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AAP effect: Dalit card gains political currency in Punjab Congress too

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has rolled the dice by appointing low-profile Harpal Singh Cheema as the new leader of opposition in Punjab assembly, whose claim to the post was his Dalit credentials.

punjab Updated: Jul 29, 2018 09:54 IST
Sukhdeep Kaur
Sukhdeep Kaur
Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
AAP,Punjab,Congress
The AAP is playing the Dalit card after bestowing the state presidency and post of the leader of opposition on the politically dominant Jat Sikhs.(HT File )

With highest percentage of Scheduled Castes (SC) population in the country, the Dalit card is again gaining political currency in Punjab in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has rolled the dice by appointing low-profile Harpal Singh Cheema as the new leader of opposition in Punjab assembly, whose claim to the post was his Dalit credentials.

The AAP is playing the Dalit card after bestowing the state presidency and post of the leader of opposition on the politically dominant Jat Sikhs, including Bhagwant Mann, HS Phoolka and Sukhpal Khaira. The first two had quit their posts while Khaira has been replaced by Cheema, who hails from the Valmiki community. The Congress too had appointed Charanjit Singh Channi, a Ravidassia Sikh, as the leader of opposition in the run-up to the 2017 state polls.

At a time when resentment over “inadequate” representation to the community in the state cabinet expansion in April this year is still simmering, the developments in the main opposition party have set off a fresh scramble among Dalit leaders in the Congress too for top posts.

Three Dalit MLAs had quit Congress posts to mark their protest against the cabinet expansion. Party insiders say the Congress had taken due care to include at least one legislator each from the backward class and Dalit in the cabinet — Sangat Singh Gilzian and Raj Kumar Verka. “But their names were dropped in the last minute to accommodate chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh’s loyalists, Rana Gurmeet Sodhi and OP Soni,” said a party insider.

Verka and Channi had escalated the “discrimination” to Congress president Rahul Gandhi incidentally when he held a rally in New Delhi against the Narendra Modi government over “atrocities on Dalits”. Later in May, Channi, who is technical education minister in the Amarinder government, had openly questioned why none from the SC community figured in the list of 28 law officers appointed by the state government.

“The Congress cannot ignore the appointment of a Dalit as the leader of opposition. The party is trying to drum up support of Dalits against the NDA regime at the Centre for the 2019 polls. How can it ignore the fact that it was able to win back Punjab only after its traditional vote bank of Dalits and upper caste Hindus returned to its fold? Together, the 22 SC and 11 BC legislators constitute 42% of the party’s near two-thirds majority of 78 seats in 2017 polls,” an SC MLA said, requesting anonymity.

Since there is no scope to appoint more ministers in the cabinet, which has reached its constitutionally permitted ceiling of 18, including the CM, Dalit leaders are demanding that the party appoint a Dalit state president or a deputy CM.

Though they make a third of Punjab’s population, Dalits are divided into many sub-castes, with a claimant from each. Amritsar West MLA Verka, when contacted, said Valmikis did not get any representation in the cabinet.

“But the community is hoping that the Congress would do justice to them,” he said.

The BJP, which has replaced its Hoshiarpur MP Vijay Sampla, an SC, with Rajya Sabha MP Shwait Malik as the state party chief, too has tried to woo Valmikis by appointing Punjabi singer Hans Raj Hans as vice-chairperson of the national safai karamchari panel.

Punjab Congress chief Sunil Jakhar said the “party’s interests are over and above” those of individuals. “Dalit MLAs had expressed their resentment after the cabinet expansion. Whether they should be accommodated in the state cabinet, boards and corporations or party posts, is a call that will be taken by the high command in larger interest of the party,” Jakhar said.

First Published: Jul 29, 2018 09:54 IST