In 2008, then Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati had alleged that Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, then a general secretary in the party, “bathes in special soap” after visiting Dalit homes. That desperate political punch was as a result of Gandhi spending nights at Dalits’ houses and breaking bread with them.
From personal visits to private Dalit households, Gandhi’s bid to reach out to the backward community saw a big jump last month when he took the political centre stage of the protests over the suicide of Dalit research scholar Rohith Vemula, twice in as many weeks.
And the support he received at the Hyderabad Central University also showed that he will not wash his hands off Dalit politics anytime soon.
Time and again Rahul Gandhi had tried to underline that in his brand of politics, Dalits and tribals enjoy a special focus just as farmers do. Three years ago, Gandhi had famously said that Dalit empowerment in India needs “Jupiter’s escape velocity”. Though this statement had become a butt of jokes, his idea was clear – it will need the maximum thrust to push the community out of the lowest strata of society it now occupies.
In 2010, he had also declared himself “sipahi” (soldier) of the tribals of Niyamgiri, lending his shoulder to their protests against mining bids by an aluminum giant at a hill considered sacred.
So, even when his own party was in power at the Centre and churning out one after another legislation for entitlements, Gandhi had actually tried to carve out his own political space, reaching out to these sections in his own ways. In 2014, after it lost the Lok Sabha polls, the party overlooked many other contenders to anoint Mallikarjun Kharge—a Dalit leader—as its leader in Lok Sabha. It also unleashed a grand plan to celebrate Babasaheb Ambedkar’s 125th birth anniversary, in an apparent bid not to allow the ruling BJP to appropriate the Dalit icon’s legacy.
The Congress’ concern for Dalits or the Scheduled Castes also has an undeniable electoral sub-text. The party’s electoral fortunes in states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu—where there is a high percentage of Dalit population-- has slipped away during the past few decades, especially in the post-Mandal era.
The last general election, where the Congress scored its lowest tally, it got just 3 out of 84 seats reserved for the Dalits, two in Karnataka and one in Telangana. In contrast, the BJP got 40 Dalit MPs across the country.
Gandhi, in a pivotal role to steer the party at its hour of crisis, also perhaps understands that there is no other way to revive the Congress’ independent political standing in the long term but to bring back the Dalits and the tribals under its umbrella.
The political discourse over the Dalit issue, however, is now understandably shriller as the Congress, sitting in the Opposition benches, aims to corner the government on each and every step.