For the BJP and the Aam Aadmi Party, locked in a fierce war to win Delhi, the main battle is for 25 lakh Dalit votes. Out of Delhi’s 70 constituencies, 12 are reserved for scheduled caste candidates because of their dominant Dalit population.
Jatav, Valmiki and other Dalit sub-castes account for 20% of Delhi’s 12 million voters — big enough to swing political fortunes ahead of the assembly elections early next year.
And the fight for this pie has put the poll-bound Capital on the boil. The Congress and AAP have accused the BJP of trying to woo Dalits by engineering riots and pitting them against Muslims. Though the BJP has denied the accusation, all disturbances have happened in Dalit constituencies, suggesting attempts at religious polarisation for electoral gains. Violence first erupted in November in Trilokpuri, followed by Bawana.
Earlier this month, a prominent Catholic church was mysteriously gutted in Seemapuri, also a Dalit seat. Both parties claim to have poached ‘prominent’ Dalit leaders from each other for greater impact. The AAP even claimed that the BJP’s Dalit cell had defected to it.
Amid the ongoing conversion row, Delhi BJP president Satish Upadhyay chose to profusely praise Swami Shraddhanand — known for mass conversions — ahead of Thursday’s rally to be held at Ramlila Maidan in his memory.
“The Swami worked against untouchability. We will felicitate Dalits,” said Kirti Sharna, Delhi state president of Arya Kendra Sabha, which is holding the event. Residents of Valmiki Colony from where PM Narendra Modi launched his cleanliness drive will also be there.
In the 2013 assembly elections, AAP cut into Congress’ and BSP’s support base, and won nine of these 12 seats, making a spectacular debut with 28 seats. AAP hopes Congress’ base among Dalits will shrink further and come its way.
“We don’t treat it as a caste issue. For us, it’s a class issue,” said a senior AAP leader, requesting anonymity. “These are basically poor people who live in slums, resettlement and unauthorised colonies with little or no facilities. They supported us in 2013 not just because we had the broom as our election symbol, but also because we raised the issue of lower-level corruption, water, electricity.”
The BJP has different strategies. “Our SC cell has planned five corner meetings in every constituency, focusing especially on Dalit voters. Apart from the 12 reserved seats, Dalit settlements have been identified in general constituencies as well and party leaders will meet the residents,” said Ramesh Valmiki, a BJP leader.
The party will also organise a camp at Valmiki Colony in the New Delhi constituency where Modi had launched his drive. Prominent BJP leaders from Rajasthan and MP will camp in Delhi’s Dalit constituencies.
“Our national president Amit Shah and Union minister Nitin Gadkari have already addressed Dalit rallies and the Valmiki Milan Mahasammelan in Delhi in the last one month, promising to make contractual jobs permanent, among other things. North West Delhi MP Udit Raj is one of our Dalit faces in Delhi,” he said.
But AAP thinks its record will help. “We believe in doing. When we formed the government, we made Dalit MLAs Girish Soni and Rakhi Birla ministers. Other parties have done nothing for the poor,” said the AAP leader.
The broom will be a factor, too. “Since Modi-ji’s broom campaign, our support base among Dalits has gone up manifold. The elections will break the myth that the backward classes are with AAP, he said. “Lok Sabha polls showed people from all sections of the society are with BJP,” said a BJP leader.