While no one can blame the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for every communal or anti-Dalit incident, as the party with the most to lose from negative perceptions, the BJP has no one to blame but itself for consistently losing the perceptions war.
It will be a minor miracle if the BJP emerges politically undamaged by the rising tide of Dalit resentment and resistance to discrimination and oppression. It is not as if the oppression is a post-May 2014 phenomenon or even that the BJP is substantially responsible for recent incidents of anti-Dalit violence. Many caste-based regional parties have been as guilty as the BJP on this score. Even Dalits who converted to Islam and Christianity have complained of discrimination.
But the fact that Dalit oppression is not a BJP-specific malaise is no guarantee that it will not be blamed for it. In terms of perception, it will always be Suspect No.1 in any incident involving Dalit violence for the simple reason that, as a Hindu party, it will be presumed to have caste biases embedded in its DNA. The same presumption will hold in any case of communal violence too.
The party has not helped itself by appearing like a deer caught in the headlights, frozen into inaction every time a cow activist attacks a Dalit or a Muslim. Or when a Rohit Vemula commits suicide. When perception politics works against the BJP, doing nothing or saying “the law will take its own course” is not an option. It has to both say and do something meaningful to distance itself from wrongdoing. But this is not happening, much to the delight of its political opponents.
The BJP does not seem to understand that in politics, as in life, perception is as good as reality. In terms of public perception, the BJP is “Hindu” (especially upper-caste Hindu) and “nationalist”. Conversely, it means that it will not be seen as “secular” or pro-Dalit. Despite owning the slogan “sabka saath, sabka vikas”, this label is very difficult to attach to the BJP. Congress has a better claim to this branding even if It has done little to deserve it after ruling the country for nearly 60 years, either on its own or in a coalition headed or supported by it. It also owns the word “secular” despite backing subtle forms of minority communalism and doing little for Muslims.
The laws of branding are clear: when you own a certain perception, real or unreal, you are both helped and limited by it. The Congress is helped by the perception that it is secular just as the BJP is helped by the perception that it is Hindu. Conversely, it is very difficult for the Congress to seek the Hindu vote, and for the BJP to seek the Muslim vote. The Dalit vote, despite being reckoned as part of a larger Hindu aggregation, is perceptionally leaning away from the BJP and towards Congress, though Dalits know that ultimately no party has given them their due, including Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party. But, perceptionally, Dalits would be most inclined to Dalit parties.
If the BJP wants the Dalit vote, it has to be more proactive in the way it woos them, and responds to their concerns. But this is exactly what it is not doing.
While no one can blame the BJP for every communal or anti-Dalit incident, as the party with the most to lose from negative perceptions, the BJP has no one to blame but itself for consistently losing the perceptions war. Tragedies like a Vemula suicide or the caning of Dalits by cow activists may not always be anticipated or prevented, but surely the BJP can respond quickly to cut its losses?
For example, what prevented the BJP from quickly regretting the Vemula suicide and creating, say, a scholarship for Dalit students in his memory? What prevents an Amit Shah or a Narendra Modi from quickly condemning the caning of Dalits in Gujarat and making amends? Why is an inept Chief Minister being left to muddle through and make the BJP seem like an uncaring party? What stops the BJP from forming a Hindu-Dalit programme for building good equations between the castes, and quickly punishing those who are guilty of taking the law into their own hands? Even in the busines of cow protection, why not promise Dalits a role in cow protection that will give them an income and a livelihood? Why force them to work on dead carcasses and then be ungrateful to them for doing a job you anyway won’t do?
Without a direct Dalit outreach, the BJP’s national footprint will be wiped out quickly in the next major election. It can also kiss Uttar Pradesh goodbye.