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The great game for Dalits: after the RSS, the Congress plan

Nur Laiq | Updated on: 21 July 2015, 17:08 IST

The gambit

  • Dalits are no longer voting merely on identity.
  • All major political parties - the BJP, Mayawati\'s BSP and Nitish Kumar\'s JD(U) are all eyeing the Dalit vote.
  • The Congress is keen to take ownership of Dalit politics as well.
  • Setting aside its older approach, it wants to attract aspirational Dalits, some of whom voted for the BJP in 2014.
  • The party is forming a panel on this chaired by Sonia and Rahul Gandhi.

The strategy

  • The Congress wants to implement Dalit-centric sub-plans in every state it rules.
  • Instead of focusing on upliftment through freebies, it wants to create jobs in the private sector.
  • Every company with more than a 100 employees could be asked to submit the caste composition of their organisation.
  • They could also be pushed to employ more Dalits.
  • The Dalit faces of the party will be involved in formulating strategy.
  • The Congress\'s plan has been hailed by Dalit thinkers.

Dalits constitute 17% of the Indian population, and their vote tends to make or mar an election. That's precisely why in every election, political parties go all out to garner support among the most backward communities in the country.

Historically, Dalit identity has been a galvanising point for the community as far as voting patterns are concerned. But in the present day, that is no longer true - Dalits now vote on issues like development and aspiration.

A prime example of this was Narendra Modi's message of hope and change, which resonated with an aspirational electorate and catapulted him to the top job in the country.

But the Modi tide was meant to lift all boats, which it hasn't.

Over the last few months, every major political entity has been rushing to fill this, launching new strategies to woo Dalits. Many have used the 125th anniversary of Dalit icon Dr BR Ambedkar as a commemorative trigger.

The RSS, for instance, declared a programme based on the slogan "one temple, one well, one cemetery", intended to end discrimination.

The Congress too is positioning itself to retake the leadership of the Dalit community, with a systematic approach. How far this will translate this into action on the ground remains to be seen, but its ideas are a departure from its earlier position.

Political ground reality

The NDA government's perceived failure to do much about its own election slogan 'sabka saath, sabka vikas' has created an opening for any party able to offer something more substantial than rhetoric.

Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party, traditionally a Dalit-powered party, is also losing ground both nationally and in its home state of Uttar Pradesh.

Christophe Jaffrelot, India expert at Sciences Po, Paris, points to the 2014 general election, where all of UP's 17 Scheduled Caste seats went to the BJP, as evidence of this.

"The Dalit vote is up for grabs," feels Sudha Pai, professor at Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University. She points out the shift in Dalit voting patters from identity to aspiration.

Dalits in India are no longer voting on the basis of their identity. Development and aspiration matter as much

Nationally, Dalits cast fewer votes for the BJP than any other group, except Muslims. Jaffrelot says this is because the "BJP is still identified as an elite party in terms of class and caste" and believes that they "will have a tough time getting Dalit votes".

"This shift in Dalit voting patterns demonstrates that identity matters, but so do issues of development, aspiration and social equity," he argues.

It's not as though the Congress has been far away from the Dalit narrative in history; it has only lost ground over the last few decades.

Congress's grand design

The first two issues to knock the NDA off course in the Dalit mindspace are the Land Acquisition Bill and the larger politics based around Dalits and their icon, BR Ambedkar.

The Congress is keen to take ownership of both, making them its top two priorities, says former external affairs minister Salman Khurshid.

This year marks the 125th year since the birth of Ambedkar and the Congress has already set up a committee, co-chaired by Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, to celebrate his birth anniversary next year, and to re-assess the party's Dalit policies.

Mandatory sub-plan

The party plans to implement a Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe (SC/ST) sub-plan in all Congress-ruled states. This will make it mandatory for Congress-run state governments to commit funds exclusively to SC/ST development, in proportion to their population.

In the monsoon session of Parliament, the Congress wants to put pressure on the government for a central budget sub-plan.

It also plans to press for forward movement on previously blocked legislation relating to the SC promotions quota in government jobs, and amendments to the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of) Atrocities Act, aimed to provide special courts for trying offenders and rehabilitating victims.

Change of course

According to a member of the Congress Ambedkar Committee, the party's thinking is changing: "The idea used to be first give the Dalits patta land, then a home, then education, and then a job."

The new strategy, says committee member Digvijaya Singh, is going to focus on the creation of jobs. "We have to look at how Dalits and Adivasis can be given employment in the private sector, because the government jobs they used to depend on are no longer there," he explains.

The proposal for private sector reservations for Dalits has been floated by the Congress earlier also. However, it has not grained traction.

Perhaps, keeping this in mind, K Raju, head of the party's SC/ST cell, suggests that the American model of "affirmative action" offers an example of how the private sector can be pushed toward employing more Dalits.

Raju describes the possibility of introducing a rule which would make it compulsory for all private sector companies employing more than a 100 people to exhibit data on the caste composition of their employees.

The Congress is focusing on urban, educated, unemployed Dalits, who form the middle class and build opinion

Digvijaya and Raju also mention the need to emphasise education for Dalits. Raju says the party wants to increase English medium schools for Dalits, give their children scholarships for higher education and institute a scheme to pay for 50-100 SC students to study abroad.

Digvijaya explains the party is going to spend a year drawing up a blueprint for action, for which it will consult Dalit and Adivasi party office bearers in a manner similar to the Bhopal Declaration of 2002.

The Bhopal Declaration is a reference to the Dalit development agenda implemented by Digvijaya during his tenure as chief minister of Madhya Pradesh. He had formulated it in conjunction with Dalit intellectuals and was considered path-breaking at the time.

Positive Dalit response

The Congress's ideas on employment and education mirror those of the Dalits interviewed by Catch, though they suggest even more can be done.

Chandra Bhan Prasad, adviser to the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, advocates policies that will help Dalit manufacturers get market access.

Kancha Ilaiah, director of the Centre for Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, Hyderabad, stresses the importance of pre-school education for Dalit children as a step to create a level-playing field.

The Congress's focus on urban, educated, unemployed Dalits has won it plaudits in some quarters. Prasad believes: "The road to the Dalit underclass goes via the Dalit middle class, which is the opinion builder."

Ilaiah agrees with him and cites the example of reservations - first a small Dalit middle class was created, which then had an impact on the community as a whole.

While Prasad believes that the Congress should focus on the "Dalit middle class, which has by-passed the ration card", others in the community argue that most urban Dalits live in slums and their biggest problems are housing, electricity and sanitation.

Jaffrelot believes that Congress requires Dalit leaders and intermediaries in the mould of Jagjivan Ram and BP Maurya to be able to reach out to the community. For that, the Congress needs to reinvent its party machinery.

A Dalit academic argues that the Congress needs to push for inclusive governance at every level of the party - involving Dalits not just in policy making, but also putting them in charge of the implementation, monitoring and evaluation of Dalit schemes.

Ilaiah reckons Congress has the potential to sell the complete package - social reform, with political and economic empowerment.

As of now, it would seem that the party is feeling its way around the national mood through the themes of land and Dalits.

It has grounded the land battle in the emotive language of farmers vs corporates. And it is pushing the Dalit issue by focusing on the urban individual Dalit, who is educated but unemployed.

The party strategy seems smartly conceived. It taps into the same vein of unfulfilled aspiration that helped win Modi the 2014 election.

First published: 21 July 2015, 17:08 IST
Nur Laiq @NurLaiq

A visiting researcher at Georgetown University, Washington, Nur is Assistant Editor, Politics, at Catch News. She's also working on a book on the Arab Spring. Previously chief content officer for the Congress Party for social media during the 2014 general election, she has also been a senior policy analyst at the International Peace Institute, a think-tank linked to the UN in New York. At other stages of her career, she has worked for a Labour Party member of parliament in London and on foreign policy at the European Commission in Brussels. Nur is co-editor of The Search for Peace in the Arab-Israeli Conflict (Oxford University Press, 2014) and author of Talking to Arab Youth: Revolution and Counter-revolution in Egypt and Tunisia (International Peace Institute, 2013).