Upper caste revolt a cause for worry for BJP

After the Dalits, the upper castes are now up in revolt. In a caste-based society, the BJP, for the first time, will find how difficult it is to balance caste equations, a tight-rope walk to the Assembly elections this year end.

 Things were somewhat moving according to the script, until one fine day the Supreme Court came on the scene and the picture became wavy for the saffron party.

The apex court passed an order, banning automatic arrests and registration of criminal cases under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, saying the Act has been widely misused ever since it was introduced.

  The order was perceived by the Dalits as a dilution of a law meant to protect them, and they rose in protest.

At first, the BJP government at the Centre apparently ignored the protests, but when the chorus became louder and widespread under a unified Dalit umbrella,  it brought in amendments, effectively nullifying the order. After all, how could the saffron party ignore the Dalits whom it was trying to woo to expand its electoral base through building monuments to their icon Baba Bhimrao Ambedkar.

With Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh round the corner and the allies such as Lok Janshakti Party’s Ram Vilas Paswan and RPI (A) Ramdas Athawale breathing down its neck, it became necessary for the BJP to bring in a BIll to restore the SC/ST Act.

But it could not not have foreseen how complex caste politics would become, for it simply took the upper castes– its main support base– for granted.

 The upper castes retaliated. A ‘Bharat Bandh’ was called against the ‘black’ law. Though the strike did not have a countrywide impact, it led to violence and arson at several places in  Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

And it is Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan that the BJP is most worried about, along with Chhattisgarh. There is a palpable fear that its decision to amend the atrocities Act, apparently aimed at making a dent in the electoral base of the BSP and the Congress, may well boomerang in the year end Assembly polls. The fear is more gripping as the OBCs have also joined hands with the upper castes in the protest.

The BJP has realised that it can no longer take upper caste support for granted. It is actually in a bind. How can it take a different position in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh on a Bill it had supported in Parliament? And if it supports the atrocity Act, aimed at placating the Dalits, it runs the risk of losing the support of upper castes.

For, the anger of either could upset its applecart in these States in the yearend elections.

In Madhya Pradesh, upper castes constitute 20 per cent of the voters, and if the OBCs, which make up 35 per cent of the population, join them, then BJP could sure be in for a drubbing. Similarly, in Rajasthan, the upper castes form more than 26 per cent of the voters and the OBCs about 40 per cent. In Chhattisgarh, the BJP has always banked on the upper caste and backward votes with nearly 70 per cent of them voting for the saffron party.

Even if the OBCs don’t leave the BJP in view of their conflicting interest with the upper castes, a major portion of the upper caste votes going the Congress’ way may be a death blow for the BJP.

 As for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, their percentage in the population of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan is 36 and 30, respectively. They are also a considerable chunk in electoral politcs of these States. The saffron party has taken the protests by upper castes and OBCs seriously. Many a BJP function has been cancelled or postponed. While the visit of party president Amit Shah has been put off, a mega convention of OBCs has been cancelled.

 The BJP national executive also reportedly focused on tackling the new challenge posed by an upper caste revolt against the amendment to the atrocities Act. But will the upper castes back the BJP in the elections? It is a new challenge for the saffron party– to propagate a pro-Dalit face against a growing upper caste rage.

How can it back from a decision meant to smoothen the ruffled feathers of Dalits while humouring and keeping its tradition upper caste base intact? It sure is a tightrope walk for the BJP.

Yashwardhan Joshi is a Journalist of long standing and commentator on issues of Administration and Social Issues.