Chasing the Dalit vote in U.P.

Mayawati’s core voters stand rock-like with her in this election, but a second layer of Dalit voters are drawn to Narendra Modi

May 09, 2014 01:22 am | Updated May 11, 2014 11:35 pm IST

A big talking point in Uttar Pradesh this election season is the presumed shift of a chunk of the Dalit-Pasi vote to the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party.

The Dalit vote in U.P. is of two kinds. The bulk is made up of Jatavs, known in the east as Chamars. This caste, educated and predominant in government services, forms the core vote of the Bahujan Samaj Party, not least because Mayawati herself was born into a Jatav family.

The Pasis come in the second layer, and are followed, among others, by the Dhobis, Valmikis, Khatiqs and Dushads. The 2011 Census for U.P. lists 66 Dalit sub-castes. The Jatav/Chamar caste is on top with a share of over 55 per cent of the State’s Dalit population. The Pasis are a distant second at around 15 per cent.

History with Hindutva

The Pasi shift, if it has happened, is significant, and would be in keeping with the overall caste movement towards the BJP in this election. And yet, it must be borne in mind that Dalit castes outside the BSP’s Jatav/Chamar core have always been susceptible to poaching by non-BSP parties. The Pasis, in fact, have a history with Hindutva. In his book, Fascinating Hindutva , writer Badri Narayan attributes this attraction to the BJP’s conscious attempts at “myth-making” so as to add more and more caste groups to its Hindutva vote bank.

In the case of the Pasis, the myth is built around the exploits of Suhaldev, an 11th Century Pasi king, given a Hindutva twist through later reconstruction. Mr. Narayan calls it “the politics of construction of hatred by the use of history.” The myth is built around the defeat of Sayyed Salar Masood, an alleged nephew of Mahmood Ghaznavi, by Suhaldev. The folklore is that Masood was invincible before Suhaldev felled him. Unsurprisingly, this Hindu-Muslim war and victory are today part of Pasi consciousness.

The story this election

However, the Pasi community also tends to waver between its aspiration to be part of the Hindu mainstream and its sub-identity as a suppressed and oppressed Dalit caste. In practice, this has meant that whenever the Dalit identity is seen to be in peril, the community finds security within the BSP. Conversely, when other attractions prevail, it deserts the BSP. Not that either trend applies to Pasis as a whole; it is always a section that tends to stray from larger community predilections.

So what is the story in this election? My visit to Garhi Kanoura, a largely Pasi neighbourhood in Lucknow, proved revealing. A VIP resident, writer-intellectual Rajkumar Itihaskar, was rather open about his support for Mr. Modi, arguing that Mayawati’s neglect of Pasis and the failure of other U.P. politicians had forced the community to look to the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate for “ parivartan ” (change). His wife, Madhur Devi, a college professor, said she admired Mr. Modi for his leadership capabilities and felt inspired by his “ vichaar-dhara” (ideology).

Was she not bothered by the aggression and increasing sectarianism of the Mr. Modi’s campaign? Ms. Devi’s answer could have been given by a BJP spokesperson: “It is all a brahm (false fear). Modi has done no harm to Muslims.” Her husband said he was discomfited by the tone of Mr. Modi’s campaign, but the BJP leader needed to be given at least one chance.

A tour of Garhi Kanoura showed the couple was not alone in its support for Mr. Modi. The phrase “ parivartan ” repeatedly cropped up in conversations, with Ram Ashrey explaining what this meant. “Our soldiers are being beheaded. We need a strong Prime Minister who can protect this country.” I left the neighbourhood with Mr. Rajkumar telling me not to take everything I saw at face value. “The mood here might seem overwhelmingly pro-Modi but only about 30 per cent of Pasis are with him.”

On my travels through U.P. over the years, I have truly learnt the meaning of the phrase, “wheels within wheels . ” In other words, never come to hurried conclusions. It takes hours to unravel the layered and complex ways in which the U.P. voter speaks — and sometimes does not speak.

At a dhabha outside Allahabad, I spotted a group of young government school teachers, all eager NaMo supporters. One of them sat quietly, refusing to be drawn out. As I took leave, he opened up: “It is a matter of our life and security. We will not go with Modi.” Identifying himself only as Ankur, he said though he sat among his Modi-supporting upper caste friends, he was assaulted by fears of what awaited Dalits under a Modi regime. “The BJP is instinctively anti-reservation, and in the context of Parliament’s failure to pass the SC/ST promotion quota bill, we don’t know what will happen next.” The young man said he was from a non-Chamar Dalit caste and was indifferent to Mayawati because she favoured the Chamars. “But this time the threat is larger and we have to be with her.”

In Allahabad city, I met with a group of Dalit banking and railway Union leaders. They were from the non-Chamar castes, and spent a good hour railing against Mayawati’s “partisan” policies. There was a suggestion in their talk of attraction towards Mr. Modi. But they seemed to weigh this against the BJP’s Hindutva orientation. Indeed, just before meeting me, the group had passed a resolution condemning Baba Ramdev for his statement that Rahul Gandhi honeymooned in Dalit homes. “Modi supports Ramdev,” they said. “How can we go with him?”

By the end of the tour I had reached the conclusion that there was a definite attraction among the non-Chamar Dalit castes towards the leadership of Mr. Modi, but that, perhaps, only a cross-section would vote for him.

The loyalty of the Chamars

In the case of the Chamar caste, there was no confusion over who they were loyal to — “ Behenji (sister).” This sentiment, locally described as lakir ka fakir (firm as a rock), was the same from Lucknow through Pratapgarh, Azamgarh, Allahabad and Varanasi. The Ambedkar villages in these regions had well laid-out roads, pucca houses and toilets marked with graffiti — “ Shauchalay hamara haq hai ” (toilets are our right).

In Allahabad, Dalit writer Guru Madanji took me to two Chamar-Dalit student hostels — the Rajkiya Chhatrawas and the Ishwar Sharan Chhatrawas. I was disturbed by the very existence of government-supported Dalit hostels but the students said they were happiest here because they were mistreated and humiliated in the general hostels. They also uniformly admitted to having higher aspirations, to wanting to rise above their Dalit identity. At the same time, they fully backed Mayawati because their maan-samman (self-respect) was vulnerable to hurt and attack anywhere else. “Why does Modi not talk about truly ending untouchability?” Swaraj Guatam asked. He provided the answer himself. “Because Hindutva at its core is anti-Dalit.”

A senior State police officer provided the context for the Chamar caste’s unflinching support for Mayawati. He said because of two progressive Dalit laws that were well implemented in her time — one guaranteeing protection against atrocities and the other prohibiting snatching of Dalit land — the BSP’s core voters today faced a form of social boycott. “Even money lenders don’t lend them money. They are safe only with Mayawati.”

Two trends are currently visible vis-à-vis the BSP. One, a seeming erosion of the non-Chamar Dalit caste vote base. Two, large numbers at Mayawati’s rallies. This is a curious paradox. Who are the people who have been trudging miles in temperatures around 44-45 degrees Celsius to hear a leader who apparently does not have many voters left? Second question: Will her 2007 Sarvajan formula, based on the premise that a Brahmin (or any other upper caste) BSP candidate will get Brahmin support, endure? Over to counting day.

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