In the 90s, Dalits in Uttar Pradesh were encumbered by economic and social inequality battling oppression and abuse. They often walked unimaginable distances with a rare lift from truck drivers, spent their days underneath the open skies and sustain on bagful of puffed rice and gram which they carried from their homes.
Their leader, Kanshi Ram was demi-god as followers rapt in his words accorded it an almost religious significance.
In a paradigm shift, young Dalit men now come for political events only when transport and food is provided to them. They wear cheap sports shoes, low waist jeans and colourful T-shirts.
They may not have cash in their pockets, but they do have smartphones, connected to WhatsApp. They do not accept all that their leaders say and question the logic.
They are the new Dalits – partially educated but fully aware of their problems and rights. It is this changing face of Dalits in UP that the BSP refuses to recognise.
Party president Mayawati continues to take her voters for granted, not realising that times, and her voters, have changed.
If Kanshi Ram was God for Dalits, Mayawati is a mere leader who is prone to faults.
Surendra Kumar, a young undergraduate from Kaushambi district, says that his father, Puttan, was a blind follower of Kanshi Ram and would walk miles to attend his meetings.
“I come to BSP rallies only when the local leaders make arrangements for travel and food. Otherwise, I can watch these leaders on TV,” he says.
Surendra, who belongs to the Pasi community, says he is not dependent on local leaders to tackle problems that he and his family face at the local level.
“I have this smartphone with all the numbers of local stringers of TV channels. If anyone harasses us, I immediately send a message on WhatsApp and they arrive within no time. Local officials and even goons are now afraid that if they harass us, the news will go on air,” he says.
Ravish Jayant, another unemployed youth from Kanpur, says that for him Dalit leaders are not God.
“I watch TV and videos on Facebook and YouTube and now I know that our leaders are as good or bad as us. Mayawati has never visited any Dalit family where murder or rape has taken place. She is neither accessible to Dalits nor does she give any financial aid to those in trouble,” he says.
“She may be God for my father and grandfather but not for me. I want a leader who is accessible and sympathetic and she is neither,” he says.
Shirish Kumar, a Dalit graduate who is jobless, asks, “What has Mayawati done for us? Those of us who are educated, do not have jobs. But is she bothered? No, she is not because she cannot think beyond elections.”
Dalit writer Avadesh admits that the mindset among Dalits has changed considerably over the years.
“Economic independence, awareness of rights and accessibility to information has changed the scenario. Dalit leaders should read the mood of the people and adapt themselves to the changes. The myth of the BSP being able to transfer its votes has already been busted in the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections and the party should mend its ways or be prepared for another jolt in the upcoming assembly polls,” he asserts.
A former BSP leader who requested anonymity, said, “The problem with Mayawati and the BSP is that they refuse to change with the times. Mayawati continues to take Dalits for granted. What she does not realize is that the Dalit of today knows he has options – he can go to other parties or simply stay at home.”
He said that it is only the Jatavs – the Dalit sub-caste to which Mayawati belongs – who remain loyal to her while others have shifted to other parties.
Political analyst RK Singh says that the main reason for the BSP’s decline in recent years is that Mayawati refuses to adapt to the changing scenario.
“Unless she steps out of her ivory tower, goes beyond Twitter and addresses her voters directly, the BSP is unlikely to regain lost glory. There are new challengers like the Bhim Army who are waiting to woo Dalits,” he said.