In the season of electoral harvest, to be a Dalit in Punjab is to be a political magnet. Almost every third voter in Punjab is from the Scheduled Caste community and every political party is concentrating on campaigning in constituencies where Dalit voters are predominant. Dalits account for 31.9 per cent of the population. Traditionally, they have voted by and large for the Congress and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD). But the entry of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) turned the election into a triangular contest in 2017. Arvind Kejriwal’s party has made a dent in the Dalit votes of both the Congress and the Akali Dal. However, the race this time is likely to be less complicated. The Congress under Charanjit Singh Channi, Punjab’s first Dalit Chief Minister, is well poised to get the lion’s share of Dalit votes and seats this time. Channi himself is contesting from the reserved Bhadaur seat in Sangrur district, apart from Chamkaur Sahib.
The race for the Dalit vote started almost a year before the election. Surprisingly, it was the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that made the first pitch. After its split with the SAD, its erstwhile partner in 2020, the BJP found itself out in the cold. The Akali Dal walked out of the National Democratic Alliance and its government in protest against the three contentious farm laws. The BJP, which had ridden piggyback on the Akali Dal in all major electoral contests since 1997, now had to make its own way in Punjab. The handful of seats it won in places like Sujanpur and Abohar in 2017 were like the dividends of electoral arithmetic. Its politics of right-wing nationalism found few takers. Shortly after the farm laws were passed, BJP MLAs could not even enter their constituencies. In Abohar, the BJP legislator Arun Narang was roughed up by irate voters. In March 2021, Narang visited Malout to address a press conference. Ink was thrown at him and his clothes were torn. He was forced to take shelter in a shop where shutters had to be pulled down from inside. Interestingly, the BJP has once again given the ticket to Narang to contest from Abohar.
Pushed to the corner, the BJP announced in April 2021 that if it was voted to power in 2022 it would appoint a Dalit as the Chief Minister. The claim was met with a mix of surprise and derision in political circles. Political observers were surprised as the Dalit vote in Punjab is often fragmented. All Chief Ministers but one since Independence had been from the Jat Sikh community; Zail Singh was the sole exception in 1972. For years, the Sikh Dalit vote has been nursed by the Congress, and coveted by both the Akali Dal (or the SAD-BJP alliance) and the AAP. Hindu Dalits tended to be inclined towards the Congress, though the AAP made a bold pitch in 2017. Importantly, the idea of Hindutva rang few bells in the State with the Hindu community still living under the dark shadow of Khalistan politics and clearly more concerned about peace than furthering the BJP’s majoritarian agenda. In fact, Punjab along with Kerala and Tamil Nadu, had consistently resisted the march of the BJP. There was derision also because the BJP had not even come close to winning a quarter of the seats in the 117-member Assembly in any of the elections it contested. The outgoing Assembly has only three of the 23 candidates who contested under the lotus symbol in 2017. The party got a mere 5 per cent of the votes last time. The Akali Dal had netted 15 of the 18 seats that the SAD-BJP combine had won. The BJP’s proposition for a Dalit Chief Minister fell flat.
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The Akali Dal, is pulling out all stops to woo Dalit voters. Last year, the Badals were quick to act when the BJP made overtures to Dalits and stitched up an alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which had risen to be a significant force in the State in the 1980s during Kanshi Ram's time. Though the BSP’s vote share had declined since —the party got only 1.5 per cent of the voter in the 2017 Assembly election—an alliance with the SAD could be like a kiss of life for both. The Akalis stood to make up for the possible loss of the Hindu vote after moving away from the BJP, while the BSP looked at a possible revival after embarrassing performances in successive elections in 2012, 2014, 2017 and 2019. At a press conference in 2021, SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal declared that the coming together of the two parties “was a new day in politics” adding: “If SAD wins the polls, we will have a Dalit as a deputy Chief Minister.”
Unfortunately, for the Badals, whatever the Akalis planned to do after the 2022 election, the Congress could do that, and one step better, before the election itself. The prolonged and very public battle of attrition between Navjot Singh Sidhu and the then Chief Minister Amarinder Singh resulted in the Congress high command being compelled to remove Amarinder Singh a few months before his tenure ended. Even as the Sidhu loyalists waited with bated breath for his coronation, the Congress pulled off a surprise by appointing Charanjit Singh Channi, a Dalit, as the Chief Minister. With a single stroke it took the wind out of the sails of the opposition. Channi proved to be a smart choice. While not going to town with his Dalit identity, he emphasises his humble origin, hoping to win over poor upper-caste voters besides the Scheduled Castes and Other Backward Classes who account for nearly 32 per cent of the population.
Composition of Dalit community
Incidentally, according to a widely publicised report by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, there are 39 sub-castes among Dalits in Punjab. Five sub-castes bring up more than 80 per cent of the Dalit population. Among them, the Mazhabi Sikhs make up the largest share of the pie with 30 per cent, followed by Ravidasias with 24 per cent and Ad Dharmis with 11 per cent. The Dalit population is concentrated in Doaba, Malwa and Majha districts, accounting for 37, 31 and 29 per cent of the population respectively. Chief Minister Channi hails from Malwa and belongs to the Ravidasia sub-caste.
According to a Congress insider, Channi, in his brief stint as the Chief Minister, has assiduously cultivated the Dalit vote. He is said to have built a trustworthy understanding with the Deras, socio-religious organisations whose word is said to guide the Dalit vote. The Dera Sachkhand based in Ballan near Jallandhar is influential in Doaba. This Dera follows the teachings of Guru Ravidas. Channi being a Ravidasia himself, enjoys a healthy relationship with the Dera.
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Likewise, in south Punjab, Dera Sacha Sauda is in a position to influence the outcome in about 30 seats. This Dera is also well disposed towards Channi. “The Deras are populated by those who didn’t get space in gurdwara politics. They challenge Sikh orthodoxy in their own way. Their support will help Channi for sure. It is a win-win situation for him. For the first time, there is not much talk of Hindu or Sikh issues. The talk is about the Dalits," says Prof Anand Kumar, one of the founder members of the AAP who parted ways with it in 2015. Overall, the Congress is on a good footing with respect to the Dalit vote. In Doaba, the Congress had won 15 of the 23 seats in 2017. Likewise in Malwa, it had won 40 of the district’s 69 seats. The party in fact notched up 55 of its 77 seats in the outgoing Assembly from these two districts.
Among Hindu Dalits, too, the Congress has been continuously increasing its appeal. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, it received a scarcely believable 58 per cent of the Hindu Dalit vote, against the 37 per cent it got in the 2012 Assembly election. However, at the same time, the Congress’ support among Sikh Dalits declined from 51 per cent in 2012 to 35 per cent in 2019. But it fared better than the SAD-BJP combination which got 27 per cent of the Hindu Dalit and 26 per cent of the Sikh Dalit votes in 2019. In the 2017 Assembly election, the share was 26 per cent and 34 per cent respectively. The State has 34 reserved seats, including Kartarpur, Amritsar West, Bathinda, Atari and Jalandhar West. In all these seats, the Congress has done better than others, winning 21 seats in the last election. This time, too, the Sikh Dalit vote is likely to be divided between the Congress, the SAD and the AAP, in that order. “The Congress is now well removed from the days of Indira Gandhi and support for Bhindranwale. Ten years of Manmohan Singh provided the much-needed healing touch for the Sikhs,” notes Kumar.
However, unlike other States like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, it has been difficult to cultivate a Dalit vote bank in Punjab; hence the sharing of the spoils between the Congress and the SAD. “Religious cleavage is non-negotiable in Punjab,” says Kumar. For a Dalit voter professing the Sikh faith, it is not clear if he is first a Sikh or a Dalit. As a Sikh, he is wooed by the SAD; as a Dalit, the Congress welcomes him. The intersectionality between religion and caste makes Dalit politics dynamic in Punjab. In 2017, the AAP was a frontrunner until the last few days of campaigning. Then the sudden arrival of supporters from the United States and Canada upset the applecart, as the locals discerned in their arrival a whiff of the Khalistan days and quietly voted for the Congress. Hence, the party defied all projections to garner 77 seats in the Assembly. Now on the other side of the table, the Congress will be hoping no last-minute change of predilections upsets its calculations in this election.