BJP faces the risk of Dalit agitation in Gujarat spilling over into other battleground states
It’s not a secret that the BJP leadership was unhappy with the performance of Anandiben Patel as the chief minister of Gujarat, the flagship state of BJP’s rightwing politics. Still not many had expected her to resign so soon—mainly because she was picked by Narendra Modi to succeed him as the Gujarat CM in 2014. But the resignation announced on August 1 shows that the BJP takes the latest political developments both inside and outside Gujarat with utmost seriousness. One of the reasons that went in favour of Anandiben Patel when she was selected was of course her surname. Patels, who make up some 15 per cent of the total population of Gujarat, have been the bedrock of the BJP’s popular support in the state. Kesubhai Patel was the predecessor of Modi in Gujarat, who had used the Patel card against Modi several times during his intra-party rebellion. Modi and other BJP leaders may have thought that a Patel CM could boost the BJP’s links with the Patel community. But under Anandiben’s rule, the Patel community drifted away from the BJP. It was the agitation started by Patel youths demanding OBC status for the community that changed the BJP’s calculations. The Gujarat government didn’t have a viable strategy to address the Patel agitation. Attempts to suppress the agitation backfired. Later the government offered a 10% job and higher education quota for the poor among the general category population, but it was rejected by the agitating Patels.
The BJP started feeling the heat in the December 2015 local body elections. It retained its urban dominance, but the Congress made stunning gains in rural areas. All the six municipal corporations of Ahmadabad, Bhavnagar, Jamnagar, Rajkot, Surat and Vadodara, and 40 out of the 56 municipalities are still with the BJP. But the party could win only eight out of the 31 District Panchayats while the Congress won 23. It was against this background, the latest Dalit uprising breaks out in Gujarat following the bashing of four Dalit youths by a gau raksha group for allegedly skinning a cow. The brutal flogging was recorded and uploaded online as a “warning” to others. But it has triggered a massive Dalit protest across the state, the echoes of which were heard in other parts of the country as well. This means multiple challenges for the BJP. First, the party’s position within Gujarat would be weakened further. Patels are already upset, and now Dalits, who make up 7% of the state population, are rising against the government. More important, the domino effect of the Dalit uprising is what the BJP is more worried about. Uttar Pradesh is going to polls next year. The BJP has already lost Bihar, and it is facing challenges in Gujarat. Winning UP is pivotal to its future strategy. If it loses UP, which goes to poll first, the party will be in a weaker spot in the Gujarat election. The year 2018 will see elections in crucial states Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, which is usually termed semi-finals before the Lok Sabha elections. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, UP overwhelmingly favoured the BJP, which won 71 out of 80 seats. So losing UP will be politically disastrous.
And to win UP, the BJP needs support of the Dalits, who make up about 21% of the total population in the state. The BJP leadership had started well in advance to reach out to the Dalits. In the Union Cabinet reshuffle effected by PM Modi in early July, five Dalit leaders were made ministers. Smriti Irani, whose policies were blamed for the suicide of Rohit Vemula, a Dalit student at Hyderabad Central University, was shifted out of the Ministry of Human Resource Development. The BJP’s strategy was to gradually warm up to the Dalit community. But in the context of the Dalit uprising in Gujarat, the party’s Dalit outreach programme lies in shambles. One example for this was the cancellation of a Dalit event in Agra on July 31 that was to be addressed by party president Amit Shah. According to a Times of India report, the rally was cancelled because of the “lacklustre response it received from the Dalit community”. So the writing on the wall is clear. The BJP can’t afford to let the Dalit agitation in Gujarat continue. It will spoil the party’s chances both in Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh and could even spread to the other parts of the country. With Anandiben Patel stepping down, the BJP may be hoping for a fresh start.