To the discomfort of the ruling BJP, the upper caste anger against what they perceive as the ruling party’s alleged preference for the Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) population persists, with the anger seemingly targeted at Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan for his statement in support of reservation two years ago.
Travel across large parts of the state reveals that the issue not only continues to simmer under the surface across Madhya Pradesh but also threatens to boil over in certain parts. Interaction with local residents in Shahdol, Sidhi, Rewa and Satna districts, in particular, reveal that the issue dominates discussion among the BJP’s core support base of upper castes in the Vindhya region. “The SC/ST Act will weigh him (Chouhan) down,” said Ravindra Singh Tomar, an upper caste Thakur in his 50s from Bhojakhedi, in Pandhana Assembly segment of Khandwa Lok Sabha constituency.
“Changes in the Act will have some adverse impact for BJP. People have got this perception against the BJP (that has been) created by the Opposition,” Bharat Singh Gaur, a Kurmi farmer from Sheikhpura Jod, said about his feedback in villages in Sehore Assembly constituency in Bhopal Lok Sabha seat.
Both Tomar and Gaur indicated that, personally, they will vote for the BJP.
This adverse electoral impact of the amendments into the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act in August this year among BJP supporters virtually turns hostile against the ruling party in Vindhya-region districts of Shahdol, Sidhi, Rewa and Satna, and also appear radiating in neighbouring Bundelkhand region near Uttar Pradesh.
“When the Supreme Court had corrected the SC/ST Act, why did the (Central) government bring a law in Parliament to undo it? Why should savarnas (caste people) vote for the BJP now,” asked Vijay Dwivedi, a traditional BJP supporter in his 50s at Mauganj market in Mauganj Assembly segment of Rewa. Several other people from his Brahmin community present there agreed with Dwivedi’s declaration to vote against the BJP next month.
All attempts to justify the changes in the Act by fruit-seller Sukhchain Chaurasia, an OBC in his 30s, cut no ice with this small group of Brahmin voters. While Chaurasia declared his vote for the BJP, Ajay Singh Baghel, an upper caste Rajput in his mid-30s in Deotalab constituency of Rewa, countered, “No mai ka lal (man) can end reservation till he is alive – that’s what Shivraj Singh had said, virtually declaring that he doesn’t need upper caste votes. Why should we vote for him?”
“When even best batsmen like Virat Kohli can get out, why not Shivraj Chouhan this time,” asked Pankaj Shukla, a Brahmin in his mid-30s at Deura gram panchayat in Rampur Baglihan constituency of Satna. Gathered under a tree in the village, a group of his fellow Brahmins nodded in agreement.
At some places, even attempts by some BJP supporters to pacify the Brahmin anger, suggesting that the amendments were also supported by the Congress in Parliament, cut no ice.
Most of these core BJP supporters took offence to CM Chouhan’s “mai ka Lal” declaration at a public meeting in 2016 after the BJP’s defeat in Bihar Assembly polls, where allegations that the party was against reservation seemed to have played against it. Recent changes in SC/ST Act is now being seen as succumbing to the SC/ST electorate.
Although Chouhan is the target of anger among among Brahmin, Thakur and Vaishya communities in Vindhya region, some BJP supporters do not hesitate to publicly criticise even Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah for this state of affairs for their communities.
Dwindling job opportunities appear to add to the anger.
“I am a graduate but I am struggling to find a job that will pay me Rs 15,000 to Rs 20,000 per month. My friend here scored 80 per cent in BTech and 78 per cent in MTech but doesn’t have a job. He will have to work 12-hour days even for a monthly salary of Rs 20,000,” said Saurabh Tiwari, in his early 30s, at Majhauli village in Dhauhani Assembly segment of Sidhi Lok Sabha seat.
Tiwari was referring to his friend, in late-20s, who declared that he will vote against the BJP for Chouhan’s “mai ka lal” assertion to continue quota.
Schemes aimed at the poor, which invariably will have higher proportion of SC and ST families, also seem to be adding to the frustration among a section of BJP’s upper caste support base.
“(Upper caste) people are seeing things in competition as to why the poor (Dalits and tribals) are getting something from the government,” Shiv Narayan Saket, a Dalit in his 50s, said at Khara Mod of Semariya Assembly segment in Rewa, referring to the Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojana benefits in his village. Although he has not got it himself, seeing how many among his community has got this in last one year, Saket is hopeful that he will also benefit and declares support for the BJP.
A Brahmin voter sitting with him declared that he is against the BJP.
With the BJP in a seemingly tricky spot among this section of voters in Vidhya region, opposition Congress is patiently waiting to become a default beneficiary, as not many people mention that the Congress also supported the changes in SC/ST Act. Additionally, given the voice of upper caste people in rural communities, these agitated people are also fueling word of mouth adverse publicity of the incumbent government’s claim of each achievement, and adding to the anti-incumbency in general.
Since the upper caste protests against the SC/ST Act in another region – Gwalior-Chambal – the addition of Vindhya region only adds to the woes of the BJP with less than six weeks to go for the elections.