Opinion: With Its Punjab Move, Congress Takes A Calculated Risk

The drama in the Punjab Congress is finally over. The Congress has elected a Dalit face as Chief Minister. Should it be called a "master stroke", as is the tradition in mainstream media, or is it damage control? The party was undoubtedly in hot soup. Its tallest leader in the state was in a defiant mood and its 'new' leader was not willing to listen to the High Command. The choice was difficult, but the Congress did choose, and the Captain was asked to leave, and he did. He made it clear that he would not retire without a fight but with a Dalit as Chief Minister, Captain Amarinder Singh has been forced to think again. If Navjot Sidhu was eyeing the top job, he has to wait his turn, and who knows if that turn will ever come? If, in Indian politics, it is difficult to appoint a Dalit as Chief Minister, it is more difficult to remove him or her.

It is a puzzling fact of Punjab politics that despite Dalits comprising almost 32% of the population, there has never been a Dalit Chief Minister. In contrast, Jat Sikhs, who are only 20% of the population, have yielded 13 Chief Ministers since the creation of Punjab as a separate state. This underlines the fact that Jat Sikhs dominate Punjab politics, and it is very difficult to ignore their claim. So if the new choice, Charanjit Channi, plays his cards well and consolidates Dalit votes in the state, he could be an asset for the Congress outside Punjab as well. 

The Congress is not the only party focusing on Dalit votes. The Akali Dal, which is down at the moment, has an alliance with the BSP, which is not a principal player in the state, but has pockets of influence among Dalits, particularly among the Ramdasia community which forms around 10% of the population. It is no coincidence that the Congress's choice for Chief Minister, Channi, is also from the Ramdasia community, and could damage the Akali-BSP alliance. The BJP is not a major player in Punjab politics, it had challenged the Congress to appoint a Dalit leader. Now with what face will the BJP attack the Congress on this front? 

The Aam Aadmi Party, which was supposed to sweep the Punjab election in 2017, but could not manage more than the role of the main opposition party, has been trying to make inroads into Dalit votes too. It did try to add Dalit icon Kanshi Ram's family members to its ranks. Kanshi Ram was born in Ropar district. In the early 1980s, he started his Dalit movement in Punjab. Its another story that his movement had more traction in UP where the BSP emerged as a stronger political force than in Punjab and his protege Mayawati went on to form the government four times. The BSP is a marginal player in Punjab politics and in order to lure Dalit votes, AAP had promised to appoint a Dalit as a Deputy Chief Minister. Now, it will have to improve that offer. 

It is often claimed that Dalits in Punjab are not a monolith community but are divided into many powerful sub-castes. There is a clear divide between the Ramdasia community and Mazhabi Sikhs. Both comprise more than 10% of the entire population. Then there are the Balmiki and Bazigar castes and some others too who have individual pockets of influence. Their votes in the past were distributed between the Congress and the Akalis. In 2017, the Congress won 22 seats out of 34 reserved for Scheduled Castes. But neither of these parties had the courage to appoint a Dalit as Chief Minister. The Congress has taken the risk now. This move can annoy the Jat community, and the party will hope that losing some traction with this group will be more than compensated for through the consolidation of Dalit votes. We're that to happen, the Congress could gain a big new support group for a long time, but it will depend on how Channi runs the administration and how he connects with Dalits.

In Uttar Pradesh, the BSP is on a weak wicket. Its journey started with "Jai Bheem", but it is now chanting '"Jai Shri Ram" and is out to woo Brahmans. Instead of visiting Ambedkar's statue, it prefers to go to Ayodhya and perform Brahmanical rituals it rejected in the past. This opens a new opportunity for the Congress which governed UP for more than four decades, but lost its committed Dalit voters to Kanshi Ram's charisma. In UP, Dalits command 21% of the population. Due to the BJP's disruptive politics, a strong section of non-Jatav Dalit voters is already disillusioned with Mayawati and has chosen to ally with Hindutva. The appointment of a Dalit Chief Minister in Punjab could serve the Congress well in UP. 

Similarly, in Uttarakhand, where Dalits are approximately 18% of the population. Harish Rawat, most probably the Chief Ministerial candidate of the Congress for the approaching assembly elections, also happens to be in charge of the Punjab Congress. And it is said that he was instrumental in building a consensus for Channi as Chief Minister. He can use this to campaign in Uttarakhand.

We are living in an era of identity politics. To convert Hindutva into a winning formula, the BJP has brought together a collection of smaller identities under one umbrella. The Modi-Shah model of social engineering has helped the BJP make inroads among Other Backward Castes (OBCs) and backwards among the Dalits.

In the last few months, the BJP has realised that due to major governmental failures and administrative mismanagement, there is a definite unease among a section of OBC and dalit voters. The appointment of a Patidar as Chief Minister in Gujarat, and the induction in Modi's cabinet of 6 OBC and Dalit leaders from UP is an admission of losing support amongst these communities. This signifies that with the rise of identity consciousness, no party can afford to take them for granted. It is in this context that the appointment of a Dalit Chief Minister, which the BJP has not done yet in any of the 17 states it governs directly, can ignite a new churning within the Dalit community. If that happens, a new Dalit narrative can take concrete shape and force political parties to move from tokenism to hard politics and real power.

(Ashutosh is Author and Editor, satyahindi.com.)

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