Do Dalits hold the key to Punjab?

Will Dalit votes in Punjab get divided again? Where does BSP stand in the state from which its founder Kanshi Ram hails? As Punjab goes to polls tomorrow, the questions are far exceeded by answers

Photo by Pardeep Pandit/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Photo by Pardeep Pandit/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Abhishek Srivastava

Bahujan Samaj Party chief and four-time Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati addressed her first election rally for the Punjab assembly polls in Phagwara on January 30, barely three days before the campaigning came to an end in Punjab. She addressed the large gathering of 25,000 supporters in the state where BSP founder and her mentor, Kanshi Ram was born, in Khawaspur village in Punjab’s Rupnagar (Ropar) district.

Dalits, constituting a third of Punjab’s population at 32%, can sway electoral outcomes in several seats. BSP had won nine assembly seats in Punjab in 1992, but it’s tally fell to just one seat in 1997. In the last three assembly elections, the party failed to secure even a single seat. Most of its candidates have been losing their security deposits. While once the party had 16% vote share in Punjab, it dropped to less than 2% in the last Lok Sabha elections. The Aam Aadmi Party, sensing an opportunity in the 2017 polls, has been making a bid for Dalit votes.

BSP supporter Nikke Singh declares that winning nine assembly seats in 1992 was actually a major setback for the party. "We managed to win those seats because Akalis had boycotted the election that year. Those very MLAs then switched over to other political parties. That premature victory harmed the prospects of BSP and derailed the Dalit movement in the state,” he argues.

Several leaders who started their career with BSP are now sitting MLAs from Shiromani Akali Dal and Congress. AAP candidate from Adampur Hans Raj Rana too is a former BSP leader. AAP has also inducted two of the party’s former state presidents—Parkash Singh Jandali and Mohan Singh Phallianwala.

Satnam Singh Kainth, a former MLA, MP and leader of opposition in Punjab assembly who represented BSP in the 1990s, is contesting the election for the tenth time on a Congress ticket. After he left BSP in 1999, Kainth, the first Punjab president of Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti—the predecessor of the BSP—formed Democratic Bahujan Samaj Morcha. The Morcha has since been delisted by the Election Commission as it has not fielded any candidate since 2005.

Photo by Abhishek Srivastava
Photo by Abhishek Srivastava
Posters of BR Ambedkar, Kanshi Ram and Mayawati for sale at BSP president Mayawati’s rally in Phagwara, Punjab on January 30

Retired academic and veteran farmer's leader from Patiala Dr Darshan Pal says, "The real task for Dalits here remains to conquer the political space rather than remain engaged with just reformist and economic work.”

There is also a strong perception among people that BSP and the Akalis have an understanding. Noted Punjabi poet and former student leader Sukhwinder alleges, "BSP helps Akalis by eating into traditional Dalit votes of Congress".

An unemployed youth Amardeep from Nawanshahar, who had come to hear Mayawati in Phagwara, however, was convinced that the triangular fight in Punjab was between Akalis, Congress and BSP. He says, "We hope that BSP will form the government. It has done much in UP and Behenji will replicate it in Punjab".

The attraction for BSP among Dalit youth in Punjab has been given a fillip by the new ‘Chamar Pop’ songs by musicians such as Jalandhar pop singer Ginni Mahi, which proudly assert Dalit identity. Mahi's music such as the video above in praise of ‘Babasaheb, who write the Constitution’ also play on thousands of mobiles as ringtones across the state. Will those holding the handsets swing a few seats the BSP’s way once again, in the state where the party has its roots?

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Published: 03 Feb 2017, 5:04 PM