By Amulya Ganguli
The decades-old reputation of the Jana Sangh and its successor, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), as a Brahmin-Bania party has been reinforced by a series of recent events.
First, its ministers -- Smriti Irani and Bandaru Dattatreya -- maliciously targeted supporters of the Ambedkar Students' Association in the University of Hyderabad, leading to the suicide of a bright young student, Rohith Vemula.
Now, the 'gau rakshaks' or cow protectors associated with the saffron brotherhood have run amok in Gujarat, beating up a group of Dalits for skinning a dead cow, which is their traditional profession.
Nor is this the first time that the self-appointed saffron vigilantes have attacked and even killed cowherds and suspected beef-eaters.
However, in these days of ever-present cameras and an overactive social media, the images of the Dalit boys being thrashed have fuelled Dalit fury and made the BJP run for cover.
Probably for the first time, the holy cow -- a longstanding obsession with the Hindutva brigade - has landed the BJP in deep trouble.
For a start, the party's recent strenuous efforts to shed its upper caste image and project its pro-Dalit credentials have been shredded, apparently beyond repair. Any electoral gains which the BJP may have expected in the Uttar Pradesh elections next year by securing a section of the Dalit vote have become virtually unattainable.
The Dalits have now joined the Muslims in turning against the BJP because the violent antics of the saffronites have handed the pro-Dalit Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) the entire Dalit electorate. It will be a big boost to the party since nearly 20 per cent of the state's population are members of this community.
To make matters worse for the BJP, a vice president of the party in the state described BSP leader Mayawati as a "prostitute". He has since been relieved of his position and is facing arrest, but the BJP's critics are having a field day to castigate the party's "Manuvadi" mindset reflecting the ultra-orthodox dictum of the controversial Hindu law-giver, Manu.
Before the Bihar elections, the BJP experienced considerable embarrassment when the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief, Mohan Bhagwat, called for a re-look at the quota system, which suggested a dilution of affirmative action for the lower castes.
Now, the cow -- former BJP minister Arun Shourie had described the BJP's policies as those of the "Congress plus the cow" -- is proving to be an unholy obstacle to Narendra Modi's modernization plans.
While the prime minister did succeed in curbing the anti-Muslim tirades of the Yogi Adityanaths and Sakshi Maharajs on 'ghar wapsi' and love jehad -- and calling Mahatma Gandhi's assassin, Nathuram Godse, a patriot -- his party has been slow in acting against the gau-rakshaks, presumably because of the cow's special place in the saffron world.
But the party must have now realized that curbing the anti-Muslim hotheads is not enough -- for the Hindutva storm-troopers can target other communities as well.
Even as the Dalit anger singes the BJP, the party will have to make up its mind to crack down on all the saffron fundamentalists, ranging from the proponents of those who advise Hindus to have more children to counter the Muslim "threat" to the "protectors" of the cow, not out of love for the animal, but to exacerbate the Hindu-Muslim division for, as Mohammed Ali Jinnah said with the same purpose in mind, that while the Hindus worshipped the cow, the Muslims ate it.
Alienating the Dalits is the last thing which the BJP wanted at a time when its plate is full of other, seemingly intractable problems.
Among these is the continuing unrest in Kashmir, caused by the high-handedness of the security forces. The disturbances have emboldened Pakistan to hold joint patrols with the Chinese on the border of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, thereby putting another spanner in the works of Modi's friendly overtures to Islamabad.
It is a truism that none of the prime minister's various endeavours in the fields of foreign policy and industrial development can succeed in the absence of a peaceful atmosphere at home.
Arguably, the RSS and sections in the BJP, who have been "planted" in the government and various institutions by the Nagpur patriarchs, are more interested in propagating Hindu "culture" than in economic advancement.
Since the cow is a part of this worldview, it is understandable why it has taken so long for the BJP to wake up to the hooliganism of the gau rakshaks.
It can even be said that as long as these goons were hanging to death Muslim cowherds in Jharkhand and forcing alleged beef-eaters to eat a mixture of cow dung and cow urine in Faridabad, the government took no more than routine steps like arresting the culprits.
But the attack on Dalits has given a new social and electoral dimension to the violence of the vigilantes.
It has also brought shame to India, for the cow fetish does not go with Modi's Smart Cities and Digital India outlook.
It is throwback to a dark period of Indian history when widows were burnt to death and the shadow of an "untouchable" was considered polluting by the upper castes. The country can do without such regression.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Note: The views expressed here are the personal opinions of the author. The article was published by IANS