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How Channi’s appointment as CM has set off a Congress-AAP battle for Dalit votes in Punjab

AAP’s Dalit outreach teams have been active across Punjab districts for at least 6 months, spreading the message about how AAP can help with better schools, hospitals and welfare moves.

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New Delhi: Samman sabhas, special guarantees and outreach teams — the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has scaled up its appeal to the Dalit vote base in Punjab ahead of next year’s assembly elections and also tweaked many of its campaign strategies in the light of the Congress appointing a Dalit chief minister in the state.

Dalit outreach teams of the AAP have been active across districts in Punjab for at least six months now and, until recently, they were primarily entrusted with spreading the message about how the AAP can help Dalits with better schools, hospitals and welfare measures, said a senior party leader who didn’t wish to be named.

But the appointment of Charanjit Singh Channi, who belongs to the Dalit community, in late-September as the new CM of the Congress-ruled state, after former chief minister Amarinder Singh was forced to step down, put AAP in a tough spot, necessitating changes in campaign strategies, said the senior AAP leader.

Between August 2020 and August 2021, the AAP saw its primary opponent in Singh, and in its press conferences, which ThePrint tracked, mostly highlighted how Punjab being ruled by elites is affecting common masses. Channi’s appointment took the anti-elite plank out of the AAP’s agenda.

Congress leaders said Dalits in Punjab are yet to get a hang of the AAP’s Delhi-based governance model and claimed that the AAP is struggling in terms of appealing to Dalits after Channi’s appointment as CM.

Around 32 per cent of Punjab’s population comprises Dalits, which is the highest in any state, according to Census 2011 data. The north Indian state, where the AAP is the principal opposition party, goes to the polls in early 2022.

The AAP outreach teams have now been entrusted with spreading more messages among Dalits focused on Channi. The party’s top leadership has set the agenda for that.

For several weeks now, the AAP has been on an offensive against the Punjab CM. While on several occasions the political discourse was reduced to a personal slugfest between Channi and AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal, competing over the image of the real “aam aadmi” (common person), the AAP’s Punjab co-incharge Raghav Chadha is invested on some sort of a mission to expose Channi’s alleged endorsement of “sand mafia”.


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Stress on Dalit factor

Kejriwal, who is Delhi’s chief minister, has started a series of “SC (scheduled caste) Samman Sabhas” (felicitation events) in Punjab and personally attended two of them this month.

In at least three campaign-related events in Punjab, he has promised free education, free healthcare, financial assistance for coaching and scholarships for the Dalit community, calling them “special guarantees” for the upliftment of the community.

Senior AAP leader and Delhi’s Deputy CM Manish Sisodia told ThePrint: “Dalits are a large section of Punjab’s population and it is unfortunate that no government in the state has done a decent amount of work for them… Punjab has had a record of being ruled by leaders who never cared about Dalits and the downtrodden. So, as a party like AAP that aims to bring a change, we have to stress on development for Dalits.”

He added: “The state now has a Dalit CM but it hardly helps the Dalit people. Firstly, for Congress struggling with constant infighting. He (Channi) is a makeshift arrangement. Secondly, having a Dalit CM does not help alone as long as he and his party are deeply involved in corruption… The top leadership of AAP has been vocal about these facts and our volunteers and outreach teams are working day and night to spread this message across the state.”

Punjab MLA Raj Kumar Verka, who is also a prominent Dalit face in the Punjab Congress, said the AAP is raking up bogus issues.

“Punjab is currently the only state to have a Dalit CM. People of Punjab understand the importance of this message very well. Dalits have traditionally voted for Congress because they see development only with the Congress,” he said.

“Secondly, Delhi is the national capital. It is largely taken care of by the Union government. Then the Congress was in power for 15 years. What has the AAP done other than taking credit? The AAP has failed. They are scrambling for issues now. That is why they are generating bogus corruption claims every second day,” he added.


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Dalit votes in Punjab

The Dalits in Punjab were essential to the AAP’s assembly poll debut in the state in 2017 as well.

Before the 2017 assembly polls, the party organised series of community-based gatherings which it named ‘Dalit Dialogue’. Then it went on to launch a separate Dalit manifesto, which promised low-cost houses for all Dalits, a special cell for implementation of Post Matric Scholarship Scheme and Rs 51,000 for marriages of women from Dalit community.

According to 2017 poll data summarised by the Centre for Study of Developing Societies, the AAP won 19 per cent of the Dalit Sikh votes and 21 per cent of the Dalit Hindu votes, even as the Congress captured the lion’s share in both — 41 per cent among Dalit Sikhs and 43 per cent among Dalit Hindus.

While Congress won the polls with 77 seats in the 117-seat assembly, the AAP won 20 assembly seats and 23.7 per cent votes to become the principal opposition party.

“There is no exclusive vote base of Dalits in Punjab. It is much more complicated,” said Pramod Kumar, a Punjab-based political analyst and director of the Institute for Development and Communication. “The biggest example is the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which originated from Punjab but could find refuge only in Uttar Pradesh.”

The BSP has allied with the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) for the upcoming polls. In the 2017 polls, the party bagged a duck with its vote-share plummeting to 1.5 per cent, from the 4.29 per cent it secured in the 2012 elections. It’s also a far cry from its peak in the 1992 assembly elections, when the BSP won nine seats and secured 16.32 per cent of the vote share.

“For the Congress, appointing a Dalit CM may have given a psychological spin to the Dalit population. It must have affected the AAP’s prospects, especially after the BSP, which too has appeal among Dalit sections, allied with the SAD,” said Kumar. 

The SAD allied with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2017 assembly polls in Punjab and won 18 seats even though its vote share was 30.74 per cent much higher than that of the AAP’s 23.7 per cent.

“But then the population is broadly divided into five sub-castes — Ravidasias, Valmikis, Mazhabis, Rai Sikhs and Adharmis. Each of them has found representation across all political parties in varying proportions. Then each of them is part of an economic and cultural interdependent structure with Jat Sikhs and Hindus. While the AAP has visibly failed to take such dynamics into account, it would be an uphill task for the Congress too because too much focus on one often upsets the other,” Kumar added.


Also read: Amarinder Singh, BJP announce pact to contest Punjab polls together


 

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