The churn in the Dalit vote bank

The shifting of Bahujan voters back towards the Congress has the BJP worried

A Dalit family in Ayela village in UP's Agra district, May 2024 (photo: Getty Images)
A Dalit family in Ayela village in UP's Agra district, May 2024 (photo: Getty Images)

Sharad Gupta

Images of Rahul Gandhi holding aloft a copy of the Constitution will continue to haunt BJP leaders and Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a long time. And might even explain Modi bowing before a gargantuan copy of the Constitution before addressing the first joint meeting of NDA MPs in the Central Hall of Parliament.

Gandhi was emphatic in reminding his audience that the Constitution, drafted by Dr Ambedkar would be in peril if Modi returned to power. The assertion by several BJP leaders on the necessity of winning a two-thirds majority in the Lok Sabha so as to facilitate changes in the Constitution and put an end to ‘reservation’ added to the unease on the ground.

Dalit disenchantment with the BJP is widely perceived to be a major reason for the party’s failure to secure a clear majority in the recently concluded Lok Sabha elections. The numbers bear this out.

If the BJP’s successful wooing of Other Backward Castes (OBCs) and the most downtrodden held the key to its rise to power in the 2014 and 2019 elections, in 2024 the party lost around 60 seats by frittering away a significant portion of this vote.

This particular electorate rejected the BJP to a marked extent in the Hindi belt. In the 131 reserved seats (Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes), the BJP’s tally went down from the 77 seats it held in 2019 to 55 seats. Even in unreserved seats, the BJP’s vote percentage shrank substantially, especially among SC voters, followed by OBC voters and Muslims.

According to an analysis by India Today, out of the 156 Lok Sabha constituencies with sizeable SC populations, the INDIA bloc won 93 seats, an increase of 53 seats over last time. The NDA, on the other hand, won 57 but lost as many as 34 seats compared to its 2019 tally. The non-UPA and non-NDA parties too lost 19 seats compared to their previous score.

The trend is very significant for the Congress, which championed the Dalit cause and was their party of choice until the ascendance of parties like the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Lok Jan Shakti Party in the 1980s.

In the aftermath of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement and the anti-quota agitation of the late ’80s, the Hindi belt got completely polarised on caste lines with Dalits finding solace in the leadership of Ram Vilas Paswan in Bihar and Kanshi Ram–Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh. The erosion in its Dalit and Muslim vote bank resulted in the Congress’s steady decline in the Hindi heartland.

Although Paswan’s party usually won only around eight per cent of the votes in Bihar, that was enough to shift the balance of power to whichever side he tilted. If Paswan sided with the RJD, the RJD would ride to power and if, later, he aligned with the JD(U), the JD(U) would form the government.

When Paswan decided to remain neutral in the 2005 Assembly election, no government could be formed and the stalemate resulted in a repoll. His swing clearly created a difference of 15–16 per cent votes between the two political poles.

The BSP’s emergence had a similar impact in Uttar Pradesh. In the 1993 Assembly elections—held a year after the demolition of the Babri Masjid—when everybody was betting on the BJP’s return to power due to polarisation on communal lines, Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party (SP) surprised political pundits by not only contesting elections in alliance with the BSP but also forming the government. Until 2012, when the SP came to power on its own, no government could be formed in the state by excluding the BSP.

In the next two years, BJP leaders like Amit Shah worked hard on the electoral arithmetic to woo Dalits and backward castes. That was the reason why, in the 2014 general election, BJP gained a majority on its own despite receiving less than robust support in the southern and eastern states.


The 2024 election results are especially significant because they have demonstrated the disenchantment of Dalits not only with the BJP (across India) but also with parties like the BSP in UP, the Republican Party of India (Athawale) and Prakash Ambedkar’s Bahujan Vikas Aghadi (BVA) in Maharashtra.

Of the 84 Lok Sabha seats reserved for Scheduled Castes, the BJP had won 46 in 2019. This time, they won only 30. The Congress, meanwhile, has more than trebled its tally of reserved seats from six to 19. In Uttar Pradesh, the BJP lost half the seats it had won in 2019 and came second after the SP. In 2024, the BJP’s vote share declined by eight per cent compared to 2019.

Scheduled Castes constitute 17 per cent of the total population of India. The India Today-Axis My India survey claimed that the BJP-led NDA lost six per cent votes among the Scheduled Castes while the Congress-led INDIA bloc’s share registered a double-digit growth. The NDA’s support base came down to 35 per cent from 41 per cent in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

On the other hand, the Opposition support base increased by 18 per cent. The net gap between NDA and INDIA was 11 per cent in favour of the latter. Non-NDA and non-INDIA parties lost 12 per cent support among the SCs voters in 2024, while the INDIA bloc received 46 per cent of the Scheduled Caste votes.

The BJP lost 19 SC seats where it had incumbent MPs across Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Haryana, Karnataka, Bihar, Punjab and West Bengal. The party lost 10 of its ST seats across Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Rajasthan and West Bengal.

In Jharkhand’s Khunti, the Congress’s Kali Charan Munda defeated Union Tribal Affairs Minister Arjun Munda by a margin of nearly 1.5 lakh votes. In Rajasthan’s Banswara, the BJP lost to the Bharat Adivasi Party (BAP) by a margin of nearly 2.5 lakh votes while in Karnataka’s Chamrajanagar its margin of loss to the Congress was over 1.88 lakh votes.

The BSP also lost Nagina, the only SC seat it held in Uttar Pradesh, to the Azad Samaj Party’s Chandrashekhar Azad, by a margin of over 1.5 lakh votes. Incidentally, Nagina is part of Bijnore district. Bijnore was the first Lok Sabha seat to be won by the BSP in UP. In 1990, Mayawati had won this seat defeating two Dalit stalwarts— Meira Kumar (Jagjivan Ram’s daughter) and Ram Vilas Paswan.

The BJP dreads the prospect of getting wiped out in the assembly elections in Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Haryana later this year—if the Dalit vote bank returns substantially to the Congress. The churn among Dalit voters is definitely a trend to be keenly watched.

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