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After String of Gaffes by UP Ministers, Dalit BJP MPs Ask Party to End House Calls

Ahead of general elections next year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP face the challenge of winning the trust of Dalits from within as Dalit voices in the BJP have also been vocal against atrocities on Dalits.

Abhishek Patni | CNN-News18Abhishek_Patni

Updated:May 8, 2018, 11:35 PM IST
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After String of Gaffes by UP Ministers, Dalit BJP MPs Ask Party to End House Calls
BJP President Amit Shah having lunch at a Dalit household (File photo: PTI)
New Delhi: The BJP’s latest ‘dine with Dalits’ outreach doesn’t seem to have gone down well with the saffron party’s own lawmakers from the Dalit community. After a string of embarrassing incidents and statements, the BJP’s Dalit MPs want the party to put an immediate end to such visits to Dalit homes.

Bahraich MP Savitri Phule says the exercise is fuelling distrust among Dalits. “When you need Dalit votes, mosquitoes are not a problem,” she tells News18, taking a dig at UP minister Anupama Jaiswal who had complained of mosquito bites during her visit to a Dalit home.

“These visits do not serve any purpose. When you go to a Dalit’s home, the idea is to realise how a Dalit lives. Instead, you eat shahi paneer, dal makhni, pulao and gulab jamuns and then share the photo on Twitter, WhatsApp and Facebook,” says Phule, this time referencing minister Suresh Rana’s visit to a Dalit home.

Rana had landed uninvited at a Dalit family’s home in Aligarh's Lohagarh village with party supporters and had allegedly ordered the food and cutlery from outside. He has denied the allegations.

Phule is not alone in her anger. Dr Sanjay Paswan, president of the party’s Scheduled Caste wing, also wants the BJP to go slow on the visits to Dalit families. He says the BJP won’t gain much from the outreach if the leaders who are part of it don’t know what’s needed to be done. "For example, not many non-Dalit leaders, who take part in Samrasta Bhog Abhiyan, know that most Dalits are non-vegetarians. In one day, they cannot teach the Dalits to be vegetarians."

BJP MP Udit Raj, who is also a Dalit, says the party seems to have been caught in a time wrap as some leaders still feel they are doing the Dalits a “favour” by dining with them.

“Today's Dailt is not a Dailt from the 1960s or 70s. Today, Dalits know how to assert themselves and the party must realise this fact,” says Raj in apparent reference to UP minister Thakur Rajendra Pratap Singh’s controversial statement that BJP leaders visiting Dalit homes was akin to “Lord Ram visiting Shabari’s home”.

Ahead of general elections next year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP face the challenge of winning the trust of Dalits who have taken to protests against atrocities on minorities and the dilution of the SC/ST Protection Act. The saffron party also faces a similar challenge from within as Dalit voices in the BJP have also been vocal against atrocities on minorities.

In political math, 1+1 is rarely 2. Had that been the case, the Samajwadi Party-Congress combination wouldn’t have lost to the BJP in Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections.

The party may have shed its traditional ‘Brahmin-Baniya’ image to woo Dalits ahead of the 2014 elections and the same may have worked well for it in UP Assembly elections, but recent controversies may have eroded some of the trust the party had generated.

“Brahmin, Baniya, Thakur and other ‘upper caste’ BJP leaders may be following the #DineOutWithDalit diktat, but mentally they still do not find themselves comfortable eating at a Dalit’s home,” says a Dalit scholar from Uttar Pradesh.

The Dalit vote is a factor in several seats in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.

Mindful of the controversies, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, too, had warned the BJP over trips to Dalit homes, though it was followed by a quick denial.

The Sangh perhaps forgot that a lot of damage has been caused by its leaders as well. RSS leader Manmohan Vaidya had triggered a furore last year when he pitched for reservation to be scrapped. He was, however, quick to issue a retraction.

“It is the official stance of the RSS that reservation should continue, which the Sangh has proved from time to time by passing resolutions about it in its Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabhas. The Sangh is determined to remove social inequality and create social harmony in the society,” he had said.

Statements and controversies like these have snowballed into anger against a party which boasts of giving India a Dalit President.

Savitri Phule has taken exception to this claim as well. “I am a Member of Parliament from my constituency, not a Dalit MP…. Similarly Ram Nath Kovind is the President of India and not the Dalit President of India.”

Dalit thinker and scholar Kancha Ilaiah says the BJP might have managed to woo Dalit votes to gain power in 2014, but Dalits within may be getting restless with the party increasing the Brahmins, Banias and other castes among its ranks. “This is why so many Dalit MPs are openly coming out and speaking against the party,” says Ilaiah. He adds that sending a Dalit to the Rashtrapati Bhavan is not enough and that the party needs to change its mindset towards Dalits.

“It’s not just the BJP’s #DineOutWithDalit program but the dilution of SC/ST Atrocities Act and the fear of losing reservation that the Dalits have developed cold feet,” he says.

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has dismissed the controversies during his ministers’ visits as exceptions. In an interview to CNN-News18, he said, “Few instances of MPs being caught on wrong the foot cannot be described as a rule, but an exception.”

Rule or exception, these visits have given fodder to the Congress. “The manner in which BJP netas are speaking is not only an insult to Dalits but to our democracy. The BJP has taken this photo opportunity and reality TV to another level,” says Congress spokesperson Sanjay Jha.

The ‘Dining With Dalits’ controversy is not new for the BJP. In May last year, its CM candidate BS Yeddyurappa was booked for “practising untouchability” after he refused to eat pulao prepared at a Dalit home in Tumkuru, but ordered idly and vada from a local hotel.

According to Indudar Honnapura, a Bengaluru-based Dalit activist, “All these leaders believe in symbolism. Even today, Dalits are not allowed inside temples. Discrimination happens at many places over drinking water. Many hotels in Bengaluru are reluctant to give entry to Dalits. Why this symbolism?”

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| Edited by: Nitya Thirumalai
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