How BJP's Punjab plan led to Congress's Dalit strategy

How BJP's Punjab game plan prompted Congress Dalit strategy

BJP's plan involved mobilising 75 per cent non-Jat Sikhs to forge a new caste coalition and also weaken farm agitation

Flag so the BJP (L) and Congress party. Credit: AFP, DH File Photos

The Congress claims to have walked the talk by picking Charanjit Singh Channi as Punjab chief minister. Of all the 29 states in the Indian union, Channi is the only CM who belongs to the Scheduled Caste (SC) community. The grand old party engineered the midnight coup to unseat Captain Amrinder Singh as competitive identity politics reached its crescendo ahead of the state Assembly polls five months hence.

Unbeknownst to many, both the CM and the leader of the opposition in the Punjab Assembly – Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)'s Harpal Singh Cheema - are now from the Dalit community.

Channi's appointment has well and truly brought the heartland identity politics to the gates of India's western frontier. Logically speaking, this could have happened much earlier in a state like Punjab, which has a 32 per cent Scheduled Caste population.

But then, social constructs follow a life-cycle of their own. Various extraneous factors, including the two decades of militancy in Punjab, may have overwhelmed counter-currents of socio-political realignments and power dynamics.

Read | 'Eye on Dalit votes, not their welfare', BJP hits out at Congress over Channi's appointment as Punjab CM

The farm laws protests and the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) 's attempts to unshackle itself of the role of the junior partner to a dominant regional ally in many states has, inadvertently or otherwise, unleashed the latest round of shake-up in Punjab.

To better understand this shifting paradigm, one must first look at the pantheon of political leadership in Punjab. Before its division on linguistic lines and the creation of Haryana in 1966, the state was led by three non-Sikh chief ministers.

The body polity of the Indian Punjab, as it has existed since 1966, has been dominated by the upwardly mobile, economically sound Jatt Sikh community. In the last 55 years, the only exception has been Giani Zail Singh's five years in power in the mid-1970s. The former president of India belonged to the Ramgarhia Backward community. All the other chief ministers - the Akalis and Congress - have come from land-proprietary castes. Zail Singh was also the first to attempt social engineering to align the SC vote bank with the Congress.

The SC population in Punjab can be broadly subdivided into three clusters: the Mazhabi Sikhs and Balmikis, which comprise 42 per cent of the total Dalit population, Ad-Dharmis, Ravidasis, Ramdasi Sikhs, which together constitute another 41 per cent, while the remaining 17 per cent population belongs to other smaller castes groups.

Also Read | Congress plays Dalit card in Punjab with eye on UP, Uttarakhand

In 1975, Zail Singh decided to subdivide 25 per cent quotas for SCs in government jobs by setting aside 12.5 per cent exclusively for Mazhabi Sikhs and Balmikis on a priority basis. The government order was aimed to wean this sub-section away from the Akalis.

The Mazhabi Sikhs, who constitute the largest homogeneous group within the Dalits of Punjab, were relatively more aligned to the Akali politics vis a vis the other Scheduled Caste communities. Similarly, the Balmikis, who live in and around urban clusters, were politically influenced by the BJP's earlier avatar, the Jana Sangh.

The other non-Jatt leaders to have risen the ranks in the Congress was another Dalit Sikh from Jalandhar, Buta Singh. The eight-time MP was the lone Sikh face in the Rajiv Gandhi government after Operation Blue Star but had to shift bast to Jalore in Rajasthan to remain politically relevant. 

Buta Singh, however, could never come close to becoming the chief minister of Punjab.

The second attempt to engineer a caste realignment to attain political power was initiated in 1996 by the Akalis when the faction led by Parkash Singh Badal decided to stitch a pre-poll alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) led by Kanshi Ram, who hailed from a family of Ramdasia Sikh from Ropar district.

The BSP had polled almost 20 per cent of votes in the 1991 Lok Sabha polls in Punjab. A year later, it had won a by-poll in Ferozpur to send one Mohan Singh to Lok Sabha - the first candidate to win a parliament election on the BSP symbol.

The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)-BSP alliance routed the Congress in the 1996 elections winning 11 of the 13-Lok Sabha seats of Punjab. The Badals, however, would soon change tack to befriend the BJP instead for the Assembly elections the following year. The Akali-BJP alliance won a landslide while the BSP was reduced to just one seat in the state legislature.

Unlike in Uttar Pradesh, Kanshi Ram's experiments in Punjab failed as the SAD stitched an alternate winning social combination with the state's Hindu community by aligning with the BJP under Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The BSP's performance in successive elections has shown little or no signs of revival. If anything, things have taken a turn for the worse. The Dalits as a political entity remain divided in the absence of a cohesive narrative and strong leadership.

The SAD-BJP alliance, on the other hand, worked well for almost two decades as the BJP accepted the role of the minor partner in the Punjab National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

The first signs of discomfiture emerged when the BJP won a clear majority in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls and sought to emerge out of the shadow of its regional partners - not just in Punjab but in other states as well.

Ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the SAD boycotted an NDA meeting accusing the BJP and its ideological fount - the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its affiliate Rashtriya Sikh Sangat - of meddling in Sikh religious affairs.

With the SAD finally ejecting out of the NDA in protest against the three central farm laws, the BJP started to draft its political strategy to fight and survive independently in Punjab. Borrowing heavily from its successful ventures in the other heartland states, it sought to build a social coalition of the Dalits, OBCs and urban Hindus to challenge entrenched players in the state politics.

The party was the first to give a call for nominating a Dalit chief minister in the state if it won power in the 2022 Assembly elections. Former union minister Vijay Sampla, who was even denied a ticket to contest the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, was appointed chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes in earnest.

Earlier this month, the BJP nominated former IPS officer Iqbal Singh Lalpura as the chairman of the national commission for minorities. Lalpura is from the OBC Sikh community and was one of the three officers who arrested Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale in 1981.

The party recently welcomed Indrajeet Singh, the grandson of former President Giani Zail Singh, to its fold. Zail Singh, the only OBC chief minister of the state, hailed from the Ramgarhia backward community, which has a substantial presence in pockets of the Doaba and Manjha belts.

BJP has also sought to send a message to the Sikh Community by appointing Lt. Gen (Retd) Gurmeet Singh as the governor of Uttarakhand.

By projecting a Dalit CM and bringing in known and influential OBC faces, the BJP actively worked on a new caste coalition between the SCs, OBCs and non-Sikhs in Punjab aimed at the mobilisation of all 75 per cent non-Jatt Sikhs. This strategy's subtext was also to build a political narrative against the protracted anti-farm law agitations based on caste lines.

In doing so, the BJP was taking a leaf out of the AAP's 2017 playbook. Arvind Kejriwal's efforts to aggressively woo Dalits in 2017 had more than bore fruits. The Delhi CM had promised to make a Dalit a deputy CM to win elections and form government, and his party had released a separate Dalit manifesto. Nearly half of the 20 seats the AAP won in the polls were from the reserved seats, and the Akalis were relegated to a poor third.

The Akalis were the first to see through the BJP's game plan of resurrection in Punjab. The Badals walked the extra mile to patch up and revive the 1996 winning combination between the SAD and BSP, and Sukhbir Badal promised to appoint a Dalit deputy chief minister.

The Congress party had to act and act fast. It referred to the very basics of the Indian polity by reworking the caste calculus. While others promised, it decided to bite the bullet and make Charanjit Singh Channi the first Dalit chief minister of Punjab.

(The writer is a journalist)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH 

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