Bharat Bandh: Are political parties in overdrive about Dalit-votes?
On Monday, Dalits called a nationwide bandh protesting Supreme Court's March 20 judgment "diluting" the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. This wasn't just any protest. It witnessed intense agitation and sporadic violence leaving at least nine dead. That's not all. It also received unequivocal support across the political spectrum. Why is it that no political party wants to come across as opposing the protest?
Firstt off, why are the Dalits protesting?
On March 20, SC barred registration of cases and automatic arrest in alleged cases of harassment of SCs/STs under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities Act) 1989. The purpose, it said, was to protect honest public servants from being blackmailed with false cases. Dalits contend that SC's order makes the Act completely ineffective and toothless. They fear that this could increase violence against SCs/STs.
How did political parties across the spectrum react?
Opposition backed the protests. BSP-supremo Mayawati slammed the government for not presenting the facts correctly. Congress asked that the judgment be reviewed as it promoted "insecurity" among Dalits. BJP was quick to come to the protesters' rescue, promptly filing a review petition in the SC. Another Dalit protector Lok Janshakti Party's Chirag Paswan said BJP had taken away the strongest instrument Dalits had.
So, why is the Dalit constituency so important?
The most obvious reason is that their sheer numbers across regions make them crucial. Significantly, they are present in large numbers in states which contributed to BJP's 2014 Lok Sabha victory. In UP, they constitute about 22% of the population, 17% in both Bihar and Rajasthan and 15% in MP. In these states, apart from the reserved seats, they can influence electoral battles.
Now, which parties do Dalits support?
Dalits have traditionally supported the Congress. However, the community slowly shifted to regional parties like BSP and mainly to the BJP. By elevating President Ram Nath Kovind as the country's president, BJP sent the message that it's sensitive to the Dalit cause. This was also in line with the BJP/RSS's social philosophy that Dalits are an important part of the Hindutva brand.
With 2019 polls coming up, Dalits are a sought-after electorate
Thus, Dalits have emerged as an impressive group raising their voice on representation, reservations, jobs or violence by upper castes. Leaders like Jignesh Mevani in Gujarat showed that they can drive a hard bargain with political parties. This protest proved that they can also be a strong pressure group. So, parties like BSP, SP, RJD, BJP, Congress, etc. are hoping to garner their support.