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India's Congress party plays Dalit card to ruffle BJP

The party has made a Dalit the chief minister of a crucial state, but will it help its revival at national level?

Nirendra Dev, New Delhi

Nirendra Dev, New Delhi

Published: September 21, 2021 10:22 AM GMT

Updated: September 21, 2021 10:23 AM GMT

India's Congress party plays Dalit card to ruffle BJP

Supporters of Charanjit Singh Channi, the first Dalit chief minister of Punjab state, display his photos as they celebrate in Amritsar on Sept. 20 after he had taken the oath of office. (Photo: AFP)

Politics is an unfinished journey. To traverse time and space involves trials and errors. And that is what India’s grand old party, the Congress, is up to these days while hoping to reclaim its past glory.

But will it succeed in achieving its ultimate aim — to oust Narendra Modi, the prime minister and undisputed leader of the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)? Only time will tell.

In the latest development, the Congress has changed its chief minister for Sikh-majority Punjab state, where it continues to enjoy a groundswell of grassroots support unlike in most other parts of the country.

Charanjit Singh Channi, a Sikh leader hailing from a socially disadvantaged Dalit background, was appointed chief minister on Sept. 19 in place of Amarinder Singh, a former army officer who was popular in his state and party.

The move is clearly aimed at the Punjab state elections due in February-March next year but the Congress is also looking to give Modi a run for his money on home ground Gujarat, which is due for polls in December 2022.

With the Congress seemingly pulling up its sleeves, a nervous BJP changed its chief minister and the entire council of ministers in Gujarat last week.

Amarinder Singh was given a free hand to run the party and the government. But when complaints came, we had to act

The western Indian state of prosperous traders and farmers is also known as a laboratory of the Hindutva movement for establishing the hegemony of Hindus in India. But with the BJP in power for the past 25 years, anti-incumbency had set in to threaten its long electoral run.

The northern state of Punjab, which shares a 600-kilometer border with Pakistan, is better known for its valiant Sikh soldiers and hard-working farmers, who successfully transformed it into the food bowl of India.  

Punjab also has a sizable Dalit population. Some 32 percent of its 28 million people are Dalits and Channi is the first from the community to become a chief minister.

Ideally, this should reap rich electoral dividends for the Congress. In the last state elections held in 2017, Punjab had emerged as a face-saver for the grand old party amid a series of reverses after its 2014 parliamentary poll debacle.

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Until 2018, Punjab was the only state where the Congress held absolute power.

“Amarinder Singh was given a free hand to run the party and the government. But when complaints came, we had to act,” said Congress leader Harish Rawat, who along with Rahul Gandhi and his sister Priyanka Vadra oversaw his removal and replacement.

By placing a Dalit at the helm of an important state, the Congress leadership is seeking to relay a message across the vast nation. Dalits are estimated to be 17 percent of Indian’s 1.3 billion people.

Many have converted to Sikhism, Buddhism and Christianity — Dalits constitute around 30 percent of India’s 30 million Christians — but continue to be discriminated against.

“People talk about the soul of India, but in Indian politics there is also something called the ‘soul of the Congress party.’ That soul is yearning to uplift the Dalits and other deprived sections,” said Varanasi-based political observer Tushar Bhadra.

The Congress has been trying hard to win back Dalit voters who deserted it in recent years, Bhadra said while citing Rahul Gandhi’s previous choice of Mallikarjun Kharge, a veteran Dalit leader, as leader of the opposition benches in the lower house of parliament.

A Congress strategist, who did not want to be named, was confident that the Dalit outreach would fetch the Congress votes in Punjab as well as Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state also going to the polls in early 2022.

The BJP currently runs the government in Uttar Pradesh that has reported many atrocities against Dalits. “Several cases of rape on Dalit woman have been reported from Uttar Pradesh. This will go against the BJP,” he said.

In the Punjab political exercise, the Congress is trying out a bit of social engineering with an eye on both local and national politics

Dalits make up around 20 percent of Uttar Pradesh’s 166 million people but their votes get split between various parties, with a large chunk going to the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) of Mayavati, a rare Dalit woman leader who has served as chief minister of the state.

Political observer Vidyarthi Kumar pointed out that many Dalits and other deprived sections had begun to support Modi and the BJP’s Hindutva in recent years, leading to the Congress suffering its worst electoral defeats in 2014 and 2019 national elections.

The Congress is now looking to expand its shrinking support base in order to stay relevant. “In the Punjab political exercise, the Congress is trying out a bit of social engineering with an eye on both local and national politics,” Kumar said.

The Congress’ image as a national party has taken a huge beating in the past decade or so.

Besides Punjab, it is in power only in the northern state of Rajasthan and the central state of Chhattisgarh. It serves as a junior ruling partner to regional outfits in Jharkhand in the east and Maharashtra in the west.

Against this, the BJP and its allies rule 21 states, home to some 70 percent of Indians.

Kumar feels the Congress needs to get back its “national rhythm and appetite” to fight Modi in 2024. “If not, regional leaders like Mamata Banerjee, who won against the BJP in Bengal state elections in May 2021, will emerge as the main opponents of Modi and push the Congress further down the ladder,” he said.

There are multiple challenges but the Congress leadership seems determined to take on Modi and his BJP, at least for the moment.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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