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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 46, New Delhi, October 30, 2021

Congress playing Dalit Card in Punjab | Nishit Navin and Sangam

Friday 29 October 2021

by Nishit Navin and Sangam *

The speculations are rife and doing rounds in the political climate of Punjab. Punjab’s former chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh is going to launch a party and may ally with the BJP for the upcoming state election. This has kept the major political parties on their toes. However, there is a new twist to the politics in Punjab which is going unnoticed. Congress put a Dalit leader as chief minister of the state. To certain political pundits, it is a political masterstroke. However, to some, it may create boomerang for the Congress Party itself.

In a surprising move, Charanjit Singh Channi, was recently appointed the Chief Minister of Punjab, replacing the two-time Chief Minister Captain Amrinder Singh. Channi, the former Minister of Technical Education and Training is the first-ever Dalit to head the state. After the removal of Singh, names of stalwarts like Ambika Soni, Sunil Jhakar, and Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa were making the rounds as front-runners to the coveted post. However, Congress chose Channi who happens to be the first non-Jat Sikh to hold the office since Giani Zail Singh (1972-77).

At the same time, Amit Bhatia, member of BJP IT cell said, “Congress has no issues or development agenda left, and so it is indulging in cheap tactics. The public knows that the grand old party is ideologically bankrupt. The Modi government’s welfare schemes like the Direct Benefit Transfer, Ujjawala Yojna and Swach Bharat Abhiyaan are enough to appeal to the subaltern castes.”

According to the 2011 census, the proportion of Dalits at 31.9 percent is the highest in Punjab as compared to other states. By appointing Channi, Congress attempted to send a signal that could have national repercussions. Channi is a Ramdasia Sikh, which is considered to be in the same category as Jatavs, Chamars or Ravidasis. They are considered relatively better off in the social hierarchy compared to Mazbhabi or Valmiki Dalits. Due to this difference, there are varying opinions on the impact of Channi’s appointment. How will this ‘masterstroke’ impact the other parties in Punjab? Dalit Parties like the Bahujan Samajwadi Party (BSP), whose entire politics is based on schedule caste votes, have failed to make a mark in the state. BSP’s vote share has consistently fallen over the years from 19.7 percent in the 1992 Lok Sabha elections to 1.5 percent in the 2017 assembly polls.

In Punjab, the Dalit community is divided along religious lines. Sikh Dalits (19.4%) primarily vote for Congress, whereas Hindu Dalits (12.5%) vote for BSP. However, a section of Dalit Sikh voters was seen to change their loyalty in every election. Congress’s so-called masterstroke is an attempt to prevent that section of Sikh Dalits from shifting loyalties.

Dr. Sajjan Kumar, a Delhi based political analyst and author of Everyday Communalism: Riots in contemporary Uttar Pradesh, argues, “Dalits were never consolidated behind a party. Sikh Dalits do not relate to Hindu Dalits as the majority of Dalit Sikhs live in rural areas whereas the majority of Hindu Dalits live in urban areas.” Many experts believe that the Congress could have gathered more Dalit votes if it had declared Channi as CM’s face for next year’s assembly election.

Congress’s pan-India Dalit strategy

The Congress, which had traditionally avoided community-based identity politics, is now completely into it. For the same reason, it is importing and supporting regional leaders like Jignesh Mevani and Chandrashekhar Ravan. After the Dalit atrocities in Una, Hathras, and elsewhere in the recent past, Congress wants to challenge right-wing hegemony using these young leaders.

Dr. Kumar, points out, “The main limitation with these leaders is that they are only limited to their region, despite all media focus. They were inducted into Congress knowing that BJP is not the first choice of Dalits.”

“The BJP is not at all worried about Mevani’s induction. Patidars can do more harm to the saffron party in Gujarat than Dalits as the party has been traditionally dependent on this politically dominant community for its victory. Moreover, Mevani’s induction cannot
mobilise Dalits across and beyond Gujarat,” he added.

Congress is also trying to expand its Dalit majority in UP. In the last election, the Congress worked closely with Chandrashekhar Ravan, who supported the Saharanpur candidate of the Congress against BSP. It remains to be seen whether Ravan joins Congress officially or forms his political outfit and aligns with the Congress in upcoming state elections.

Interestingly, all these leaders are either left-leaning or from the left parties. To counter right-wing populism, the Congress leadership is adopting left-wing populism, which dominated Indian politics in the ’70s and ’80s. With left parties diminishing from India, the Congress is emerging as the neo left.

Punjab’s socio-political sphere has been dominated by the Jat Sikhs since its formation in 1966. Therefore, Channi’s appointment can be seen as a bold move by Congress. However, will this move help the party score a win in the 2022 assembly elections? It is a question that even analysts are debating.

* (Writers are pursuing their master programme in Mass Communication in Symbiosis Institute of Media and Communication (SIMC), Symbiosis International (Deemed University), Pune. They are associated with media research)

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