The might of Dalits: heed or regret

Highlights: 
The Congress has always blamed BJP for being anti-Dalit.
SCs and STs in Karnataka together constitute 24% of the state’s population

The Karnataka Assembly elections come at a time when the Dalit community is up in arms across the country against the Supreme Court ruling diluting the Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) Atrocities Act.

The Dalit anger might not have been that perceptible in Karnataka but political parties are treading cautiously. For, SCs and STs in Karnataka together constitute 24% of the state’s population, a factor that no party can electorally ignore. Of the 224 Assembly constituencies, 36 are reserved for SCs and 15 for STs.

The Congress in the state has always blamed the BJP for being anti-Dalit and infringing upon their rights. It has also held the saffron party responsible for not taking steps to prevent the SC ruling. It is now hoping that the uprising would give the party a boost and alienate Dalit votes from the BJP.

Traditionally, the SCs have been Congress supporters since independence but, over the years, have been looking for alternative political options like the Janata Parivar and the BJP.

The main reason has been the divide between the Right and the Left groups in the community. Though the Left SCs population is more in Karnataka, they began deserting the Congress as they felt the Right had cornered the most benefits in jobs and education.

Sensing this, the Congress put in place its Ahinda (acronym for minorities, OBCs and Dalits) strategy to retain its vote bank by doling out sops to the community ever since it came to power in the state five years ago.

The party announced a slew of welfare programmes including fee reimbursement, free bus passes, loans at subsidised interest rates to entrepreneurs, reservation in contracts, distribution of free laptops and purchase of land for landless SC/STs.

It also enacted the Scheduled Castes Sub-Plan and Tribal Sub-Plan (Planning, Allocation and Utilisation of Financial Resources) Act, setting aside funds in proportion to the community’s population.

Simultaneously, the Congress also grabbed every opportunity to hit out at the BJP, branding it a pro-upper caste party and blaming it for the atrocities on Dalits.

The party then looked to Dalit activist-turned-politician Jignesh Mevani, who announced that he would shift focus from Gujarat to challenge the BJP in Karnataka.

Mevani won Gujarat’s Vadgam constituency as an independent with support from the Congress. He was expected to campaign across Karnataka in April-May ahead of the polls, but that has yet to happen.

On the flip side, the party’s indecision to implement the A J Sadashiva Commission’s recommendations on the internal reservation for the SCs has not gone well for it. Under pressure from the right wing, the party dropped any steps to implement the recommendations only to invite the wrath of the left wing.

On its part, the BJP has been striving hard to wash off its anti-Dalit image. Party chief B S Yeddyurappa has been spending time with Dalits in social gatherings, eating with them, participating in functions and felicitating them.

The party has also gone to town pointing out that the Congress’ pro-Dalit image is an eye-wash and that a huge chunk of the funds earmarked for SC/STs in successive budgets has remained unutilised.

However, the party was left red-faced in December last year when Union Minister Ananthkumar Hedge spoke about amending the Constitution, creating a furore.

Meanwhile, the JD(S) caught both the national parties by surprise by entering into a pre-poll alliance with Mayawati’s BSP. Now, ahead of the elections, the Congress is particularly worried that the tie-up will create a dent in its vote bank. 

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