At a time when Dalits are angry, why did BJP remove its Dalit Punjab unit chief?
Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) national president Amit Shah has replaced the party's Punjab unit chief Vijay Sampla with Rajya Sabha member Shwet Malik. The move continues to perplex political observers in the state because although Sampla's removal was on the cards, the timing of the move raises a lot of questions.
The removal came just a couple of days ahead of the 2 April Bharat Bandh call given by the Dalits and Sampla was the face of Dalit leadership of the BJP in Punjab. His removal at a time when Dalit politics is on the boil over the 'dilution' of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act by the Supreme Court.
While BJP leaders close to Sampla are claiming that the announcement of his replacement has just coincided with the Dalit agitation, observers claim that there is much more to this.
Sampla who is a BJP MP from Hoshiarpur and a minister of state in the Narendra Modi-led central government was brought in as the Punjab BJP chief in 2016 ahead of the Punjab Assembly polls that were held in February 2017. The move was aimed at making inroads into the large Dalit vote share as Dalits account for 32% of the Punjab population and this is the highest in terms of percentage in the country.
But the polls had proved to be a loss making enterprise for the BJP as its tally fell from 12 in 2012 to a mere three seats in 2017. This indicated that the BJP's move to bring in a Dalit face at the helm had not paid off although Sampla's close allies claim that Shah was not expecting even a single seat in the assembly polls in Punjab.
The party had deviated from its claim on the principle of one person one post to make Sampla the Punjab chief as he also held a Union portfolio side by side.
Immediately after the Assembly polls Sampla's replacement looked imminent. His close confidants say that he had himself been asking Shah and other senior functionaries to relieve him of the charge but they had been delaying.
“In any case holding a Union portfolio is far more important than being an organisational head of a state,” pointed a BJP functionary close to Sampla. Over the last one year there were rumour floated at regular intervals about his removal.
And eventually the party decided to announce his replacement on March 31 by Malik who again is a surprise candidate. Sources say that Sampla never got along well with the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), the BJP's alliance partner in Punjab. The two parties have been sticking together although there are a number of BJP workers who want their party to part ways with the Akalis. They believe that the party needs to test the waters in rural Punjab and contest more than the 23 of the 117 seats allocated by the Akalis to them in the Assembly polls. The party gets to contest three of the 13 seats in the Lok Sabha polls. Observers say that the alliance is expected to continue for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
There is a point of view that the BJP dumping a Dalit face for an Upper Caste like Malik at the time when Dalit politics is on the boil, may be an attempt to consolidate its traditional support base of upper caste Hindus, particularly in urban areas. This group had left the BJP for the Congress in the Assembly polls. This could have partly been due to demonetisation carried out by the Modi regime that had hit small traders, majority of whom are Hindus, very hard.
Malik's elevation to the post is being questioned by many as he was never a heavy-weight politician. A former Mayor of Amritsar and a three time councilor, he had lost the 2012 local body polls. But his very close association with the RSS and also Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley is said to have ensured his entry to the Rajya Sabha in 2016 and now as state BJP chief. He had worked overtime in support of Jaitley in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls when the latter was contesting against the present chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh from Amritsar. Jaitley was trounced by Amarinder in the contest.
Reports say that Malik’s father Rajinder Malik and brother Rajesh Malik have been a pracharak and sampark pramukh of the local wing of the RSS in Amritsar.
For the BJP, the road ahead in Punjab is not easy as far as the 2019 Lok Sabha polls are concerned. Many attribute Sampla's removal and anointment of Malik at the top to the internal factionalism in the party's state unit. “The Congress culture pervades in the BJP also in Punjab,” pointed a political observer. The party only has one sitting Lok Sabha member from the state in Sampla. The other seat of Gurdaspur that was represented by Vinod Khanna, was recently wrested by the Congress' Sunil Jakhar after it fell vacant because of Vinod Khanna's death in April last year.
For the 2019 polls, the BJP will have to answer some tough questions on the decisions taken by the Modi regime, particularly on demonetisation and implementation of Goods and Services Tax (GST) especially in context on Langar (community kitchens) in Gurudwaras and several other issues. It remains to be seen how Malik takes the party forward in the days to come.