Why Dalits voted for the BJP

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The BJP in pre-2014 won approximately 12 per cent of votes among the Dalits. It surpassed the Congress in winning Dalit votes as 24 percent voters from the community voted for the BJP in 2014. This proportion has now increased to 33 per cent in 2019 according to Lokniti-CSDS data. How did the BJP manage to make such massive inroads within the community, especially given the level of dissatisfaction over cases of lynching, amendments in the SC-ST Act, Rohit Vemula’s suicide, among other such issues? The essay co-authored by Singdha Poonam and Dhrubo Jyoti brings out the complexities of being a Dalit voter. Guru Prakash in his essay highlight how the BJP has empowered Dalits.


Myth of a unified Dalits vote


ONLY 300 kilometres separate Hathras and Hardoi districts in Uttar Pradesh but they appeared to be two different worlds weeks before the recently concluded general elections. In Hathras, 27-year-old Sanjay Jatav said he would vote for whomever Behenji (as former chief minister Mayawati is known to her followers) asks him to vote for. Whatever the past acrimony between Jatavs and Yadavs in the village may have been, his community would put their weight behind the SP-BSP alliance formed to fight the BJP. He believed the BJP to be the bigger enemy of Dalits. ‘We don’t want a government under which a Dalit man can’t ride a ghodi (horse),’ said the law graduate in reference to his own struggle with upper caste landlords, police and local administration to become the first Dalit man to ride a horse at his wedding last year. A portrait of B.R. Ambedkar hung prominently in his living room.

In Hardoi, 23-year-old Mohan Kumar had heard of Ambedkar and respected him, but wasn’t part of any group that identify themselves as Ambedkarite. Unlike Jatav, Kumar, a college dropout, socialized in a mixed caste circle comprising unemployed young men, and spent most of his spare time informally with the local unit of the BJP in canvassing and distributing campaign material. His community of Pasis form the second-largest SC sub-group in UP after the Jatavs and hold the decisive vote in the Awadh and Allahabad regions; it is for this influence that they were wooed aggressively by the BJP this election. The Pasis feel increasingly alienated by the BSP, which they allege is a Jatav dominated party that has neglected their icons and history, and have veered towards the BJP, which, at least superficially, has noticed the community’s grievances.

For many analysts, Jatav and Kumar represent a common identity: Dalit. But their distinct political choices challenge the myth of a unified national Dalit vote. The BJP won both Hathras and Hardoi, but the widely different political dynamic at play underlined that India’s 220-million odd scheduled caste people are not one unit, and feel differently about a raft of issues and choices, including the BJP.


In every big election, reams of newsprint is dedicated to define the Dalit Vote, which way it will go and who will it impact. But such analysis elides not only that there is not one monolithic community, but also that SC voters make rational decisions based on material realities of the regions they inhabit, political options and socio-economic conditions.

Such an approach also neglects to consider that most Dalit people are not immune to forces that influence millions of their fellow citizens, from the money spent on an election campaign and the welfare bombast, to misinformation spread online.

Nowhere were local factors more visible than in West Bengal, which has the second highest SC population after UP. This is easily illustrated if we take the Bongaon and Ranaghat seats as an example – the BJP won both border seats for the first time on the back of support from the Matuas.


Matuas follow the teachings of 19th century anti-caste reformers Harichand and Guruchand Thakur, and form roughly 80% of the Namashudras, Bengal’s second largest SC caste. They veered towards the Trinamool Congress roughly a decade ago after Mamata Banerjee made overtures to the head of the sect, Binapani Thakur or Boroma (Elder Mother) and inducted her elder son, Kapil Krishna, into the state cabinet.

But the BJP was able to undercut this support by backing her younger son, Manjul Krishna, who gained more power after Boroma’s death weeks before the general elections. The party also offset considerable anti-NRC sentiment by repeatedly stressing that no Hindus would be left out in Assam, and that if the NRC came to Bengal, the Matuas (a majority of whom are refugees and don’t have valid papers) would be granted proper citizenship documents.

This, headlined by PM Modi’s rallies, and dog whistling about ‘foreigners taking away labour jobs’ (the only kind available in the de-industrialized region) ensured the BJP’s victory. Sentiment against ‘foreigners’, the ‘Bengali’ government not doing much, and ‘Rohingyas taking over’ also helped build the BJP campaign in Jalpaiguri and Cooch Behar seats in North Bengal, dominated by the Rajbanshis, the largest SC group in the state. In none of these areas were so-called national issues such as the SC/ST Act protests a major issue.


Individual aspiration and familial dependence on government welfare are two important strands of Dalit lives in India. In many parts of the country, rural voters said they chose the BJP because they felt government schemes had improved their lives, however marginally. Some of them happened to be Dalits. A few of them spoke about the large-scale damage inflicted on the economy or agriculture by the government’s actions or apathy, but cast their votes based on micro-level improvements to their and their family’s lives – cooking gas, housing subsidy, health insurance.

Sections of urban, educated and upwardly mobile Dalit voters gravitated towards the BJP because they believed a vote for the party was a vote for Narendra Modi’s vision of an emergent India. They wanted to give Modi another five years to make good on his promise of ‘sabka vikas (progress for everyone).’ Some believed it wasn’t his fault that they were worse off now than in 2014. In Ranchi, 24-year-old Anoop Kumar said he failed to find a job even after a degree from the reputed Birla Institute of Technology and years of search. Now preparing to take the entrance exam for a computer operator’s job in a government office because he doesn’t want to go back to his caste-ridden village, he continues to have faith in Modi. He refused to believe that unemployment had hit a record high under Modi and argued that things must have been worse under Congress-led governments. One of the reasons Kumar felt so strongly about Modi is that no other politician has made an impression on him. Kumar said he did not follow political news and couldn’t name any regional leaders.

Of course, the sentiment was markedly different in states where young SC men and women felt their regional leaders understood and supported their aspirations – take, for example, the widely reported Dalit support for the YSR Congress Party in Andhra Pradesh. In Kolkata, 19-year-old Mou Mondal, daughter of a car driver who attends a private engineering college, was going to cast her first vote for Banerjee. One of the reasons Mondal cited for her admiration of Banerjee was Kanyashree Prakalpa, a flagship state government scheme for girl students. Her family also credits the chief minister for bringing into their working class neighbourhood a paved road, piped water and electricity metres. ‘She is always thinking about us,’ said the young woman, underlining that no one party had a monopoly on the votes of aspirational Dalit people, and that neither the BJP nor the TMC could take it for granted.


The 2019 general election upended predictions about the impact of key flashpoints in the NDA government’s five-year tenure, principal among them protests against the dilution of the SC/ST Act and the 13-point university recruitment roster in 2018, violence in Maharashtra’s Bhima Koregaon the same year, the suicide of Hyderabad University student Rohith Vemula and the flogging of Dalit men in Gujarat’s Una, both in 2016.

The results suggested two trends. One, the impact of the events mentioned above was neither pan-India nor cumulative in the voters’ minds; their resonance diminished with increasing geographical distance from the immediate vicinity of where the incident occurred. Two, the BJP was able to offset the damage by either rolling back changes (such as in the case of the SC/ST Act or the 13 point roster), or by floating counter issues and muscularly campaigning around it (intruder, Modi, nationalism). Thereby, while these issues remained important for SC voters across India, they were not the main electoral swing issue.


Another takeaway is to distinguish between the anti-caste movement and the broader and diverse SC communities. The anti-caste, Ambedkarite movement is strong in several parts of the country – notably in UP, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu – and arguably the biggest countervailing force to the BJP. But their electoral influence does not stretch across India, and their political action is not focused in the electoral arena even as it spans social, cultural and educational fields.

Of course, the Ambedkarite movement and its activists are vastly outpaced in number and resources by the RSS and its many affiliates, who in recent years have focused on massive inter-dining events and integrating subaltern heroes into broader Hindu mythology. Its campaign among the Valmikis, among the most impoverished SC castes forced to do sanitation work, has centred around imagining the writer of the Ramayana as a member of the caste and huge Ram katha satsangs have become the site for political and electoral consolidation for the Sangh.

There are two important caveats. One, reportage and several accounts suggested an unprecedented upper caste consolidation in this election. In the past, the impact of upper caste communities on voter behaviour of smaller and weaker castes has been well documented. One is not sure how a fortification of forward castes, with substantial hold over land, media and local power structures, would impact smaller, unorganized Dalit castes in rural areas. The relative paucity of research into upper caste behaviour is therefore an impediment.


The second is on the use of SC reserved constituencies to understand voting patterns. Unlike STs, SCs are not concentrated in specific regions. Out of the 84 SC reserved constituencies, in only 13 do SCs make up a third or more of the population, showed a Hindustan Times analysis of numbers provided by the Trivedi Centre for Political Data. In 18 constituencies, the percentage of SCs is between 10 and 20% (UP’s so-called Dalit capital of Agra, for example, has only 23% SCs). This suggests that the results in these seats are not necessarily representative of SC voting patterns.

Of the 10 seats with the highest concentration of SC voters, the BJP held six, the Congress two and other parties two. None of them were in states where ‘Dalit politics’ gets media attention such as UP or Maharashtra. Understanding political choices of Dalit communities, clearly, needs a broader canvas.


Dalits and the BJP


THE one thing that has gone unnoticed in the rush of commentary analysing the verdict of 2019 general elections is the silent support of the subaltern in favour of the BJP. Those who have been on the margins even after seven decades of independence. The sheer scale and magnitude of this electorate is so huge that it is literally impossible to decode the reasons of support to perfection. There can be arguments based on the impact of focused governmental schemes and social churning within the communities that might have resulted in the consolidated support for the BJP and its allies.

Penetrative development has been one of the cardinal pillars of this government’s philosophy. One of the least talked about but most visionary schemes articulated by the government has been Stand-up India. The scheme broadly mandated the 1.25 lac branches of public sector banks across the length and breadth of the country to provide institutional support to first generation entrepreneurs from two categories – woman and scheduled caste or scheduled tribes. The intended target was to create almost 2.5 lacs of self-reliant network of entrepreneurs. The schemes coupled with some measures for meaningful representation at the critical decision making positions in party and the government resonated loudly with Dalits from across the country.


As a student of Indian politics and as someone who has closely followed the social justice movement since independence, I have consistently observed the Congress party asserting the sole custodianship of Dalits, backwards and the other socially marginalised sections of the society. In the course of the last seven decades, the Congress party effortlessly institutionalised a system of patronage for them. Constitutionally mandated affirmative action in government education and employment has unquestionably lifted many Dalit families from penury and desertion. Has it served the purpose in the last seven decades or not as a successful model of empowerment is still a subject of research. The violence on Dalits has consistently been on the rise in the course of many decades according to the National Crime Records Bureau data computed by the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India. You just need to put on a Google alert ‘Dalit’ and you will fathom the unflinching consistency of brutal incidents of violence against Dalits.


The opposition and the Congress party in particular, has time and again manipulated the idea of affirmative action. It has used reservations as a tool to pursue power. In its lust for power, the Congress party lost touch with the evolving aspirations of the community. The narrative of Congress party aligned with the story of Jignesh Mevani and Chandrashekhar Azad and not with constructive interventions like Tina Dabi, Kanishka Kataria and Milind Kamble. The former represents the aggressive component of the Dalit story and the latter is assertive and aspirational in its vision and approach. The opposition repeatedly made the mistake of misreading the story.

It cannot be a coincidence that from independence until now there has been no cabinet secretary or a foreign secretary from the Dalit community. The Congress system of patronage was reflective of conscious casteist propensities. It was only in 2010 that the country saw a Dalit as the head of the judicial system with Justice K.G. Balakrishnan as the Chief Justice of India. Congress made ceremonial postings for Dalits as placeholders. True, it anointed Damodaran Sanjivayya as the first Dalit Chief Minister in the history of the country. If you dwell deep and read about him, you will recognise the hypocrisy of the party. He was only expected to keep the office of the Chief Minister as per the makeshift arrangements.

On the contrary, it was the BJP who made the late Bangaru Laxman, the first Dalit in the course of political history of the country, the president of a national political party. It was the BJP-led NDA-I who made a Dalit, late G.M.C. Balayogi the first Dalit speaker of the Lok Sabha. It does not stop here. Almost all the reserved constituencies for the last two general elections have been won by the BJP candidates with insurmountable margins. I have previously written about the historical and unprecedented representation of Dalits in the present council of ministers as well.1 Thavar Chand Gehlot, a senior Dalit leader has been nominated as a leader of the party in the upper house. Virendra Kumar, another Dalit MP was made the protem speaker of the Lok Sabha this year. Not only in high positions, only yesterday I met a woman leader who goes by the name of Dharmshila, who comes from the Musahar (Rat eaters) community and resides in the shanty towns of Patna. She is a proud mandal vice president of the BJP.

Dalits now seek a place on the table. The community is fed up of someone else speaking on their behalf. It irks them to see people indulging in ‘behalfism’ to articulate the yearnings of the community.


The opposition in its haste to seek power disregarded the fundamentals of history and attempted to stitch an unworkable alliance between Dalits and Muslims. Sanjay Paswan, former central minister and presently a Member of the Bihar Legislative Council, has brilliantly pointed out the flaw behind this imagination in one of his articles in The Indian Express.2

‘Without mincing words, as a Dalit political activist from a nationalist political party having more than 10 crore members, I see an evil design behind the propagation of the idea of an alliance between Dalits and Muslims against the idea of one nation. The idea of an alliance does not hold ground when tested against historical and sociological parameters. Academically, there can be two hypothetical categories to examine the relationship and interface between Dalits and Muslims: victims and victors. Muslims have historically represented the class of victors. This can be historically proven by looking at the external invasions from the 11th century onwards. On the contrary, the story is different for the Dalit community, wherein historical injustices need not be testified to on any institutional parameters.’

This makes it sufficiently clear that an interface between the two is historically untenable. Mayawati, in the 2016 assembly election of Uttar Pradesh, experimented with more than 90 Muslim candidates and she failed miserably. What the commentariat fails to acknowledge is that in spite of some structural challenges, Dalits are ardent Hindus across the nation. They are extremely possessive about their faith. Kanshiram, the founder of BAMSEF and the Bahujan Samaj Party, had this clarity and therefore he encouraged the celebration of Hindu festivals with amazing levels of fanfare.

I think the two reasons mentioned above fairly contributed in consolidation of subaltern faith in the leadership of Narendra Modi. The subaltern saw one of their own in the rise of the chaiwala and chowkidar who washed the feet of safai karamcharis in one of the most coveted residential complexes of the country. The opposition is still unaware and indulging in the same set of errors. Unless corrected it will soon evaporate completely from the subaltern imagination and become a dinosaur.



1. https://theprint.in/opinion/bjp-has-actually-ignored-the-upper-castes-to-make-modis-new-cabinet-inclusive/243908/

2. https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/the-imperfect-couple-after-jnu-an-alliance-between-dalits-muslims-against-the-idea-of-one-nation/