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Wheels Come Off BJP’s Meet-Dalit-Take-Selfie Gram Swaraj Abhiyan Campaign

The exercise insults Dalits, say BJP’s own Dalit Members of Parliament.

Narendra Modi’s attempts to reach out to Dalits is clearly not working. The Modi government’s Gram Swaraj Abhiyan which kicked off on April 10 envisaged all BJP MPs, including ministers, spending a night in villages with more than 50% Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe population. But the programme that is set to end on May 5 has faced severe criticism for turning out to be a politics of photo ops.    

Suresh Rana, the minister of State (independent charge) for cane development and sugar mills in the Uttar Pradesh government, visited a Dalit home for dinner on April 30 and reportedly carried with him his own food, water and cutlery. Reacting to criticisms from the Congress, Rana defended himself on Friday, saying, “I want to convey one thing to the leaders of the Congress that the Dalit tourism undertaken by them is not a tradition of the BJP.” He denied he had carried food from outside to the Dalit house. “In fact, all food items were cooked in the village and by the villagers. The programme was organised by the local MLA (Anoop Valmiki) and the village pradhan,” he said.  

But Rajnish Kumar Singh, the Dalit man who hosted Rana, did not agree. “I was asked to sit in the house,” Singh told the Times of India. “Dinner was brought from outside along with bottles of mineral water. It was just a formality or a photo-op for the minister to be at a Dalit’s house.”

Gram Swaraj Abhiyan also tasked BJP ministers to spread awareness among the poor about government schemes such as “free LPG connections”, “free vaccinations for children” and the Jan-Dhan Yojana. 

But the strategy has not cut ice with the section of voters it was aimed at. Dalit leaders in the party have called out Modi and Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath several times for the scheme’s ‘anti-Dalit’ approach.

Photo-ops politics

On May 1, reaching great heights of condescension, another UP minister, Rajendra Pratap Singh, compared himself with Lord Ram for having shared a meal at a Dalit home in Jhansi. “Ram aur Shabari ka samvaad Ramayan mein hai. Aaj jab Gyan ji ki maa ne mujhe roti parosi to unhone kaha ‘mera uddhar ho gaya’ (The dialogue between Ram and Shabari features in the Ramayana. Today when Gyan ji’s mother served me roti, she said ‘I have been uplifted’),” he told reporters.

UP Minister Anupma Jaiswal was not far behind. Speaking about the programme on Thursday, he said, “Schemes are made for the benefit of all sections and, to ensure proper implementation, ministers are paying several visits, even if mosquitoes bite them all night.” He was only trying to side with his party colleague Suresh Rana.

BJP Dalit leaders voice concern

BJP MP and Dalit leader Udit Raj told The Print: “The exercise is more like humiliating Dalits. First you go to Dalit houses to have food with them, and then you arrange for food and mineral water from outside. In my view, it is doubly humiliating for Dalits.”

Observing that just dining with Dalits will not “satisfy” them, Raj said there is a need to address their aspirations which include respect, equality and rights.

Earlier, BJP MP Sadhvi Savitri Bai Phoole stressed that politicians rushing to Dalit households to break bread with them but ordering food, utensils and even waiters from outside was an “insult” to the people belonging to the weaker sections.

A BJP Dalit MP from Robertsganj, Chhote Lal Kharwar, has been repeatedly warning that the Dalits may desert the party if the Yogi Adityanath government in UP did not mend its ways.  “Agar BJP ko apni seat bachaani hai to sab ko badal dena chahiye. Dalit bahut naaraaz hain – leader bhi aur log bhi. (If BJP wants to retain its seats, it should change the whole leadership, as Dalit leaders and people are upset with the state BJP),” the Print quoted Kharwar as saying. “Dalits are being discriminated against in the party. Our voice isn’t heard because we are Dalits. The whole organisation is working against us.” 

Etawah MP Ashok Kumar Dohre said that Dalits were being targeted by the police, particularly in Uttar Pradesh, and after the April 2 Bharat Bandh protests. “Casteist comments are also being hurled at them,” Dohre told The Times of India.

Dr Yashwant Singh, a Dalit MP from BJP, also wrote to Narendra Modi about the poor representation of Dalits in the Supreme Court, saying, “When I was elected, I had personally requested you to pass the bill for reservation in the promotions. Different organisations of society come to us with these kind of requests regularly. But even after four years, no work has been done by your government for the direct benefit of nearly 300 million Dalits in this country. Such as completing the backlog, passing the reservation bill, giving reservation in private jobs, etc.”

Congress spokesperson Jaiveer Shergill on Sunday said the statements of BJP Dalit leaders like Udit Raj, Savitri Bai Phule, Chhote Lal Kharwar, Ashok Kumar Dohre and Yashwant Singh have punctured the government’s tall claims on Dalit empowerment. He claimed that Modi was working to make India “Dalit mukt”. He called the outreach programme a “PR stunt”.

Dalit icon BR Ambedkar’s grandson, Prakash Ambedkar, also criticized BJP’s political strategy of “photo-ops”.

The hardships of visiting Dalit homes and eating with them have been spoken about endlessly by party leaders, but Rana and others still claim that Congress and Opposition are apparently afraid of Modi’s ‘Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas’ objective.

“They feel threatened by this (Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas) mantra and can visualise the reins of power slipping away from their hands,” Rana told PTI.

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