Dalit anger threatens to trip BJP’s grip on a stronghold

At Chhattisgarh’s reserved constituency Janjgir Champa, there is growing fear among Dalits that alterations to the Constitution could mean scrapping of reservation

April 25, 2024 03:03 am | Updated 07:32 am IST - Janjgir Champa (Chhattisgarh)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a public meeting for Lok Sabha elections, in Janjgir-Champa district, Chhattisgarh, on April 23, 2024.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a public meeting for Lok Sabha elections, in Janjgir-Champa district, Chhattisgarh, on April 23, 2024. | Photo Credit: PTI

The sun is at its peak and the yellow earth is shimmering, radiating back the heat. Khoobchand Diwakar, 50, fumbles for his phone. The small black device is out of charge. He looks at its blank screen and disappointedly puts it back in his pocket. “I have seen those videos, they say that Ambedkar’s Constitution will be changed. They did similar tinkering in Gujarat and now they are extending it to the entire country. If they return to power, reservation will go,” he says authoritatively.

The rest of the group at Amartal village, in Akaltara tehsil that comes under the Janjgir Champa Lok Sabha constituency, of landless labourers and small-time farmers, all huddled around, nod in agreement. Mela Ram Jangeda (45) adds his bit to the conversation, “I have heard they [BJP] gave slogans denouncing Dalits and tribals… they shouldn’t say such things. It is insulting to all of us,” he remarks. Janjgir Champa seat votes on May 7.

None of them can pinpoint the source, the WhatsApp message or the YouTube channel where they saw it. But they point out that it has been doing the rounds since the State Assembly elections were held in November last year. Santosh Dhimar, 40, is incandescent, he launches into an uncontrolled rant, at this point. “Every five years, the government must change. But it doesn’t, because they hold the remote control. No matter what you press at the EVMs, the vote goes to the BJP. Meanwhile, we struggle to find two meals a day for our children,” Mr. Dhimar said.

“No matter what you press at the EVMs, the vote goes to the BJP. Meanwhile, we struggle to find two meals a day for our children”Santosh Dhimar

Fear of lack of vacancies

Sab samanay ho jayenge,” (everyone will become equal) and “arakshan khatam ho jayega” (reservation will end) is a phrase repeated village after village, in this reserved constituency of Chhattisgarh, as they express fear about lack of vacancies, growing unemployment, stagnant wages and rising inflation.

In the last two general elections, the BJP rode high on the back of subaltern Hinduism, with a consolidation of non-dominant Other Backward Classes and Dalit caste groups in their favour. But that carefully curated balance seems to be tipping. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been issuing clarifications that the BJP will not abolish the Constitution. In his speech on Tuesday, at Sakti, which falls under the Janjgir Champa Lok Sabha seat, Mr. Modi reiterated it, calling the narrative a Congress “ploy”. “Even Bhim Rao Ambedkar himself can’t abolish the Constitution,” he asserted. Changing gears in an offensive, Mr. Modi, at his speeches in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh over the last two days has accused the Congress of splicing SC/ST reservation handing it over to Muslim minority. His speech is a fear hanging over the two communities that the BJP has been trying to shake off.

Key constituency

Janjgir Champa is in many ways significant. BSP founder and one of the tallest Dalit leader Kanshi Ram fought his debut election from here in 1984. He got a little over 32,000 votes. For 25 years now the BJP has been winning this seat without a break and the last time the Congress won here was in 1999 polls. The BSP always had a strong presence here but could never win the seat. The gap between the BJP and the Congress has often been equivalent to the vote that the BSP gets.

The disenchantment with the BJP is not new. In the November Assembly elections, where the Congress was routed out of the State, the party won all the eight Assembly segments here, winning four seats from the BJP, two from the BSP and retaining the two it held.

Not only the BJP, the BSP also seems to be losing its grip. Dhirender Patle, 28, at Badhra village in Pamgarh Tehsil, is upbeat about the polls. Few days ago he joined the procession that followed Congress candidate Shiv Kumar Dahariya, who was filing his nomination. In the 2019 general elections, he had voted for the BSP. “The BSP has surrendered to the BJP. There is no point wasting our vote on them,” he proclaims. Horil Lal Banjare, 60, who is sitting next to him, doesn’t speak out as vociferously, but quietly says that his vote is still for Bahujan. But both are united in their views about the BJP. Mr. Banjare scoffs at free ration — a scheme extended for five years. He asks, “Every day on TV we hear about the free ration. But what about the rate of pulses and other groceries? What about petrol? Are we to survive only on free rice?” The question is not aimed at anyone in particular.

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