Eating with Dalits at their home is fast becoming farce and BJP needs course correction in this regard as leaders have caused much embarrassment in this Dalit outreach program
The BJP’s Dalit outreach programme, Gram Swaraj Abhiyan, is causing some prime time embarrassment to the ruling party instead of winning the hearts of the miffed community critical to its electoral fortunes. And the party has only itself to blame.
On 6 April, Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked all BJP MPs and ministers to spend time in villages and bastis (shantytowns) with more than 50 percent Scheduled Caste population. The programme, called Gram Swaraj, started on 10 April, and is scheduled to go on until 5 May.
Many obedient BJP leaders rushed to fulfil the PM’s wish, only to make a mockery of the entire exercise by ordering food and mineral water from outside to consume at Dalit homes. With just two days left for the campaign to conclude, it is ending up looking like a farce, drawing strong criticism from Dalit leaders including some from within the BJP.
“The exercise is more like humiliating Dalits,” Udit Raj, the BJP MP from North West Delhi and a senior Dalit leader, told. “First, you go to Dalit houses to have food with them, and then you arrange for food and mineral water from outside. In my view it is doubly humiliating for Dalits.” He went on to add, “Rahul Gandhi tried this politics in the past and failed miserably. Now, we have adopted this. This is doing more harm to the party.”
In January 2009, Rahul Gandhi, along with the British foreign secretary of the time, David Miliband, had spent a night at a Dalit household in Amethi. At the time, he was criticised by the BJP, which had said Gandhi was indulging in “poverty tourism”.
However, the BJP itself adopted the idea in a bid to add Dalits to its vote bank. A large number of Dalits voted for the party in the 2014 general elections, and in the 2017 Uttar Pradesh assembly elections as well.
But in the recent by-elections in UP and Rajasthan, the community deserted the BJP, resulting in its defeat. Atrocities on Dalits were also reported from several BJP-ruled states, which put the party in a fix. The BJP was also pushed on to the back foot over the Supreme Court’s 20 March order perceived to have diluted the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
The government has filed a review petition in the Supreme Court and also vowed to bring an amendment if the court upholds its earlier order. But that hasn’t convinced Dalits, who went on a nationwide strike on 2 April, in which 12 people died across the country.
In UP, five BJP Dalit MPs spoke against the Modi government, and said it had done little for the community.
The BJP’s fear of losing the Dalit vote has resulted in this new campaign, which began on 5 April when party chief Amit Shah had lunch at a Dalit house in Bolangir, Odisha. While Shah was eating inside, villagers were protesting outside the house over the government’s stand on the SC/ST Act issue. On 30 April, UP minister Suresh Rana went unannounced to a Dalit house in Aligarh district at night. Food and mineral water were ordered from outside, and the minister had dinner with the family.
“I was not aware of the minister’s visit. Everything was pre-planned, the food came from outside and I was asked to sit in the house,” said Rajnish Kumar Singh, the house owner.
But Rana denied the allegation. “The whole village is inhabited by Dalits, and I received a lot of affection,” Rana told reporters. “The food was prepared in the village itself. Some people are trying to unnecessarily create issues as they can’t stand the development being done by (UP CM) Yogi ji and (PM) Modi ji.”
On 1 May, another UP minister, Rajendra Pratap Singh controversially compared himself to Lord Ram after eating at a Dalit home in Jhansi. “Ram aur Shabari ka samvaad Ramayan mein hai. Aaj jab Gyan ji ki maa ne mujhe roti parosi to unhone kaha ‘mera uddhar ho gaya’ (The dialogue between Ram and Shabari features in the Ramayana. Today when Gyan ji’s mother served me roti, she said ‘I have been uplifted’),” he told reporters after his visit.
“Main ek Kshatriya hoon aur dharm ki raksha karna mere rakt mein hai. Inhe lagta hai ki inhe ye anmol cheez mili hai jise yeh kharid nahi sakte (I am a Kshatriya, and protecting dharma is in my blood. They feel they have received this priceless gift, which they can’t buy).”
On the other hand, senior BJP leader and union minister Uma Bharti contradicted Rajendra Pratap. “I don’t consider myself Lord Ram that I could purify Dalits by eating at their home. Instead, I prefer inviting Dalits to my home and serving them personally,” Bharti said at the Samajik Samrasta Bhoj in Naugaon’s Gadhmau village in Chhatarpur, Madhya Pradesh while refusing to take part in the mass meal.
“When Dalits come to our house and eat together, it is then that we will become pure.”
The BJP’s photo-ops have been criticised by Dalit activists such as Prakash Ambedkar, grandson of Dr B.R. Ambedkar.
“The BJP is a ridiculous party. The issue of dining with Dalits was over in the 1940s and 1950s. Rather than indulging in these theatrics, it should have focussed on real issues faced by Dalits today,” he said.
Asked why only parties like the BJP and the Congress indulged in ‘food politics’ and not the likes of the Bahujan Samaj Party or the Rashtriya Janata Dal, BJP MP Udit Raj said: “Why would the BSP or the RJD do it? Only those who consider Dalits as ‘inferior’ people do things like this.”