Punjab’s ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) has failed to nurture its Scheduled Caste leadership, the Congress is on the wane nationally, and the base of the ‘hardcore’ Dalit party, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), has shrunk drastically. Timing it right, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has elevated its first-time MP and Dalit face in the state, Vijay Sampla, to post of Union minister of state.
In Punjab, where the percentage of the SC community (around 31%) is the highest among all states, the BJP has set the ball rolling for the 2017 assembly polls by giving a ministerial berth to the Hoshiarpur MP, who is a Ravidassia community leader. With this move, the saffron party has also hinted at its keenness to go it alone in the polls.
With the BJP having very few Jat Sikh leaders, who largely dominate the political scene in Punjab, sources say that the party, through Sampla, is focusing on Doaba that has 25 assembly seats where the SC population is nearly 39%.
Already having a strong base among urban voters and the upper classes, the party’s strategy, sources say, is to make a social engineering formula (‘Dalit Swaran’) that the think tank believes can change the equations in 72 of the total 117 seats.
The allotment of the social justice and empowerment portfolio to Sampla -- that generally caters to issues of the SC community and the deprived classes -- seems to be part of this strategy.
Notably, the BJP recently appointed Ram Shankar Katheria, a Dalit leader from Uttar Pradesh, as the party’s state unit in-charge. Agra MP Katheria was also inducted into Modi’s team on Sunday.
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is already in touch with more than 200 big and small deras active in Doaba. Most of them had extended their support to the BJP during the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.
“It’s a new strategy of the party to strengthen our base on our own. We are sure that Sampla’s elevation would make the BJP more popular among Dalits,” said state BJP chief Kamal Sharma.
Challenge for SAD
The BJP’s new strategy could pose a serious challenge to the SAD as the latter presently has no major face from this community, especially in Doaba.
Two SAD leaders, former minister and Kartarpur MLA Sarwan Singh Phillaur and chief parliamentary secretary and Phillaur MLA Avinash Chander, are already on the back foot after their names cropped up in the multi-crore drug racket. Despite the damage-control exercise during the last cabinet expansion, when the party projected Chabbewal MLA Sohan Singh Thandal as the new SC face, the party is not going to gain much as the minister belongs to the Ravidassia Sikh community, whereas Doaba is dominated by Adharmi Ravidassias.
Dalits have traditionally backed the Congress, making Doaba a party stronghold, but the scenario has changed in the past few elections.
The party does not have a second-rung leadership to replace its senior names, including sitting Jalandhar MP Chaudhary Santokh Singh, his elder brother Jagjit Chaudhary and former MP Mohinder Singh Kaypee.
The BSP, once a dominant force in Doaba, got only 1.9% of the votes in the region in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls as compared to 5.7% in 2009.