A statue of Ambedkar stands in a Dalit locality of Padra in Vadodara — robbed of its pride of place in the town square. It was 17 years ago, say locals, that the civic body allowed its erection at a prominent spot but dominant caste groups scuttled the move by installing a Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in its place.
Relegated to Dalit quarters, the Ambedkar statue speaks of the continued discrimination faced by the community in Gujarat. In material terms, Dalits may be better off than their counterparts in other less developed states, but their scepticism towards the Bharatiya Janata Party has not reduced with Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s elevation as the PM candidate.
Mr. Modi is contesting the Vadodara parliamentary constituency, in addition to the Varanasi seat in Uttar Pradesh.
Given the demands of national politics, he has been aggressively pushing for the Dalit vote. At a rally in Bihar, he said the next decade belonged to Dalits and other marginalised groups. In Gujarat, his posturing was clear when he accused the Congress of replacing earlier candidate Narendra Rawat in Vadodara for being a Dalit.
“We won’t benefit under Mr. Modi’s government. Our past experience is better with the Congress, with whom there is an element of trust’,” says Bharatbhai Makwana, from a Dalit-dominated pocket of 400 houses in Padra.
“How many Dalit candidates has Mr. Modi fielded? He addressed one gathering in Padra once, but made no mention of Dalits. In every lane in Padra, you will find a footpath, except in our area,” says 22-year-old engineering student Bindu Parmar.
Padra residents still experience untouchability in private homes and Anganwadis. Socially, signs of discrimination are seen in skewed development activity. “The community hall for Dalits is in the ‘savarna’ [upper caste] area. Water pipeline and drainage systems have been renovated everywhere — thrice in some localities — but not in this area, where improvement is only on paper,” points out Ramchandrabhai Parmar.
In 2010, the NGO Navsarjan Trust published a study on 1,589 villages bringing out the practice of untouchability in Gujarat. “The government rejected it, did a counter study on a much smaller sample and ruled out our findings. In the last three months, three manual scavengers have died in Gujarat,” says Manjula Pradeep from Navsarjan.
Dalits constitute about seven per cent of Gujarat’s electorate. A large section votes for the BJP. “In the 2003 State Assembly polls, Dalits turned in favour of the BJP, but in the 2007 and 2013 State Assembly polls, as well as the 2009 Lok Sabha, they again voted for the Congress. A substantial number is with the BJP, but not the majority. The Congress takes 10 to 12 per cent more Dalit votes than the BJP,” political analyst Ghanshyam Shah said.
Dalit groups, he points out, have been campaigning for a large statue of Babasaheb Ambedkar as a counter to Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s statue — Mr. Modi’s brainchild.
Two of Gujarat’s 26 Lok Sabha seats are reserved for the Scheduled Castes. The BJP won both in the 2009 Lok Sabha, but not on the strength of the Dalit vote. In Kachchh (or Kutch) (SC), which has 13 per cent Dalits, the BJP normally gets around “one-third or four to five percent of their vote,” said Pankajbhai Maheta, BJP’s Kachchh district president.
“Dalits still have the old affiliation for the Congress, but this time we will get about two per cent more of their votes,” Mr. Maheta said.
However, Mr. Modi holds sway among young and urban Dalits, political observers say.
Jagdish Solanki, associate professor, MS University of Baroda, said, “In Gujarat, development indicators such as roads, water, electricity, are visible. I have never heard Mr. Modi talk on the Dalit issue. He locates Dalits within broader issues, like education or institutional delivery. His posturing at the national level is different from that in Gujarat, where there is no strong Dalit movement.”