The BJP has embarked on an ingenious project—providing decent defecation facilities to dalits—to garner more SC votes. and it may just work.
By Vishwas Kumar
There is more than meets the eye as far as toilet politics is concerned. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambitious Swach Bharat (SB) scheme to provide toilets for all rural households till 2019 is not only aimed at strengthening his connect with the rural population, especially dalits and women, but is being done with an eye on future elections. Though it has been officially claimed that the 2019 deadline for implementation of the scheme is meant to mark the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday, its main aim is to reap electoral dividends in the general election scheduled that year.
The BJP seems to have taken a leaf out UPA-I’s success in the 2009 general elections, when the flagship rural employment scheme, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA), was launched.
But what was the reason for a Hindutva icon and corporate India’s favorite politician to suddenly start thinking of rural and dalit voters? The answer lies in the stupendous electoral victory forged by the BJP in the 2014 elections. Modi, unlike any BJP leader, was able to cut through the caste-ridden politics of the Hindi heartland. Often seen as catering to urban, middle class voters, he was now able to woo even fringe segments like dalits and women.
It makes sense, considering the size of this electorate. Some 72 percent of India’s 1.22 billion population is rural. Out of these, Scheduled Castes or dalits constitute 16.6 percent (201.4 million), while dalit women number 34.8 million. For both these sections, the lack of toilets is an emotive issue and Modi is astute enough to understand that.
According to a report by the National Confederation of Dalit Organizations, nearly 48 percent of Indians have no access to toilets and are forced to defecate in the open. In rural areas, this percentage goes up to 60 percent. While 42.3 percent of non-dalit households have toilets, in the case of dalits, it is just 23.7 percent. That means that around 77 percent of dalits will directly benefit from the SB scheme between 2014-19. Even the budgetary allocation for SB shows a tilt towards dalits. Out of the total Rs. 4,260 crore allocated for this scheme, Rs. 938 crore is for SCs and Rs. 426 crore for tribals.
Dalit activists, however, remain sceptical of the government’s intent because there is no effective strategy to improve their life.
N Paul Divakar, general secretary, National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, says: “It is great that the PM has initiated the Swach Bharat campaign and we welcome the decision. It is long overdue. However, the structural, systemic and systematic exclusionary practices that exist in the country also need to be addressed…. this appears as a material solution that does not take into account the practices of untouchability.”
He adds that merely building toilets is not enough. They have to be maintained and cleaned, and inevitably, dalits would be employed to do so, perpetuating caste-based discrimination and exclusion, he stresses.
It was the 2014 elections that made the BJP look at dalits as a vote-bank. In the polls, it managed to garner 31 percent votes, resulting in 282 seats. In 2009, it only got 18.8 percent of the votes and 116 seats. So who were the new voters the party added? An analysis of election results shows that it attracted many dalit and women voters.
Analyzing the electoral gains, Rahul Verma of Lokniti-CSDS wrote in The Hindu that one in every four dalits voted for the BJP in comparison to one in 10 in the post-1990 era. “…the BJP has surpassed both the Congress and the BSP (Bahujan Samaj Party) in attracting a larger share of dalit votes. The BJP’s dalit vote-base in this election is largely the upwardly mobile sections (urban, educated, middle classes, with high media exposure),” he wrote.
And UP had a big hand to play in this, as it has the largest dalit population in India. In the 2014 elections, the BJP got 42.3 percent of the votes in UP and 71 seats out of 80. Compare this with 17.5 percent and 10 seats in 2009. The additional 25 percent votes that the BJP added to its vote bank came from dalits (minus Jatav-Chamar, which remained with the BSP).
A similar trend is reflected in Bihar, another state where the BJP performed exceedingly well. Some 22 percent of voters in Bihar belong to economically backward castes and dalits. The BJP and its ally, the LJP, led by dalit leader Ram Vilas Paswan, managed to corner 51 percent of the votes, while their rival, JDU, led by Nitish Kumar, got only 35 percent. Nitish resigned as Bihar CM and anointed Jitin Ram Manjhi, a dalit, as his successor. This again shows the important role dalits will play in national politics.
Encouraged by the election results, the BJP’s think-tank, comprising of Modi, party chief Amit Shah and RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, chalked out a strategy to actively woo dalits. Bhagwat’s recent utterance on unity among Hindus is being seen in this context. “For the next five years, we have to work with the aim of bringing equality among all Hindus in the country. All Hindus should be drinking water at one place, should be praying at one place and after their death, their bodies should be burnt at the same place,” he recently said in Mumbai.
A similar keenness to woo dalits was evident in BJP’s stand during the recent Muzaffarnagar riots and other instances of communal tension in Uttar Pradesh in the recent months, especially after the BJP came to power (see box: Communal conundrum).
Why has the BJP chosen western UP as the arena for its dalit appeasement policy? The answer lies in the area’s demographic composition and social structure. Dalits and Muslims equally own around 25 percent of the land here. “Unlike most parts of rural India, Muslims in western UP own land. Many of them are Hindu converts, who haven’t forgotten their caste origins, even though Islam is supposed to be egalitarian…. Their attitude towards dalits matches that of their Hindu brethren: oppressive, exploitative and supercilious. This is precisely the obstacle the BSP faces in attempting a Muslim-dalit consolidation,” Ashraf wrote.
Meanwhile, the SP government is providing tactical support to the BJP’s campaign for its own electoral dividends. Since it sees the BSP as a bigger political enemy, it ensures that the administration either remains neutral or leans towards the minority community in these clashes. “Both the SP and the BJP are hand-in-glove to cut out the BSP, which, in the past, has successfully forged dalit-Muslim unity. If Muslims come to the SP and the majority of dalits goes to the BJP, the BSP will not able to get sufficient seats based on their own numerical strength of the Jatav-Chamar caste,” explains a senior bureaucrat in the home ministry, who is responsible for monitoring UP’s law and order situation. “It is a well chalked-out strategy to attempt a new social engineering in a politically crucial state where either the BJP or the SP will remain in power,” he adds.
Dalit activists, however, emphasize that the government needs to do less politics and more of implementation of existing schemes to improve their lives. The 2014-15 budget allocated Rs. 50,548.16 crore for SCs and Rs. 32,386.84 crore for STs. “These plans were in existence for the last 30 years. However, these funds have been plagued by various issues, like non-implementation, diversion and notional allocations. All this needs to change. And for this, a push for effective implementation through investing in sche-mes for education, land and skill development is needed,” argues Divakar.
The toilet test for Modi has begun.
The aggressive BJP-RSS stance to woo dalits is causing social schisms, leading to communal tensions in rural areas. The December Muzaffarnagar riots were a case in point. It started as a local clash between dalits and Muslims over a petty issue. The party took up cudgels on behalf of dalits, while the SP-led UP government kept quiet, leading to escalation of communal tensions in the whole of western UP.
The BJP’s electoral success triggered Muzaffarnagar-type riots elsewhere too. Within 10 weeks of the poll results on May 16, 605 communal incidents happened in UP, of which 68 involved Muslims and dalits. According to The Indian Express, over 70 percent of these took place around areas where assembly by-elections were to be held. Many of the flare-ups were over minor issues such as the use of loudspeakers in masjids and temples. And the BJP always took up the case of dalits, while the SP, BSP and Congress remained non-committal.
It is this appeasement of dalits that is the reason behind the BJP’s attempt to rake-up the “love-jehad” issue. This is with
reference to Muslim boys enticing Hindu girls with the aim of marrying and converting them. In most cases, the girl is a dalit. This happened in Gaineridan village in Pilibhit on May 20. Here, a Muslim family allegedly took away by force a girl married to a Jatav boy. Local BJP leaders intervened and demanded security for the Hindu family, causing tensions.
Political commentator Ajaz Ashraf wrote in scroll.in: “The BJP and its allies have supplemented the traditional method of Hindutva mobilization with new strategies. Months before Muzaffarnagar erupted last year, Hindutva activists had been harping on the alleged menace of ‘love-jehad’, a seemingly devious Muslim ploy to woo and marry Hindu girls after converting them to Islam.”