Rahul Gandhi learnt it the hard way and, by all indicators, BJP president Amit Shah will learn it the harder way.
Simply because he has much more to lose. Rahul Gandhi’s famous Dalit sojourns in Uttar Pradesh from 2009 to 2012, in the build up to the UP elections and the subsequent results, made him an object of ridicule owing to the specious, tailormade-for-media effort to connect with the Dalit community.
|Is Amit Shah now doing a Rahul Gandhi?
It singed the Congress party’s tryst with Dalits and their vote bank as it was as flawed as any policy could be.
Enter 2016. Two back-to-back tailormade events showcasing BJP party president Amit Shah, hobnobbing with the Dalit community, had several BJP leaders in UP wondering - are we also headed the Congress way?
Ever since the Narendra Modi government came to power in 2014, there has been a concerted effort to appropriate Dalits and their icons. The most famous being Dr BR Ambedkar.
Last year, the Modi government announced that Ambedkar's 125th birth anniversary will be celebrated as “Samajiksamrasta diwas”. On that particular day, PM Modi was at Ambedkar’s birthplace at Mhow, MP. As a long-term strategy, BJP was cruising along on a smooth line.
But barely a year away from the all-important election of Uttar Pradesh, BJP president Amit Shah has upped the ante in his pursuit of the elusive Dalit vote.
During Simhastha Kumbh, Amit Shah had a holy dip along with Dalit seers at the Valmiki Ghat of Kshipra river and then later shared a meal with them. The programme was named Samrastasnan (social harmony bath).
As the event and its significance picked up pace on news channels and the print media, the BJP leaders tried their best to downplay the incident and said the gesture was not political. But its intent was not lost on anybody.
On May 31, BJP president Amit Shah was on his way to Allahabad from Varansi to hold a rally and on the way stopped at a Dalit house in Jogiyarpur village of Varanasi, to share lunch with the members. The photographs which came out after Shah's visit were strikingly similar to the ones people had seen of Rahul Gandhi in the run-up to 2012 Assembly elections in UP.
The ruling SP and BSP were quick to criticise this. UP CM Akhilesh Yadav didn't mince words and called it drama while BSP leader Mayawati called it a "nautanki (drama)", adding that the BJP could never be a well-wisher of the Dalits.
A section in the BJP feels that though the intent may be genuine, the overt projection of this new-found love for Dalits may boomerang badly for the party in the election.
“If the party is thinking that like 2014, a major chunk of Mayawati votebank's will go to BJP, then they are sadly mistaken. 2014 was Modiwave. 2017 is a completely different election and we will have toacknowledge the changed ground reality,” says a UP BJP leader.
Though the BJP leaders were quick to downplay this by saying it was just an impromptu stopover at a party workers' home, the explanation didn’t cut much ice.
There are several within the UP BJP who feel that if the Opposition is able to get this impression across to the electorate, it might end up upsetting the BJP's upper caste and non-Yadav OBC votebank instead of getting the saffron party Dalit votes.
The UP unit also feels that with the aggressive wooing of Brahmins and upper caste voters by both the BSP, the Congress and the SP, this overture of the BJP can very easily upset the caste calculus in UP and then they will be neither here nor there.
The majority of leaders in UP believe that that Dalits are a mainstay of Mayawati’s votebank and will not get swayed by the symbolic gestures and the party will have to adopt a better narrative to win them over.
And as a UP BJP leader summed it up perfectly: "If we don’t play to our strength in UP and keep on chasing mirages, then our situationc ould very well be like – Na khuda mila, na Visaley sanam”.