Will the SC/ST Amendment Act change the game for BJP?
As the Madhya Pradesh elections come closer, the BJP seems to have suffered a blow to its image since the SC/ ST Amendment Bill has been passed by all parties in the Parliament which was not in sync with the Supreme Court judgment on the same issue. With the BJP trying to assuage the sentiments of the protesting Dalits (Scheduled Castes or SCs) and Adivasis (Scheduled Tribes or STs) with a very intensive outreach programme to woo them, they could actually alienate the core upper caste support group which has been the strength of the party. In fact, as per a report in Mint, the upper caste vote bank for the BJP is more than that of the Muslims for the Congress i.e. one in two upper caste voters voted for the party. This speaks volumes for a party’s votebank even though since 2014, the party has tried to assimilate all the Hindus under one wing.
This issue has been picked up by the Opposition Congress who are trying to make gains out of this in the forthcoming elections. For that, let’s try to understand what the SC/ST Atrocities Act and the surrounding controversy was all about.
What was the Centre’s reaction to the SC Judgment?
On March 20, a two-judge Bench of the Supreme Court passed a judgment which pointed out that there were ‘instances of abuse’ of the Act for political or personal reasons. Hence, the judgment spelt out certain guidelines for arrests under the Act. The court stated that the immediate arrest of an accused under this law would no longer be mandatory and it was necessary for a preliminary enquiry by the probing agency or the police and only after that could an arrest take place. This was the major takeaway point which led to nationwide agitation by the various Dalit groups putting great political pressure on the Centre to take immediate action against the Judgment.
Although, the Minority groups and the Opposition criticized the judgment, within the NDA also partners like LJP led by Ram Vilas Paswan threatened a stir if no action was taken by them. In haste to take action soon enough, the NDA passed the Bill in both the Houses of the Parliament in the Monsoon session itself. This move is seen to be linked to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections as well as the Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chattisgarh later this year – the three states have a substantial population of Scheduled Tribes and the Centre wanted to dispel the fears of the marginalized community. The new legislation will help restore the old provisions of the SC/ST Act, allowing police action against the accused and does away with the clause of preliminary inquiry to file an FIR as well as removes the clause of anticipatory bail to the accused.
Has BJP been sensitive to the SC/ST community in their 4 year rule?
Always believed to be a party of the Upper Castes, NDA’s senior Ministers sensed the perceptions against the party of not being sensitive to the SC and ST community.
In the past four years of its rule, the BJP has constantly come under fire for its insensitivity to the marginal communities from various Dalit groups and individuals. They met with severe protests in 2016 – one in Una, Gujarat in 2016 after a group of Dalits were beaten by cow vigilantes and the nationwide protests that erupted after the death of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula at University of Hyderabad in 2016, the issue of the reservations criteria in educational institutions which is not being fulfilled causing discrimination among the mobile aspiring Dalit youth.
Is the SC/ST amendment posing political problems to the BJP?
With an upper caste and an OBC organization formed in Madhya Pradesh led by a former IAS Officer protesting against the amendments made by the Centre against the SC order, it seems like there might be a little political drama to capture the votebank before the elections and MP elections in particular. Although the Bill was passed in consensus with all other party members including the Opposition, the Congress is trying its hands to gain something out of this.
The reaction to this by the Upper castes is beginning to surface especially in the poll-bound states. The people, as well as the BJP, is currently facing a dilemma. On one hand, the fact that BJP has brought out the SC/ST amendment act over the SC’s judgment has upset its core voters – the upper caste and on the other hand, they are unsure of whether they will be able to get the Dalit votes. This comes from the previous analysis trends where the Dalits have majorly voted for the BSP and are seen to ally with the parties associated with their identity politics. Many of them are not willing to speak on this issue confused as to how to take this forward.
The Congress party media in-charge and Haryana MLA, Randeep Singh Surjewala openly used the caste card mentioning that ‘there is Brahmin Samaj’s DNA within the Congress. Such statements point to immaturity within the Congress party on dealing with such sensitive issues. Other leaders have also pointed to very balanced statements mentioning that even the upper castes have the right to protest. But despite this, the anger of the public seems to be directed only at the Government. The BJP has been caught by both the organization of the upper-castes on one hand in Madhya Pradesh and by the Dalits on the other hand. They were confident that the upper castes would back them as they had done throughout these years, which is why they tried to reach out to the Dalits also but that effort has now caused tension for them. According to Rabindra Nath in Asian Age, he mentions that Brahmins comprise 5%, Thakurs 2%, Banias 3% and Kayasthas about 2.5% who are the key upper caste voters constituting around 13% of the total population in Madhya Pradesh. Add to that the composition of OBC caste groups and that comes to about 60%. The gap between the votes garnered by the BJP and the Congress in the last three Assembly elections in the state has been around 8.5% and any decision to sideline the BJP by these caste groups may end up in Congress gaining power.
On the other hand, the Congress leaders in the forefront – Kamal Nath, Jyotiraditya Scindhia and Digvijaya Singh are part of the upper caste. However, the Congress party has not come up with a clear strategy to include the upper caste, fearing loss of Dalit votebank.
The BJP now needs to rework its strategy to pacify both the sides if it wants to stay in the game although it is going to be difficult this time. All BJP has got now is to internally hope that the anger directed at it by the Upper caste groups subsides. Only then, can they heave a sigh of relief? They are right now walking on thin ice.