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With Dalits on its mind, BJP appoints Vijay Sampla as Punjab party chief

Rajeev Khanna | Updated on: 9 April 2016, 1:37 IST
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The appointee

  • Vijay Sampla is the BJP MP from Hoshiarpur and the Union MoS for Social Justice and Empowerment
  • He has been appointed the president of the Punjab BJP, replacing Kamal Sharma

The reason

  • Dalits form 32% of the electorate in Punjab
  • Sampla, 54, is a senior Dalit leader, and his appointment looks like an important step to get the community\'s votes

More in the story

  • What observers think about Sampla\'s appointment
  • What steps the other major parties have been taking to woo Dalits

The appointment of Vijay Sampla as president of the Punjab unit of the BJP has further intensified the race for capturing the Dalit vote bank in the state. Sampla, 54, is the current Union Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment.

Sampla's name was formally announced announced by BJP president Amit Shah on Friday. The announcement is also expected to set the ball rolling for next year's Assembly polls in the state, in which the party is retaining its alliance with the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD).

With this move, the BJP clearly wants to dispel the notion that it is a party of upper caste Hindus, and get its share of the Dalit vote pie.

Humble background

Sampla is a Dalit leader from the Doaba belt. He replaces Kamal Sharma, who had already completed his term as state president in December last year. He had won the Lok Sabha poll from Hoshiarpur in the 2014 parliamentary elections, and was one of the people handpicked by Narendra Modi to join his cabinet.

Sampla began his political career as the sarpanch of Sofi village in the Jalandhar district. He was employed as a plumber in Saudi Arabia before he joined the BJP in 1998. He had previously also worked as a farmhand and a labourer.

Dalit leader Sampla is an MP from Hoshiarpur and the Union MoS for social justice and empowerment

"His image will definitely give a boost to the party. People still recall how he used to carry sacks weighing up to one quintal for his livelihood. The party is going to benefit from his image," said BJP functionary and assistant media advisor to the Punjab government, Vineet Joshi.

"There is only one way to interpret Sampla's appointment. The BJP wants to reach out to the Dalits, particularly the Ravidasi community, and send across the message of it not being merely an upper caste party. Every party is trying to reach out to the Dalits. Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal has also recently laid the foundation stone of a Guru Ravi Das Memorial at Khuralgarh, promising to develop it into a pilgrimage centre," said a senior mediaperson with a vernacular daily in Jalandhar.

Mukesh Maloudh, who has been working among the Dalits for their land rights, interprets Sampla's appointment as another ploy to use the Dalits for electoral benefit.

"The BJP and the RSS want to change the perception about their anti-Dalit agenda. The fact is that they have been facing agitations for their anti-Dalit stance at the national level, like at the Hyderabad Central University (HCU). They are also wary of Dalit and Left forces coming together. This appointment is to check such a phenomenon," Maloudh said.

Dalits' significance in Punjab politics

Dalits comprise almost 32% of Punjab's population. But the irony is that no political party has ever been able to consolidate them into one vote bank, unlike in Uttar Pradesh, where the BSP has been one of the main political forces for decades.

Dalits are divided into 39 sub-castes across five religions in the state. Around 80% of the Dalits in the state are concentrated in the Doaba region. Some of them are very well off, as their family members have been migrating abroad for their livelihood.

Over the last few months, the key political parties in the state - the Congress, the Akali Dal, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the BSP - have been trying to get a foothold among the Dalit voters.

Observers say that by appointing a Dalit as its state chief, the BJP has also entered the fray. Besides, the appointment of Sampla is also expected to have a ripple effect in Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP wants to make electoral gains against the Mayawati-led BSP. Uttar Pradesh will be going to the polls along with Punjab in a few months.

Dalits are 32% of Punjab's populace, but no party has been able to consolidate them into a vote bank

The BSP has, for long, been trying to find its feet again in Punjab. It had won nine seats in the 1992 Assembly polls, and had garnered 16.32% of the votes polled. But this base eroded when its tally came down to one in the next assembly polls, and since then, the party has been scoring nil in the subsequent polls.

Mayawati had visited the Doaba area on 15 March, which happened to be BSP founder Kanshiram's birth anniversary, and had addressed a rally in Nawanshahr, where she had announced that the BSP would go it alone.

The day also saw AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal visiting Kanshiram's village of Pirthipur Bunga in Khawaspur area of Rupnagar, before he proceeded to visit some Deras frequented by the Dalit populace.

The Congress held a Scheduled Caste conclave in Ludhiana two months ago, in its bid to woo Dalits. In Charanjit Singh Channi, it has also appointed a Dalit as the Congress Legislative Party (CLP) leader.

The Akalis have been wooing Dalits with social welfare schemes. The most recent attempt on their part is to encourage the setting up of separate Dalit youth clubs in the state. Separate grants are being provided to such clubs - a direct attempt to reach out to the Dalits politically.

End to BJP factionalism?

The BJP in Punjab has been grappling with the issue of poll readiness in the face of the delay in the announcement of a new state president. Over the last several months, the party has seen rival groups fight it out, which put a question mark over its poll preparedness.

There was stiff resistance to Sharma being reappointed, with his rivals raking up the issue of his aides being allegedly involved in drug trafficking and bribery, which led to massive protests from Opposition parties in almost all the districts in the state last year.

The members of his rival camp had threatened to sit back home and not work if the national leadership decided to impose him for another term.

Sampla is seen as a member of the group led by Rajya Sabha MP Avinash Rai Khanna, who is also in-charge of party affairs in Jammu and Kashmir and Rajasthan. Observers feel that the party might accommodate outgoing BJP president Kamal Sharma in the national organisation in the days to come.

With Sampla in command, the BJP is all set to approach the Dalits with its own set of promises and programmes.

First published: 9 April 2016, 1:37 IST
 
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