The "D" word has become crucial for the Himachal Pradesh Assembly that goes to the polls on November 9. Unlike earlier occasions, when local and regional issues dominated the scene, the Dalit factor could impact the election's outcome this time.
Three facts have become apparent ahead of the elections to the 68-member Assembly that reserves 17 seats for scheduled castes (SC). One, both the ruling Congress and the rival BJP have a lot of explaining to do to the Dalits with regard to their safety, security and uplift. Two — and in view of this — both parties are keeping their focus on other issues that they think will put their rivals on the mat. And three, given the gathering criticism over demonetisation and the hasty rollout of GST — and its impact on Dalits and other marginalised groups — the Himachal polls could become one of the dipsticks for the 2019 general elections.
Dalits constitute nearly 25 per cent of Himachal’s population and are concentrated in districts like Sirmaur, Kullu, Mandi and Solan.
Of the 17 SC-reserved seats, three each are in Kangra, Mandi and Sirmaur districts, two in Solan and one each in Chamba, Kullu, Shimla, Hamirpur, Una and Bilaspur. With 37 per cent of the BPL families belonging to the SC category, Dalits in Himachal are poor, backward and distressed.
Incumbent CM Virbhadra Singh too has been trying to play the Dalit card. Photo: Reuters
In a spate of recent incidents across states and regimes, Dalits have been targeted in the name of love jihad and gau raksha, or for daring, among other things, to draw water from a community well, watch a garba dance, grow a moustache or change their dress code. Some of the states that witnessed these incidents include BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra as well as the TRS-governed Telangana or Congress-ruled Karnataka and Punjab. Rohith Vemula’s suicide in Hyderabad and the torching of Dalit houses in UP's Saharanpur stand out as examples of atrocities against the marginalised.
The continued victimisation has prompted many Dalits to look for succour in the fledgling Bhim Army, which has seen a rapid rise since its formation by lawyer-activist Chandrashekhar "Ravan" Azad in Saharanpur two years ago. Reacting sharply to its growing aggressiveness, the UP administration arrested Azad — who wore his moustache and blue scarf as a badge — for instigating the clashes in his home town in early May. The 30-year-old — who held an impressive rally at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar later that month — was nabbed by the Special Task Force of the UP police from Dalhousie in Himachal Pradesh.
It remains to be seen whether Azad’s arrest will put a brake on the rising force that is primarily active in West UP. But the action could have a ripple effect on the SCs in the poll-bound hill state.
The Dalit upsurge — and its appeal among its youths — has given jitters to several state administrations and parties laying claim on the Dalit vote. It has begun to challenge Mayawati and Bahujan Samaj Party’s claim over the SC vote, especially in UP; it has jolted Yogi Adityanath’s government in Lucknow and made a confident BJP wary about the Dalit vote in Himachal; and it has shaken the Congress that is battling incumbency in the hill state where the CPM-backed Dalit Shoshan Mukti Manch has been holding conclaves to discuss the discrimination against the community.
It has also forced the BJP government of Gujarat on the back foot when young Jignesh Mewani and his Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar March took on the cow vigilantes or gau rakshaks for thrashing four Dalit youths for allegedly skinning a cow.
Hyderabad was already on the boil following Vemula’s suicide.
The possibility of new, emerging and fledgling Dalit outfits trying to build a Dalit-Muslim compact is enough to cause consternation among established mainstream parties.
On the face of it, the BJP, which has 26 seats to the Congress’ 36 in the Himachal Assembly, should have an easy run in the state where chief minister Virbhadra Singh is battling incumbency, factionalism, perception of poor governance and a disproportionate assets case while seeking his seventh term in office.
To press home its advantage in the two-party state — which has in the last three decades voted out every incumbent government — the BJP has launched a "Hisaab Mange Himachal" campaign to demand accountability from the state government and called for a regime change and a Congress-free state and country. If there is any doubt, it is regarding the impact that Azad’s rise and the anti-Dalit and anti-minority incidents, including some by the saffron vigilante groups, could have on the elections.
It is for this reason that the BJP, while mobilizing its core supporters among the Brahmins and Thakurs, is also trying to woo the Dalits besides, of course, attacking the Congress which, in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s words, is a "zamanati" (on bail) party and sarkar. Along with parivartan yatras, yuva aakrosh rallies and mahila congregations targeting specific social groups, there are also Dalit swabhiman sammelans.
The party hopes to reach out to the Dalits through Modi’s forays in areas of substantial SC population (like Bilaspur recently and Shimla and Mandi earlier), election of Ram Nath Kovind, a Dalit, as president, RSS’ invite to Dalit religious leader Baba Nirmal Das to be the chief guest at its annual Vijaydashami Utsav in Nagpur on September 30 (to which he sent a message as he could not attend) and state and national leaders like JP Nadda eating with Dalit families. On his part, Virbhadra Singh too has been trying to play the Dalit card while battling incumbency, graft and other odds.
He threatened to boycott the polls unless the Congress high command replaced his bête noire Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu with a Dalit state unit chief, claiming that the electorate will welcome a compact between the politically powerful Rajputs and Dalits. To pressure the leadership, he even skipped last month’s AICC-organised Dalit conclave attended by Sukku and state in charge and senior leader Sushil Kumar Shinde.
Faced with a difficult choice and a tough election in a state that is among the few left where it is in power, the Congress opted for an uneasy compromise. In return for letting Sukhu keep his post, Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi declared Singh as the party’s CM candidate.
It is an open question whether this will reduce infighting but it has allowed the Congress to shift its attention to the BJP. At the party’s Vikas Se Vijay Ki Aur rally in Mandi this month, Rahul attacked the BJP and Modi for failing to deal with job losses, price rise, poor implementation of GST and its negative impact on Himachal’s tourism industry.
With Gujarat also set to vote before the Himachal results are out on December 18, Rahul hailed the Himachal model of development and trashed the Gandhinagar version as a failure.
It is another matter that both governments are trying to entice the voters before the polls by lowering VAT on petrol and diesel.