NEW DELHI -- The Bharatiya Janata Party is in for a world of pain for insulting the Dalit community not once, but twice, in a matter of days.
The widespread protests in Gujarat over the brutal assault on four young Dalit men by cow vigilantes, in tandem with Dayashankar Singh referring to Mayawati as a "prostitute", have dealt a huge blow to BJP's campaign to woo the Dalits ahead of the Uttar Pradesh State Assembly elections in 2017. Uttar Pradesh has traditionally been viewed as the country's most politically significant state.
While the assault in Gujarat is a straight case of physical violence against Dalits, the comparison of Mayawati to a prostitute by an upper caste Hindu male reveals the insidious hold of millenia-old anti-Dalit prejudice and contempt that is nothing but a form of extreme mental violence. And no amount of politically correct gestures and attempts at electoral engineering can now hide the perverse mindset lurking at the core of BJP's leadership, or undo the pain and humiliation unleashed by the two episodes.
The BJP has worked hard to mend fences after being tainted by the suicide of Dalit student Rohith Vemula, earlier this year, but now its president Amit Shah could have as many meals with Dalit families as he wishes to, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi could induct more Dalits into his cabinet, it still wouldn't undo the damage caused to BJP's prospects in the UP Assembly polls.
In an interview with Livemint, Chandra Bhan Prasad, advisor to the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said that Dalits have been beaten and bullied irrespective of the party in power, but since the BJP came to power in 2014, "violence against Dalits are related to organized groups" such as the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the students' group of the BJP, and cow vigilantes.
Some might argue that the practical fallout of alienating Dalits will be minimal in the context of the U.P. elections since the community will largely be voting for Mayawati in any case. This isn't entirely true because there are marginalized sections within the Dalit community, which the BJP is trying to tap, such as the washermen (Sonkar), the vegetable vendors (Khatiks), and Musahars, who have traditionally been called rat-eaters and have been relegated to doing the most menial chores.
In light of these episodes, the BJP will also be afraid off tactical voting by Dalits with the sole aim of defeating the BJP.
Even though the BJP has expelled Singh, the Bahujan Samaj Party isn't quite ready to let the incident go. There is little doubt that the BSP will highlight this insult over and over again to score points against the BJP during the electoral battle for U.P.
Sociologist Shiv Visvanathan, a professor at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy, says that while Mayawati describing herself as a "goddess" betrays "arrogance" which is antithetical to a democracy, Singh's sacking is only a "tactical and procedural" move by the BJP that does not demonstrate any real desire for reform.
"There are no ethics, no political imagination, only political correctness," he said.
Ashutosh Misra, professor of political science at Lucknow University, agrees that expelling Singh, especially after Mayawati herself raised the issue in the Parliament, did not come across as remorse, but more like damage control.
According to Misra, if the BJP were truly sorry, then the party would have issued an apology immediately after the remark became public and ordered an FIR against Singh. Misra also pointed out that a police complaint would have been of no real implication for a politician, but would have had tremendous "symbolic value."
"The BJP has made a fatal mistake," he said.
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