A series of steps were taken as part of BJP’s Scheduled Caste outreach programme. It included celebrating Ambedkar Jayanti with fanfare, organizing the Gram Swaraj Abhiyan and most recently decision to bring a Constitution amendment Bill in Parliament to restore the original provisions of the SC/ST Act and nullify what was viewed as the Supreme Court’s dilution of it. The Modi government has also given constitutional backing to the National Commission for Backward Classes.

On the hindsight a strong feeling is gripping the party circles that the SC outreach has proved counterproductive and might have antagonized the tried and tested support base with SC/ST Act issue becoming the tripping point. This feelings needs to be tackled by the party leaders and put in a proper perspective in the light of the fact that BJP has grown manifold since the times it was perceived as a party of some ‘upper caste’ groups. Obviously, this growth could not have been possible without the support of other sections of the society as well. This is where the BJP leadership needed to convince their supporters and cadres and arrive at a mutually agreeable model where there is space for everyone even if their core issues received a hit or set back.

Given the prevailing mood within the SanghParivar and the BJP’s core support groups, it would need a herculean effort to convince the ‘upper caste’ groups without disturbing the Modi Government’s SC outreach plans and programs. In order to retain or improve upon its tally of 2014 Lok Sabha elections, BJP would need support of all major sections of the society including the SCs and pandering merely to the ‘upper caste’ groupings would not help Modi-Shah duo to realize their goal of improved performance and BJP remaining in power for the next 50 years as Shah recently proclaimed. 

It might sound too late to build such an atmosphere as the elections are round the corner. In some measures it seems that the BJP would have to tread on a bumpy ride in the run up to 2019 Lok Sabha elections given the challenges posed by the caste complexities and conflicts. The party experienced it in the Gorakhpur, Phulpur and KairanaLok Sabha bi-elections in UP recently.

However, dilemma for BJP is going to be worse confounded now that despite all out outreach efforts to bring SCs to its permanent fold, the efforts are not paying dividends now as was the case in 2014. On the contrary, these efforts have resulted in a more severe adverse reaction in the form of ‘upper castes’ threatening to abandon BJP.

A feeling of betrayal had been gripping the core support base of the BJP over the months as the party despite its growing influence and series of electoral victories spanning across the country has been quietly withdrawing on delivering over its core-issues. The disastrous three year coalition with Peoples Democratic Party in Jammu and Kashmir and then a volte face, flip-flop on building ‘Ram Temple’ at Ayodhya and issues related to Reservation, have all contributed to the BJP’s ‘upper caste’ core support base finally finding a trigger in the SC/ST Act developments to come out in the open.

Under the prevailing circumstances with opposition parties desperately trying to come together for coming Lok Sabha elections, it will be almost impossible for Modi to backtrack on its SC outreach programs in order to please the groups which were their traditional supporters. It is also unlikely that the BJP would get as much SC support as in the last general elections but it could ill afford a scenario where the entire grouping went against the saffron party. Given the formidable challenge the coming together of Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samajwadi Party in UP and Congress other parties trying to attract the SC/ST/OBCs in other parts of the country can pose to the BJP the party would require some slice of this section while ensuring to retain the traditional support of ‘upper castes’.

One of the main reasons as to why the SCs who had turned towards BJP in 2014 are shifting away from it is the increasing atrocities on the community. There was the infamous Una incident where four SC youths were flogged allegedly for cow slaughter by the Cow vigilantes. Since then there have been several such cases where persons belonging to SC community were attacked by the cow vigilantes. The recent incident of violence at Bhima-Koregaon, Amendment of the SC/ST act by Supreme Court and the outpouring of the SC community in support of the community leaders point towards a growing threat for the BJP’s prospect in 2019.

The BJP governments at the Centre and in states such as UP and Bihar do talk about SC/ST/OBC welfare and have announced many schemes but have done precious little to give them a sense of security in the society. The repeated threats being held out to these vulnerable sections of the society on one pretext or the other and targeting them by the self styled “Hindutava brigades” has created an atmosphere of insecurity which the opposition parties are trying hard to exploit. One reason why the parties could succeed in uniting these oppressed communities is the total silence on the part of top BJP leadership, both in words and actions, to give a sense of justice to the victims of such caste targeted violence.

The clutch of ‘upper caste’ groups protesting against Modi Government’s move to again “strengthen” the SC/ST Act removing certain provisions added by the Apex Court, has only added to the prevailing air of uncertainty ahead of the coming election season. It would be naive to say that no Act or law that includes the SC/ST Act has ever been misused. There were reported cases and ground reports of the SC/ST Act having been misused in many parts of the country and there is an equally strong case for SC/ST communities to be reassured about their safety and equality in the society.

The ruling dispensation in their quest and hurry to garner widespread support to realize their dream of future electoral victories seemed to have kept their eyes off the ground realities. Only a more grounded and timely approach based on a conciliatory approach among caste groups not seeing eye-to-eye for centuries, could have been a better beginning for BJP to broaden its support base on form basis rather than adopting an election-to-election approach.