The story of the Dalit vote in the 2014 election has two intertwined accounts. First, nationally the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has managed to win more votes among Dalits than the Congress has. Second, the decline of the Bahujan Samaj Party (even among Dalit voters) suggests that the party’s ambition of scaling up nationally is now a distant dream.

How did the BJP fare among Dalits in this election? The party in the post-1990s era managed to attract only one in every ten Dalit voters. However, this time, one in every four Dalits voted for the BJP. The ratio is even higher for the National Democratic Alliance coalition where nearly one in every three Dalits voted for it. The BJP has surpassed both the Congress and the BSP in attracting a larger share of Dalit vote. The BJP’s Dalit vote base in this election is largely the upwardly mobile sections (urban, educated, middle classes, with high media exposure).

Shift in Dalit vote

The recent shift among Dalit voters was largely propelled by two reasons. First, pre-election alliances played an important role. The party entered into an alliance with Dalit leaders like Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) in Bihar, Ramdas Athavale’s Republican Party of India (Athvale) in Maharashtra, and inducted Udit Raj in Delhi. Second, as evident from the survey data, Narendra Modi’s popularity cut across caste lines. Mr. Modi and his party became the symbolic vehicles representing the dissatisfaction with the Congress.

Much of the BJP’s gain among Dalit voters came at the expense of the Congress and the BSP. In two-party competition States (Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan, and Gujarat), the Congress lost a huge chunk of its Dalit vote to the BJP. In other States, State-level parties such as the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, the Biju Janata Dal in Odisha, and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu performed well and garnered a major portion of the Dalit vote. The Left Front in West Bengal received a major drubbing and huge chunk of its Dalit vote base shifted toward the Trinamool Congress. The BJD in Odisha gained a share of Dalit votes from the Congress. Similarly, the Congress lost a substantial share of Dalit votes to the Telangana Rashtra Samithi in Telangana, and to the NDA coalition and YSR Congress in Seemandhra. There was not much change in Dalit voting pattern in the southern states of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

BSP’s decline

On the other hand, the BSP lost a substantial portion of its Dalit vote base to the BJP in Uttar Pradesh (U.P.), Haryana, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) became the principal beneficiary of the losses incurred by the Congress and the BSP among Dalit voters in Delhi and Punjab. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the BSP’s vote base outside U.P. is largely made of Dalit electorates. The BSP failed to win a single seat in this election. Though the party’s decline in national vote share (6.2 per cent in 2009 to 4.1 per cent in 2014) is largely due to the drubbing it received in U.P., its poor performance outside the State added to the misery. The BSP’s votes share in U.P. declined by 8 percentage points (from 27.4 per cent in 2009 to 19.6 per cent in 2014).

The NES survey data helps in understanding the popularity of the BSP and its leader Mayawati in this election. In 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the BSP and Mayawati were aiming for the high office in Delhi after winning a single-handed majority in Uttar Pradesh in 2007. The party failed to cater to the ambitions of its core constituency. Data show that the preference for Mayawati as Prime Minister has tremendously declined since 2009. Unless Mayawati makes a serious effort in reinventing her organisational machinery, encourages a second line of leadership, and develops a credible political message, Dalit politics is likely to bypass the BSP.

(Rahul Verma is with Lokniti-CSDS and Travers Department of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley, U.S.)

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