LUCKNOW, Uttar Pradesh — As a Congress member in Uttar Pradesh, Bhagwati Prasad Chaudhary has witnessed his party in free fall for close to thirty years, but has never abandoned hopes of a comeback. But the Congress's gamble of striking a three-way alliance with the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), to beat the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has him worried.
As the head of the Congress's Scheduled Caste department in UP, Chaudhury is concerned that the alliance would mean that the Congress would effectively abandon the Dalit vote to its alliance partners.
An alliance with the SP and the BSP, current state of negotiations suggest, would leave the Congress in between 12 and 15 of Uttar Pradesh's 80 seats. Chaudhury, a former state lawmaker from Mirzapur, believes his party is likely to end up with eight seats in a three-way alliance. Of these, the party would probably get only one seat reserved for an SC/ST candidate.
"The immediate goal is to beat the BJP, but the compromises the Congress makes can have consequences for the future which will go beyond UP," he said. "It is the Congress that is the national party, not the SP or the BSP. So, if there are hardly any seats given to Dalits in UP, then what is the message for Dalits across India?"
In a recent background meeting with journalists in New Delhi, Rahul Gandhi exuded confidence about his party's prospects in UP, noting that an alliance with the two regional parties would cover 60% of the electorate. Dalits alone make up 21% of the state's population.
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"If the BJP is beaten, the Congress will be recognised, but will it have a standing in the Dalit community?" Chaudhary asked. "We have lost the work done to mobilise Dalits last year and we are at risk of doing it again."
We have lost the work done to mobilise Dalits last year and we are at risk of doing it again.
Winning back Dalits
Until the rise of the BSP under Kanshi Ram, Dalits in Uttar Pradesh had voted for the Congress, and a significant part of the community had stuck with the party all the way up to the 2014 election, a study by the New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) found. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, however, the BJP managed to win a fairly large share of the Dalit, OBC (Other Backward Class) and Adivasi votes.
"In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the BJP emerged as a major recipient of Dalit votes as its vote share among the community increased by 12 percentage points, whereas the Congress' share declined by eight percentage points," the study found. (The BSP's Dalit vote share in 2014 decreased by six percentage points compared with 2009).
In the assembly elections in 2017, the Congress went all out to win back UP's Dalit community, especially the non-Jatav Dalits, whose loyalties to Mayawati have fragmented over the past two decades.
At the time, Rahul Gandhi accused Mayawati of crushing Dalit leadership in UP. The Congress released a special manifesto for Dalits which promised free education, free housing and free medical treatment worth Rs 2 lakh, and even launched a merit hunt to find the most deserving candidates to field in the state election. Approximately 300 Dalit leaders were groomed as potential candidates for reserved constituencies, but only 16 of these young leaders got tickets to contest the election.
The Congress had entered into an alliance with the Akhilesh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party, and hence contested in only 27 of the state Vidhan Sabha's 84 reserved seats. The alliance was particularly difficult for party workers as they had formulated a campaign (with slogans such as "Sapa Dalit Se Khafa") around the SP's poor record of protecting Dalits from atrocities at the hands of the SP's OBC base.
Congress insiders say the party was dumped with the seats that SP did not want. In the event, neither the Congress nor the SP won even one of the 84 seats reserved for Schedule Castes in the 2017 UP Assembly election. The BSP won only two reserved seats in the Assembly, while the BJP and its allies swept the remaining 68.
Out of the 85 reserved constituencies, SP won 58 in the 2012 Assembly election, while the BSP won 15, followed by Congress and BJP at four and three respectively.
In the 2014 general election, BJP won 40 of the 84 seats reserved for Schedule Castes in Lok Sabha.
History repeats itself?
The Congress's pool of 300 Dalit leaders are faced with the prospect of sitting out another election.
"Anyone would begin to feel discouraged," said Chaudhary, who also lost out on a ticket in 2017. "The old leaders, who believe in the ideology of the Congress, will stick to the party, but what is there to motivate the next generation? They will leave if they don't get a chance to fight."
Congress insiders fear the few seats available to the party would probably go to the old guard: Rahul Gandhi in Amethi, Sonia Gandhi in Raebareli, Imran Masood in Saharanpur, Sriprakash Jaiswal in Kanpur, Pramod Tiwari in Lucknow (Rita Bahuguna Joshi, who previously held the seat for Congress is now with the BJP), Raj Babbar in Ghaziabad (or Pratapgarh) and Annu Tandon in Unnao.
Of these leaders, only Rahul and Sonia Gandhi actually won their seats in the 2014 election. Masood, Jaiswal, Joshi and Babbar finished second. Tandon finished fourth, but the margin between the second and fourth places was only around 11,000 votes.
Dalits in the Congress are looking to Barabanki, a seat where PL Punia, a Dalit and the national spokesperson for the party, finished second. Now that Punia is a Rajya Sabha lawmaker, the rumour is the Lok Sabha ticket from Barabanki will go to his son, Tanuj Punia, a chemical engineer from IIT Roorkee, who contested and lost the 2017 assembly election from Zaidpur.
If true, for Dalit leaders in the waiting, it would be another instance of promoting dynasty over hard work.
"What chances do the new recruits have when even the chairman of the SC/ST department cannot get a ticket?" a state functionary said on condition on anonymity.
What chances do the new recruits have when even the chairman of the SC/ST department cannot get a ticket?
Political analysts say that the BJP is pulling out all the stops in UP, and securing the Dalit vote remains key to its strategy. Plum postings are just one example of its efforts to reach the Dalit community.
The chief of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes, Ram Shankar Katheria, is the BJP lawmaker from Agra. The Yogi Adityanath government picked the former Director General of Police for UP, Brij Lal, a Dalit once close to Mayawati, to head the UP Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Commission. The Adityanath government also appointed Lalji Prasad Nirmal, Chairman of the Ambedkar Mahasabha, who recently felicitated the CM with the title of Dalit Mitra, as chairperson of UP Scheduled Castes Finance and Development Corporation.
Of the seven governor appointments, this month, at least three are from UP – Satya Pal Malik in Jammu and Kashmir, Lalji Tandon in Bihar and Baby Rani Maurya in Uttarakhand.
Even Chaudhary admits the BJP is battling for every inch of UP. "Everyone knows the way to Delhi is through UP. They are paying close attention to Dalits. They are going about it slowly and steadily," he said.
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