A Dalit chief minister in Punjab: Political masterstroke by the Congress?
Charanjit Singh Channi, who has replaced Amarinder Singh as the chief minister in Punjab, is the first Dalit to hold this office in the state. Punjab is the state with the highest share of Dalits, or Scheduled Castes (SC), in its population. But it is also clear that by selecting a Dalit for the top political job in the state, the Congress is trying to send a larger political message beyond the state’s borders. Kanshi Ram, who was among the tallest Dalit leaders in post-independence India and founded the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), was also a Dalit from Punjab. How successful will this strategy be? Here are four charts which try and answer this question.
Not all of Punjab’s SC population is Sikh
SCs account for 38% of Punjab’s population, the largest among all states in the country. However, not all SCs in Punjab are Sikhs, although the latter are dominant among the state’s SC population. The share of Sikhs belonging to the SC category in Punjab is 27%, while the remaining 11% of the SC population is Hindu. But even 27% is quite high if one compares the share of SC population across states.
What is the socio-economic status of Dalits in Punjab?
Whichever indicator one takes to look at the socio-economic status of SCs, they are at the bottom of the economic hierarchy in India. Does this also hold true for the SC population in Punjab?
This question is worth asking because Punjab is among the richest states in India. In 2018-19, the latest year for which per capita GSDP numbers are available for all major states, Punjab was ranked 10th among 19 major states in the country, and its income was 1.2 times the national per capita income average.
India does not even have income statistics; leave alone income statistics across social groupings. So, there are no straight forward answers to the question of well-being levels of SCs in Punjab vis-à-vis the rest of the country. However, there is some statistical evidence on asset levels at the social group levels to answer this question.
The 2015-16 round of the National Family and Health Survey (NFHS) -- this is the latest period for which data is available for Punjab -- allows classification of households belonging to broad social groups by wealth. Over two-thirds of SC households in Punjab were in the top two quintiles (top 40%), which is significantly higher than the national average, where only 27.2% of the SC population belongs to the top 40% .
But the NFHS wealth rankings might not capture rural reality
To be sure, the NFHS classification of household wealth might not capture the reality in rural areas. This is because the NFHS looks at household ownership of consumer goods (such as televisions or cars) and the characteristics of their house (such as source of drinking water, toilet facilities, even the flooring).
Things change once ownership of land is taken into account, which is an important determinant of socio-political power in India’s villages. The All-India Debt and Investment Survey (AIDIS) in 2018-19 collected data on value of land, building, livestock, transport, agricultural equipment, non-farm business equipment and financial assets. An HT analysis of unit-level data of AIDIS shows that the average worth of these assets for an SC household in Punjab was ₹871,386 as on June 30, 2018. This is 87% of the assets owned by an average Indian SC household: ₹996,088.
The reason SC households in Punjab do badly compared to their peers in other states in the AIDIS, is (lack of) land ownership. Once land and buildings are taken out of the equation, the results resemble the NFHS trends, and SC households in Punjab are better off compared to those in other states.
This also underlines a potential source of tension between the Dalit and non-Dalit population in rural Punjab. Despite lagging behind on land ownership, SCs have made advances as far as their living standards are concerned, which can possibly generate social-political tension.
The Congress has been losing ground among Dalit voters in Punjab
SC voters played an important role in the Congress’s 2017 victory in Punjab. According to data from the CSDS-Lokniti survey, the Congress’s vote share was the highest among SC voters in the state. However, a longer-term comparison of support across social groups shows that the Congress has been losing ground among SC voters in the state. Between the 2012 and 2017 elections, there was a 10 percentage point drop in the Congress’s vote share among SC voters in Punjab. The primary beneficiary of attrition of SC voters from the Congress was the Aam Aadmi Party in Punjab, which managed a 19% vote share among SCs in the 2017 elections. With an SC chief minister in office, the Congress will hope to stop, maybe even reverse, the dent in its SC support base in the state.
To be sure, elevating a Dalit to the chief minister’s post in Punjab could also bring gains for the Congress outside the state. While projecting a large transfer of SC voters in favour of the Congress at the national level – as per CSDS-Lokniti data Congress and its allies had a vote share of 26% among SCs in 2019, compared to 41% for the BJP and its allies – might seem a bit far-fetched at the moment, Dalit Sikhs have an important presence in some pockets in two crucial states for the Congress: Rajasthan and Haryana. Sirsa in Haryana (12.1% ) and Ganganagar (10.1%) and Hanumangarh (4.1%) in Rajasthan have a significant Dalit Sikh population.
Then, the expected gains from this move could also turn into a backlash, if the Congress were to replace Channi with a non-Dalit CM, should it win the 2022 polls, as is being speculated by some observers.