Maverick Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP Varun Gandhi’s comments on Dalit student Rohit Vemula’s suicide couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Narendra Modi’s party. The BJP is involved in a neck-and-neck triangular fight in the politically crucial state of Uttar Pradesh, where its leadership is trying to get behind the party a chunk of the Dalit vote. BJP’s alliance with smaller parties including the Apna Dal and Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (SBSP) signify the importance the party attaches to the state’s Dalit vote on the ground-level. As per the 2011 Census, Dalits formed around 20 percent of UP’s population. To win UP, the BJP needs support of at least some sections of the Dalit vote.

However, Varun Gandhi’s recollection that he “broke down after reading a suicide letter” by Hyderabad University’s doctoral candidate Rohit Vemula puts him on a confrontational path with party colleagues and union ministers like Smriti Irani and Bandaru Dattatreya. Coming from a top BJP leader, the statements also risk undoing all the goodwill that the BJP has created in the community in recent years.

“Rohit Vemula, a Dalit Ph.D student from Hyderabad committed suicide last year. When I read his letter, I broke into tears. Rohit wrote that he was taking the extreme step because he had committed the sin of taking birth in such form. This line pained my heart immensely,” Varun reportedly said during a speech at a private school in Indore on Tuesday.

Telengana’s Dattetraya, the union minister for labour and employment, is one of the persons accused of abetting Vemula’s suicide. Union Textiles Minister Smriti Irani also came in the firing line of Vemula’s family and Dalit organisations after she alleged in Jan 2016 that the suicide was being falsely reported as a “caste battle.” Irani is campaigning prominently in UP, where she has locked horns with Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi in the high-profile constituencies in Amethi.

What could be Varun Gandhi’s possible motivation in raising Rohit Vemula’s suicide now?

Gandhi’s remarks on Rohit Vemula could be politically damaging for the BJP in UP elections, which analysts have dubbed as a semi-final for Narendra Modi before he seeks a re-election in 2019 as well as a referendum on the hugely contentious demonetisation drive.

Gandhi’s popularity at the grassroots in Sultanpur and parts of south-central UP is indisputable, so his statements will sure carry weight and could place BJP leaders in awkward situations the next time they court the Dalits.

Also read: Why Varun Gandhi was BJP’s best bet in Uttar Pradesh before he was sidelined by Amit Shah

Media reports earlier this month highlighted that at least 45 of Gandhi’s supporters in the BJP were contesting as independents after being denied tickets by BJP president Amit Shah. Five BJP MPs from UP, all of them backers of the Sultanpur MP, reportedly also pressed Shah for a bigger role for Gandhi in the UP election campaign. NDTV highlighted at the start of voting in Uttar Pradesh that Gandhi had been effectively “sidelined” by the BJP leadership.

Some major question that the BJP needs to answer now include,

Why does the Narendra Modi government continue supporting Irani and Dattatreya as cabinet ministers, even though both the union ministers found themselves at the receiving end of Rohit Vemula’s family and Dalit organisations?

What has the BJP done for the Dalits, despite all the showy statements by Modi and its top leadership expressing solidarity with the community? 

Is Varun Gandhi undermining BJP’s electoral efforts in UP?