The Bharatiya Janata Party is confident that the opposition’s attempt to brand it as “anti-Dalit” has not worked and that the Rohith Vemula and Una incidents will not dent its election prospects in either Punjab or in Uttar Pradesh, both states with a sizable Dalit population. While Punjab has 32% Dalits, UP has 21%.
Former Union minister and senior Dalit leader, Sanjay Paswan of the BJP, while accepting that the 11 July Una incident, where four Dalit youths were flogged for skinning a dead cow and the death of Rohith Vemula had damaged the party’s image for a while, stated that the swift damage control measures initiated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi had allayed the concerns of the Dalits.
“After the Rohith Vemula incident there was a steep fall (in the Dalit’s trust in BJP), which got momentum because of the Una incident. But after the PM spoke, people realised that the BJP cared about Dalits, unlike the perception that was being created by the opposition. The intervention by PM Modi has stopped the erosion (of the Dalit’s trust in BJP) that had started. The damage control measure was swift and is still going on. Dalits have understood that a very negative perception about the BJP’s views regarding them was being created. However, this negative perception has been dealt with now and there will be no impact of these incidents on our election prospects in either Punjab or Uttar Pradesh,” he said.
The BJP’s national vice president and Punjab-in-charge, Prabhat Jha, too feels that the fact that swift action was taken against the perpetrators of the Una incident, has taken care of any negative impact that the incident might have had on the BJP. “These incidents will not have any impact on the poll prospects of the BJP. Our party workers were not behind what happened in Una. Sometimes such unfortunate and condemnable incidents happen but the government would have been at fault if it had not taken any action after the incident was reported, but our government in Gujarat acted swiftly and the guilty were put behind bars,” he said.
Jha told The Sunday Guardian that he had extensively travelled in the interiors of Punjab in the last few months and had not witnessed any incident of any Dalit expressing anger against the BJP.
According to Chandigarh based senior BJP leader Vineet Joshi, who is also media adviser to the Punjab government, the fact that the Central government took quick action and made sure that such incidents were not repeated, negated the possibility of the Dalits getting angry with the BJP. “For the sake of vote politics, opposition parties can say anything, but the fact is that we took immediate action and made sure that such incidents are not repeated. Where is the question of BJP being anti-Dalit? Our Punjab state president is a Dalit and the leader of the party’s legislature group too is a Dalit. Despite Punjab having around 32% Dalit population, we are the only party which has appointed a Dalit as its president in the state.”
Guru Prakash, who is associated with the India Foundation and has written extensively on Dalit issues, asserted that the anti-Dalit image that the opposition parties tried to give the BJP, was a non-starter. “Punjab has the highest Scheduled Castes population, but the Dalit movement that we are seeing in Gujarat is sporadic in nature and a localised event and will soon be forgotten by the public unless and until something like this (Una) happens again. At the most, the issues related to Una and Rohith Vemula will have a very marginal impact on the state elections,” he said.
Whether it be the expulsion of Dayashankar Singh in Uttar Pradesh after he compared BSP chief Mayawati to a prostitute or the condemnation of the cow vigilantes group after the Una incident, the BJP has been swift in its response, which party leaders feel was a result of the flak that it received on the way it handled the Rohith Vemula suicide issue.