Dalit voters of MP’s Mhow are in a quandary: To vote for BJP, which has ‘done nothing in the last 15 years’, or Congress, ‘which did nothing before’.
Mhow, Madhya Pradesh: Dr Ambedkar Nagar — formerly and more commonly known as Mhow — was once a quiet cantonment town in Indore district. But in recent times, it has become an ostentatious platform for Dalit politics, and the centre of Dalit political symbolism.
Top politicians — from Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, former Uttar Pradesh CM Mayawati to Congress president Rahul Gandhi — flock here to espouse the Dalit cause. And why? Because India’s foremost Dalit icon, Dr B.R. Ambedkar, was born here in 1891.
Yet, the plight of the Dalit voters of Mhow reveals that all these political visits are just symbolism, nothing else. Voters are in a dilemma on whether to back the BJP, which they say has done nothing for them in the last 15 years, or the Congress, which they claim did nothing before that.
As per the 2011 census, Dalits constitute around 15.2 per cent of Madhya Pradesh’s population. And with BJP trying to win a fourth term, the Congress trying to dislodge it, and Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party hoping to make a mark, the Dalit vote is crucial to all.
‘We live like insects’
Kaaji Ki Chaal is a congested, garbage-filled settlement filled to the brim with flies and puddles. Cynical voters of the settlement say they themselves have to live like ‘keedas’ (insects), and that neither the ruling BJP nor the Congress has done anything to make their lives better.
“Neta yahan se kuchh hi kilometre door badi Ambedkarji ki murti pe aate hai, yeh dikhane ko ki woh Dalit ke saath hain. Aur hum yahan gandi naali ke keede jaise jeete rehte hai (Politicians come to the grand Ambedkar statue a couple of kilometres away to show they care about Dalits. But we continue to live here like insects in dirty drains),” says an agitated Suman Kaushal.
“We have no drainage system, no cleanliness and no proper drinking water. We don’t have any lights on the streets. Earlier, we had to relieve ourselves in the open, but being Dalits, people pelted stones at us.
“Now we have two toilets here. But two is nothing for a basti with around 400 families. BJP, Congress — nobody has ever done anything for us.”
The road leading to Kaushal’s basti is full of unauthorised settlements dominated by Dalits, and the inhabitants live under constant fear of their colonies being razed. Politicians, they say, have done nothing to help them secure proper housing, which is tantamount to a denial of their basic rights.
Ranjeet Kumar says: “We live away from the main city because we are poor and can’t afford houses there, and also because we are Dalits and not always allowed to live with upper castes. If we live in unauthorised slums, it is the collective failure of the political class.”
While some say the Chouhan government’s initiatives like cheap ration, slashed electricity prices, toilet construction and gas connections have brought some relief to members of the community, others say their living conditions continue to remain pitiable.
Ravi Jadhav of Kaaji Ki Chaal, who works as halwai (confectioner), says: “With so many big politicians visiting the Ambedkar statue, it has benefitted the rest of Mhow, except our settlements. Nobody has done anything for Dalits, even though they visit Mhow in Ambedkarji’s name.
“We don’t even feel like going to vote. But I personally feel the BJP should come back to power. There is at least some hope under Shivraj Chouhan. At least he has given us ration and gas connections.”
Arjun Dholpure, of Pitrod basti, agrees with Jadhav: “Politicians coming here is all dikhawa (pretence). Nobody does anything. If BJP did nothing in 15 years, what did Congress do before that? Maybe BJP can be given another chance.”
Some, however, are in favour of bringing the Congress to power, hoping it would be less apathetic than the BJP dispensation.
“Our condition is bad. They say we live in illegal colonies. So whose responsibility is it to give us housing? It becomes illegal when they have to give us some amenities, but not when they want to seek votes,” says Sushila Bai Wakode of another slum a few kilometers away
“This is Ambedkarji’s birthplace, and this is how Dalits are treated here. This time, I’ll support the Congress, since we have seen what the Shivraj government has done.”
Some of Wakode’s neighbours nod in agreement; others look unsure.
Another resident, Manohar Surwade, says: “Everyone comes here, gives pravachan (lectures) and goes away. Not a single politician — big or small — has visited our basti. If they can’t take the trouble of travelling another two kilometres from Ambedkarji’s statue to meet us, how can we expect them to do anything for us at all?”
But despite all this, it seems to be a straight BJP-Congress electoral scrap — there is little enthusiasm for the BSP here. The party has an influence mainly in the Gwalior-Chambal and Rewa regions of the state, but not among the cynical, suffering Dalits of Mhow.