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Punjab Elections 2022: As political landscape warms up, will Dalit votes be the game changer?

The elections are still ten months away. Though it is too soon to speculate what BJP and other parties are going to plan for the elections, it will be interesting to see how the things unfold.

Punjab is less than a year away from assembly elections. This is going to be the first time in 25 years that Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will not contest the elections together. SAD and Bahujan Samaj Party have recently announced that they have formed an alliance for the upcoming assembly elections.

Notably, BSP and SAD were in an alliance in Punjab before the 1997 Assembly elections. In the 1992 Assembly elections, BSP had won nine seats in Punjab. A year before the 1997 elections, SAD and BJP came in alliance, and BSP went down to one seat in the state. Since then, BSP has failed to mark its presence in four consecutive state elections.

With the new alliance, all political parties are going all out to woo Dalit votes. In such a scenario, how does the prospect of a Dalit Chief Minister or Deputy Chief Minister of Punjab look like?

The ‘ardaas’ incident

A few weeks back, a video of a Pathi went viral on social media in which he welcomed BJP’s decision to project a Dalit as the Chief Minister candidate of Punjab in the 2022 Assembly poll. In a special ardaas (prayer) he offered in the Gurudwara, Gurmel Singh Khalsa prayed for PM Modi’s long life and backed BJP’s reported decision to project a Dalit as CM candidate in the upcoming Punjab Assembly elections.

A complaint was registered by an advocate Harpal Singh Khara who alleged Gurmel hurt religious sentiment. Acting on the complaint, Punjab Police arrested the Gurmel, Pathi of the Gurdwara at Bir Talab village in Bathinda district.

A few days later, a similar incident, Harpal Singh, granthi of the Ravidas Gurudwara, Ambedkar Nagar, Sangrur, conducted a similar ardaas. According to the reports, some people approached him for the ardaas who were identified as BJP SC Morcha. He said, “Immediately after the ardaas, I even apologised for any offence that I may have caused to other members of the congregation.” He was reportedly dismissed from his job after the incident.

‘BJP believes in the inclusion of everyone’

Though PM Modi or BJP had not made any such promise about Punjab CM being Dalit, the ardaas and the aftermath showed that the subject of Dalit inclusion in Punjab politics is going to be an important point of contention in the coming months. In April, state organising secretary Dinesh Kumar had said, “After 1947, only Jatt Sikhs have been becoming CM. Sikhs and Dalits or other castes have never got any chance. We have already been asking why can a Dalit or member of some other community not become CM in Punjab when Jatt Sikhs have just 17% population. They (Dalits) also have the right (to become CM). They should get justice.”

Speaking to OpIndia, BJP State President Ashwani Kumar Sharma said, said, “Why can a Dalit not be CM in Punjab? BJP believes everyone who lives in Punjab has the right to be politically involved for the betterment of the state, let it be a Sikh, Dalit, OBC, Brahmin, or someone else. Interestingly, it is only after the recent incidents where Dalits spoke in favour of BJP, everyone wants to include them.” He further added if they were so concerned, why no party made a Dalit deputy CM of the state.

BJP State Secretary Sukhpal Singh Sran speaking to OpIndia over the recent incidents and the inclusion of Dalits in Punjab politics said, “What should we conclude from the recent arrest of the Pathi in Bathinda district? Are Dalits not even allowed to do ardaas in Gurudwaras? The arrest was against the teachings of Sikhism. Our Gurus have taught us not to indulge in casteism.” While talking about the BSP-SAD alliance, he said, “It is a politically motivated alliance. It is not a “gathbandhan” but a “thungbandhan”. They do not believe in the inclusion of the suppressed. They only want to use them as vote bank.”

He further added Congress, the ruling party of Punjab, is scared that the suppressed are now waking up, and BJP is supporting them to become more active in the state politics. “BJP’s ideology is based on ‘Sarve Bhavantu Sukhina’. We believe everyone is equal. Guru Gobind Jihad said, ‘Manas ki jaat sabhaye Ek pehchanyo’ (We must treat everyone equal), and BJP do not discriminate among any caste or religion.” Condemning the attack on BJP leaders in recent months, Sran said that Congress and other parties are trying to spread misinformation about BJP and its leadership, but they cannot hide the truth for long.

No Dalit deputy CM since independence

Punjab had three Deputy Chief Ministers since independence. Notably, none of them was a Dalit. In the 2016 assembly elections Aam Aadmi Party had said they would appoint a Dalit as Deputy CM of the State if they come to power. While speaking at an election rally in 2016 at Doaba, a Dalit-dominating region, Arvind Kejriwal had said, “Every party talks about giving Dalit benefits, but no one wants to give the higher position as a minister. They only give you a choice for MLAs, that too because of the reservation. But AAP is not here to exploit you for votes. We will share the power with you. Bhim Rao Ambedkar and Kanshi Ram had stated that Dalits can only be brought in the mainstream if power is shared with them.”

However, their announcement did not make much difference in the election results, and Congress ended up winning the elections. The reason, some experts believe, the lack of originality in the announcement for Dalits in the manifesto. Except for the seat of Deputy CM, AAP did not promise anything more than what other parties had promised.

AAP is also eyeing the upcoming state elections in 2022, and the party is known for playing religion and caste cards very often. As there is an alliance between BSP and SAD, it may cut votes of the Aam Aadmi Party. Moreover, AAP only promised the post of deputy CM to a Dalit while BJP is talking about the possibilities of a Dalit Chief Minister based on the party’s ideology of inclusion of everyone.

Dalits in Punjab: discrimination that is visible to everyone but no one talks about

Dalits’ role in Punjab politics is hard to understand. According to the official data, the Scheduled Caste population in Punjab is 88.60 lac which is 31.94% of the total population of the State. Punjab accounts for 2.3% of the total population and 4.3% Scheduled Caste population of India. Though Dalits comprise almost 32% of the population in the State, their role in politics is almost non-existent.

Santosh K Singh published an op-ed titled “Dalit Politics and Its Fragments in Punjab – Does Religion Hold the Key?” in Economic & Political Weekly. He said, “There are standard reasons to explain this enigma. The most prominent being the dominance of the landed community of Jats and other castes. In other words, it is argued that because of the Jat Sikh dominance, the Dalit community was never able to chart its own independent, political journey. They continued to express themselves either through the Shiromani Akali Dal or the Indian National Congress, the two dominant political parties of the State, again largely led by the Jats. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), as the perceived face of Dalit politics, has been reduced to a mere footnote.”

Surinder S. Jodhka, in a January 2002 article titled Caste and Untouchability in Rural Punjab in Economic and Political Weekly, talked about how Dalits who have converted to Sikhs feel discriminated against. He said, “Though at the level of religious principle Sikhism has been anti-caste and has had an attraction for the Dalits of Punjab, caste prejudices have not been completely absent among the Sikhs. This has been so particularly among the dominant castes of landowning Sikhs of rural Punjab. While in most gurudwaras in Punjab there are no restrictions on Dalits entering the local shrines, there are several cases where Dalits felt that they are discriminated against by those who control gurudwaras.”

While researching for his paper, Jodhka interacted with several Dalits individually and in groups. He found that though the majority of the Gurudwaras Dalit Sikhs are not stopped from entering, they are not treated as par with their counterparts from the upper caste. He said, “During a group discussion with Dalits in a village of Ferozepur district, we were told that the upper caste Sikhs did not really appreciate their participation in the daily activities of the local gurudwara.”

Sadly, it took a pandemic to break the caste bias in Punjab. According to April 2020 reports, it was only after the Covid-19 pandemic hit India in March 2020, the caste practices faded out in some of the religious places in Punjab. Jat Sikh Gurudwaras reportedly sent food to Dalit houses daily during the pandemic. Notably, while Sikhism preaches for equality, there are separate Gurudwaras and cremation grounds for Dalits in Punjab.

Despite several anti-caste movements, including Adi Dharam, Arya Samaj, Singh Sabha, Sacha Sauda and several others, Punjab and casteism seem to have an unbreakable relationship. Even the government’s efforts to uplift the scheduled caste population have no effect due to a deep-rooted sense of caste-based biased. In many cases, Dalits face a lot of resistance when they try to bring Guru Granth Sahib for worship at home during wedding and other auspecious ceremonies.

Agriculture Laws and BJP’s chance in Punjab 2022 Assembly elections

If elections were to happen in Punjab today, it may be one of the most difficult elections BJP would have to face. Congress, AAP and SAD have infused so much hatred in the minds of the people of Punjab against BJP over the Agriculture laws enacted in September 2020 that it will be very difficult for BJP to win the election without playing aggressive politics.

In the past few months, several incidents of attack on BJP leaders have happened in Punjab. The ‘farmers’ are protesting on the borders, and some reports have suggested that political parties are using these protests to earn brownie points against BJP.

Keeping the current situation in mind, BJP has to come up with a foolproof plan to win the hearts of the voters again. It is clear that giving a good price for the crop is not going to work as despite getting payments for the produce in the bank account for the first time, farmers are still protesting at the Delhi border. While the union government under BJP is doing everything to ensure farmers have a better life, the anti-BJP atmosphere among farmers in Punjab is going to make it extremely difficult for the party to earn trust.

In such situations, exploring faces from SC/ST community for CM and other important posts may become beneficial for BJP. It is evident that Dalits do not have any role in the political scenario in Punjab and other parties are, at max, may announce Deputy CM post for the Dalits as they would not want to anger the Jat Sikh community in the state. However, on the other hand, as BJP has nothing to lose in the state, they can explore options for inclusive politics.

2022 elections may become a turning point for Punjab politics

Notably, SAD and BJP broke their alliance in September 2020 after Agriculture Laws were enacted. As BJP has all the room for contesting elections on their own in Punjab, the party should look for innovative ideas to attract voters. Other than schemes, it is important to announce the inclusion of all sections equally so that they become the decision-makers.

The Dalit community in Punjab is divided into several sections. Among those, Ravidasis and Valmikis are the most significant sections. These sections are associated with deras alongside rural Punjab. During elections, these deras play an essential role. Also, it has to be noted that the number of NRIs in the Doaba region is much higher than in other regions. The majority of the Dalit families have at least one NRI making the region extremely prosperous. Their impact is majorly seen in parts of Phagwara, Jalandhar and Ludhiana. However, despite their strong financial position, the Dalits of Doaba are unable to make any mark in the political arena in the state. This is where BJP can have the upper hand by giving them more political power.

The elections are still ten months away. Though it is too soon to speculate what BJP and other parties are going to plan for the elections, it will be interesting to see how the things unfold.

Ayodhra Ram Mandir special coverage by OpIndia

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B.Sc. Multimedia, a journalist by profession.

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