Without questioning West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s and her Delhi counterpart Arvind Kejriwal’s intention on proposing the name of Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge, a Dalit, as the Prime Ministerial face of Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) one can say that the issue has provided an opportunity to discuss as to whether the opposition bloc is capable of wooing 16.6% Scheduled Castes votes (according to 2011 Census). Besides, Scheduled Tribes form 8.6% of the country’s population.
So, these two most deprived social groups officially make 25.2% of India’s population. This figure is likely to be higher as in the last few years some more castes have been included in SCs and STs lists. Not only that, the recent Caste Survey carried out in Bihar revealed that the SCs population has increased from 15.9% in 2011 to 19.65% now. The figure of STs is 1.68% against 1.28% 12 years back. This may be the trend in other states too.
Dalit politics at crossroads
As the BJP has made inroads into Dalit vote-bank following the weakening of SCs outfits like Bahujan Samaj Party, Lok Janshakti Party and various Republican factions the moot question is whether Kharge would be able to make any difference. The fact, however, is that Kharge himself has always been associated with the oldest mainstream party of the country and has never indulged in Dalit politics. Thus, it would be a testing time for him, especially in the Hindi heartland states where the saffron party is strong.
In the recently held Assembly election in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan the BJP has also won back a significant percentage of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes votes, which it lost to the Congress in 2018 poll. With a Scheduled Tribe a President of India and new Chhattisgarh chief minister also an Adivasi it is to be seen as to whether the BJP maintains this hold in these states in the coming Lok Sabha poll. The outcome in Telangana and Karnataka, Kharge’s home-turf suggested something else as Congress won in both of them.
Unlike STs, the Scheduled Castes are spread all over India and suffer the worst form of discrimination at the hands of upper caste and in some cases even Backward Castes. The Dalit politics is at the crossroads after the weakening of BSP, whose founder late Kanshi Ram, had revived this movement three decades after the death of B R Ambedkar. In Kanshi Ram’s home state, Punjab, which has percentage-wise highest concentration of Scheduled Castes (33%) the Congress tried to play the Dalit card by replacing chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh with Charanjit Singh Channi just over four months before the 2022 Assembly election. But the move failed to yield any result and the Aam Aadmi Party swept the poll.
Dalit votes in UP
In Uttar Pradesh, where the highest number of Dalits live the BSP, which has ruled the states several times could muster only 12.8% votes in the 2022 Assembly election. It could win only one seat.
The problem in Uttar Pradesh is that the Samajwadi Party, which contested the 2019 Lok Sabha poll in alliance with the BSP is now dead against the latter’s entry into INDIA. The SP has its own complaint. In the last parliamentary election both the parties contested equal number of seats, but the SP could win only five while the BSP 10. This created a rift between the two. The SP alleged that while its supporters, mostly Yadavas and Muslims, whole-heartedly voted for the BSP candidates Mayawati’s vote-bank did not show the same enthusiasm towards the SP. This is simply because 21.3% Dalits of UP got badly divided and a large chunk of non-Jatavs threw their lot behind the BJP.
Ram Temple mobilisation
Now that the Sangh Parivar is once again mobilising the masses on a massive level on the eve of the inauguration of Ram Temple in Ayodhya on January 22 next the main focus would be on the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and non-Yadav Backward votes of North India. The decline of Dalit and even in some case tribal parties may once again give the BJP an opportunity to further expand its base in these sections of the society.
It would be a Herculean task for the Kharge-led Congress to fill the vacuum created after the fading away of BSP, now-divided LJP and various Republican outfits. Kharge is not a mass leader, but his symbolic presence as a Dalit figure at the top may be utilised to win some votes away from the BSP, LJP and other smaller SCs parties.
Besides, the Congress can open its gate for Chandrashekhar Azad’s Azad Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh and Prakash Ambedkar’s Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi in Maharashtra. The latter is the great grandson of the architect of Indian Constitution and has on October 22 last met Sharad Pawar, a leading light of Maha Vikas Aghadi. All the three parties of MVA are the constituents of INDIA.
The presence of Kharge at the helm of affairs may help negotiate with the smaller Dalit outfits. If they are accommodated and given due respect then INDIA may hope of gaining some ground, especially in Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar and Punjab. Otherwise, the challenge ahead is quite uphill in the cow-belt.
Dalits vote for ruling party
The problem with the Dalit voters is that normally they vote for the ruling party. In the first few decades after Independence for the Congress, and in the last few years for the BJP. The BSP rose in between this intervening period after late 1980s because the Congress had started declining and the BJP was yet to emerge as a big national level party. Now that it has established and consolidated itself the outfits like BSP, LJP and Republican Party are bound to decline or simply join hands with the ruling party. The last two named parties are doing the same. The BSP had in the past also joined hands with the saffron party and can do so in future too.
In Bihar Hindustani Awam Morcha of former chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi a few months back deserted the Grand Alliance to once again enter into the NDA fold.
Contrary to Dalit outfits, tribal parties like Jharkhand Mukti Morcha and OBCs’ parties are still surviving be it in north or south India.