Comprising 20.5 per cent of Uttar Pradesh’s (UP) voting population according to the 2011 census, the state’s Dalits are being wooed by all political parties. Barring, of course, the Samajwadi Party (SP), which is relying on their traditional Muslim-Yadav combination to win elections. First, there was Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Dhamma Chetna Yatra in UP this year, which turned out to be a resounding flop, and now Congress has joined the fray, once again.
On August 20, the party will host a feast called Bheem Bhoj across many districts in UP on the birth anniversary of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. The event is named after Dalit icon Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar.
For Congress, Bheem Bhoj is the second such attempt in the last one year to influence Dalit voters. Last year, the party launched Bhim Jyoti Yatra on August 20. The 20-day yatra was flagged off by Congress Rajya Sabha MP PL Punia and was expected to cover Dalit-dominated areas in UP. However, it failed to cut any ice with the community. Similarly, the party’s vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s engagement with Dalits hasn’t proved to be of any value. Rahul in 2011, during an election campaign, spent a night at a Dalit household in Bundelkhand and shared a meal with the family members. Since then this has became an election drill for him.
The bhoj, or feast, is the brainchild of the party’s Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe (SC/ST) wing, which is aiming to portray Congress as the party that has Dalit interests at heart. According to the plan, the meal will be prepared and served at the home of a local Congress Dalit leader. “We will invite people from upper castes to join us in the bhoj. The idea is to create social harmony,” said Bhagwati Chaudhary, senior vice-president of UP Congress Committee (UPCC). The occasion will also serve as a platform to discuss recent cases of atrocities against Dalits reported from different parts of the country. “Whatever unfolded in Una was very unfortunate. The bhoj will work as a platform where Dalits will be told about their fundamental rights,” said Chaudhary. That Una is being referenced is an indicator of just how much of an impact the under-reported Dalit Asmita Yatra has made.
“This is naturally election propaganda,” said Ramesh Bidhuri, the BJP Member of Parliament from South Delhi. “Instead, the party that failed to bring in social harmony in the last 70 years should repent for its sins by taking a dip in the Ganges.” Predictably, Congress rubbished BJP’s allegations. “Congress has always fought for Dalit rights,” said Chaudhary. “Those who are trying to appropriate Dalits at election time are parties with ‘saffron’ ideology…. Their generations were responsible for atrocities on Dalits.”
This tu-tu-main-main is par for the course as far as the BJP and Congress are concerned. In this particular instance, though, the Dalit issue is a case sour grapes for BJP, which recently faced a major embarrassment when a campaign to win the confidence of Dalit voters in UP, directly supervised by party president Amit Shah, backfired.
Led by 87-year-old Buddhist monk Dhamma Viriyo, the Dhamma Chetna Yatra that was launched on April 24 from Sarnath was backed by the BJP and flagged off by Home Minister Rajnath Singh. The idea behind the yatra was to travel through Dalit-dominated areas in UP and bring Dalits into BJP’s fold. However, due to the Una incident and cases of other Dalit atrocities, the community roundly rejected this initiative. BJP leaders taking part in the yatra were chased in Aligarh, Hathras and Mathura. Shah, who was supposed to join the yatra on July 31, cancelled his plans at the last minute.
Not that Congress should have high hopes from the project. When it comes to voting, since 1989, (Congress is out of power in UP since 1989) Dalits have shunned Congress for Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and bringing them back to its fold is far-fetched task for Congress. “UP assembly elections are yet to be announced so it is too early to say which way Dalit votes will sway. But as of now, Dalits are with Mayawati,” said former bureau-chief of The Hindu, J P Shukla.