Modi Fights to Woo Once ‘Untouchable’ Votes in State Poll

  • A win in Uttar Pradesh would add momentum to push reforms
  • Indian PM seeks to ease tensions over ‘cow vigilantes’

In a small village near the Ganges, deep in the hinterland of Uttar Pradesh, an attack on a 13 year-old girl and her father symbolizes the challenge for Prime Minister Narendra Modi ahead of elections in India’s most populous state.

Sudha and her 50 year-old father Charan Singh, who farms a one-acre sugarcane plot, occupy the lowest rung of the country’s caste system: they are Dalits, once known as "Untouchables." There are more than 41 million Dalits in Uttar Pradesh, roughly one-fifth of the northern state’s population.

Charan Singh
Charan Singh
Photgrapher: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg

One afternoon in August, when Sudha went to drink from a water pump at a local Hindu temple, she said the priest yelled that she was polluting the water and slapped her face. As she ran to her father, the priest followed with a five-and-a-half foot trident, a symbol of the Hindu deity Shiva. With an accomplice, the priest repeatedly stabbed the Dalit farmer and beat him unconscious, Singh said, showing the scars on his back.

Local police, who confirmed the events, charged and jailed the two men under a law that covers crimes against underprivileged groups, and said the pair confessed. They are awaiting trial. It’s just one incident in a recent surge in attacks.

Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party is seeking to woo Dalits in order to win the state’s legislative elections, which would give him greater momentum to push his economic agenda at the national level.

BJP election poster in Aligarh.
BJP election poster in Aligarh.
Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg

The vote in Uttar Pradesh, scheduled for early next year, is the most important among a raft of state elections in 2017. It would give Modi a friendly government in the state and boost the BJP’s strength in the opposition-dominated national upper house of parliament, where some key legislation has been stuck. A win would also help propel the prime minister towards a potential second term in 2019.

While the BJP dominated Uttar Pradesh in the 2014 national elections, Modi faces a tough fight for Dalit votes against several caste-based parties -- in a state where caste is the most important factor for voters.

Singh, who voted for the BJP two years ago, said he will now support the Bahujan Samaj Party led by four-time former state chief minister Mayawati, India’s most powerful Dalit politician. Mayawati, who goes by one name, has accused Modi and the BJP of failing Dalits. Singh’s neighbors in their village say they too have lost faith in Modi and will vote for the BSP.

"When the whole world was saying ‘Modi, Modi,’ we could not be left behind. We wanted development," Singh said. "But nothing changed. We are disappointed."

The BJP is regarded as a party of upper-castes and the urban business elite. It is also the natural political home for Hindu hardliners who have caused image problems for Modi by attacking Muslims and other lower-caste Hindus.

‘Cow Vigilantes’

In Modi’s home state of Gujarat, so-called "cow vigilantes" posted a video of them beating Dalits who had skinned a dead cow. Hindus consider cows holy and BJP politicians have urged people to treat cows as they would their mothers. Dalits dispose of a cow’s body when it dies -- they earn a living from selling the skin and other body parts. The attacks prompted widespread Dalit protests, leading to the resignation of the state’s BJP chief minister.

In the wake of the assaults, the BJP has tried to ease tensions. Modi has said: "If you want to attack, attack me, not Dalits."

These efforts will be crucial in Uttar Pradesh. Party leaders, including president Amit Shah, have sat cross-legged on the ground and eaten food with Dalit families, considered taboo by many upper-caste Hindus. BJP leaders have lionized the legacy of former Dalit leader B.R. Ambedkar, the architect of India’s constitution, and helped Dalits gain access to Hindu temples.

Latest Polling

In the last national elections, the BJP swept the state of Uttar Pradesh and won 24 percent of the Dalit vote nationwide, more than any other individual party, according to one analysis.

It’s unclear if Modi can repeat that outcome at a state level. A recent poll by the Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies showed the ruling Samajwadi Party is ahead of the BJP. The survey, conducted in July and August, suggests no one party will win a clear majority, according to Saurabh Mukherjea, Ambit Capital Pvt. Ltd.’s chief executive officer of institutional equities.

"Dalits who had rallied behind the Bharatiya Janata Party during the general elections of 2014 seem to be reverting to Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party," Mukherjea wrote in a research note on Aug. 25. "With the absence of a chief ministerial candidate also hurting the BJP, it appears unlikely that the BJP will be able to repeat the success story of 2014 general elections."

The election will be viewed as a critical mid-term referendum on the Modi government, said Richard M. Rossow, the Wadhwani Chair in U.S. India Policy Studies at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Expectations are quite high for the BJP to win Uttar Pradesh back from the Samajwadi Party. Failure in this regard will have pundits sounding the party’s death knell."

In the city of Aligarh, where pot-holed roads are choked with bullock carts, local BJP leaders recently led a motorcycle rally. Carrying Indian and BJP flags on bamboo poles, supporters gathered around a local BJP leader and showered him with rose petals.

BJP motorcycle rally.
BJP motorcycle rally.
Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg

BJP organizer Jai Thakur said the party is trying to win Dalit support, insisting Mayawati’s party has been unable to stop attacks against them and had done nothing over its four terms to improve the state’s infrastructure. He said Uttar Pradesh’s predominant Yadav caste -- one of the so-called "other backward classes" who account for roughly half of the state’s population -- and Muslims, which have both tended to vote for the Samajwadi Party, are also fed up.

"While the other parties are using Dalits as vote banks, their condition is not improving," Thakur said.

Diwakar Shukla
Diwakar Shukla
Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg

Diwakar Shukla, a 29-year-old at the rally, said Modi’s efforts appealed to rural youth. “These small regional parties who have ruled the state for decades, they have not provided roads, electricity, jobs or anything to youths.”

BSP Campaign

Above a demolished shop in a small town in Uttar Pradesh’s rural Sambhal district, Mayawati’s BSP party is working to foil Modi’s plans to win the state.

Despite not winning a single seat in the last federal election, the BSP received nearly 20 percent of the vote in the state and local BSP leader Pratap Singh said his party plans to win over Dalits in Uttar Pradesh by promising to shower them with benefits.

"Only the corporate houses get benefits from Modi’s policies, not the poor,” Singh said. “His efforts to woo Dalits are not there on the ground.”

According to the National Crime Records Bureau, Uttar Pradesh leads the country in violence against Dalits. In 2015 there were 8,358 attacks against Dalits, up from 8,075 in 2014. Across India, there were 44,941 attacks against Dalits in 2015.

Pratap Singh
Pratap Singh
Photgrapher: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomerg

"We know Modi has been talking about stopping the attacks. But the BJP people don’t come here," said Singh, the father of Sudha, whose family earns around $2 per day.

There is at least some BJP presence in their tiny village: On the white wall of the Hindu temple where the priest allegedly slapped Sudha, there is a faded BJP poster from 2014, with an image of Modi smiling and waving his hand.

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