In Mevani, Kanhaiya's entry, Rahul's Dalit outreach

In Mevani and Kanhaiya joining Congress, Rahul's Dalit outreach and left turn

Mevani and Kanhaiya join amid several steps Congress has taken to to win back its traditional Dalit support base

 Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani and Kanhaiya Kumar. Credit: PTI Photo

The Dalit politics in the Hindi heartland is in ferment. Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader Mayawati is a shadow of her former astute and feisty self, and neither is an able successor in sight. The Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) in Bihar has imploded over a succession battle within a year of the passing away of its founder Ram Vilas Paswan.

And in this chasm, Rahul Gandhi has pulled a groaning Congress to reclaim the party's traditional support base among the Dalits community.

The Congress's recent decisions, including the entry of leaders Jignesh Mevani and Kanhaiya Kumar, indicate that Rahul Gandhi believes this to be an inflexion point to persuade Dalits across India, particularly in the north, to return to the Congress's fold.

In February, the Congress picked Mallikarjun Kharge, its Dalit leader from Karnataka, as the opposition leader in the Rajya Sabha. Come September, Rahul Gandhi coaxed his party to appoint Charanjit Singh Channi, a Dalit, the chief minister of Punjab.

Subsequently, Congress leader Harish Rawat said that Uttarakhand, which has only had upper caste chief ministers, could have a Dalit chief minister if the Congress comes to power in the forthcoming Assembly polls. Uttarakhand has 18.5 per cent Dalits, UP has 21 per cent and Punjab 32 per cent.

Also read: Congress leaning 'Left' to recruit young talent?

The Gandhi siblings, Rahul Gandhi and sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, have raised their voices against atrocities on Dalits, including the Hathras and Delhi Cantt rape and murder cases.

While the Congress has burnished its pro-Dalit credentials, the BSP is busy wooing Brahmins in UP. For instance, the BSP has Ritesh Pandey and Satish Chandra Mishra as its leaders in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. It has also launched a sustained Brahmin outreach in the run-up to the UP polls.

Upcoming Dalit leader, Azad Samaj Party's Chandrashekhar Azad, has questioned the BSP's commitment to the ideology of its founder Kanshi Ram, who had given the slogan "jiski jitni sankhya bhaari, uski utni hissedari". He has also accused the BSP of being BJP's "B team". Azad has been in contact with the Congress leadership.

In this context, the entry of Mevani and Kanhaiya Kumar could buttress the Congress Dalit outreach and signals Rahul Gandhi's determined turn towards a centre-left politics with more robust ideological moorings.

Mevani's is a strident young Dalit voice, and he has campaigned across India on issues of Dalit identity. In the 2017 Gujarat Assembly polls, the Congress party backed him to win the Vadagam Assembly seat as an independent.

Dalits comprise barely seven per cent of the electorate in Gujarat, but they do potentially influence outcomes in several seats as part of a coalition of castes and communities. In 1985, Congress leader Madhavsinh Solanki accomplished an unprecedented majority with his KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslim) alliance.

Moreover, Mevani has a following among younger Dalits across the country and could help with the Congress campaigns in the upcoming Assembly polls in Punjab, Uttarakhand and UP.

The entry of Kanhaiya Kumar in the Congress, however, is more interesting. The former student leader has spoken consistently of an entente of Ambedkarites and leftists. His espousal of Dalit cause and campaign during the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests earned him a following among Dalits and Muslims, two significant electoral groups in Bihar.

Along with the upper castes, Dalits and Muslims were the traditional support base of the Congress in Bihar. The Congress think tank believes Kanhaiya Kumar, an upper-caste himself, would be an ideal leader to reknit this alliance for the Congress.  

Kanhaiya Kumar's entry could unsettle Congress ally Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader Tejashwi Prasad. It would be interesting to see how Prasad and Kanhaiya Kumar develop a functional equation for the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. Prasad, however, could soon have the Chirag Paswan faction of the LJP as its ally.

Can the Congress party do to the BSP in the upcoming UP polls what the latter did to the Congress from the 1980s onwards, enfeebled eat by eating into its Dalit vote share? A classic example of the BSP strategy was the 1988 Allahabad Lok Sabha bypoll after superstar Amitabh Bachchan vacated the seat.

BSP founder Kanshi Ram contested that by-poll. His opponents were the joint opposition candidate Vishwanath Pratap Singh and Congress's Sunil Shastri, son of former prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri. VP Singh, the future prime minister, defeated Shastri comfortably.

Singh secured over 200,000 votes, and Shastri failed to get even 100,000 as Kanshi Ram bagged almost 70,000 votes, most of which would have gone to the Congress.

The BSP model continued to succeed as it gradually supplanted the Congress party among the Dalits in UP. Soon, Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party took away Congress's Muslim support base, and its Brahmin support shifted to the BJP.

However, Dalits have also turned to the BJP in recent years. In the 2019 Lok Sabha, the Congress got 26 per cent Dalit votes countrywide to the BJP's 43 per cent.

The Congress party's think tank believes the BJP's Dalit support base would dissipate soon. The BJP, it feels, will find it challenging to manage the contradictions of wooing the OBCs in UP, keeping its upper caste support intact, and continue to do so with its aggressive Hindutva politics.

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