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Congress’s dilemma after Phagwara clash: Balancing traditional votebanks of Dalits, Hindus

Chief minister Capt Amarinder Singh okayed renaming of the chowk after the samvidhan or Constitution on Tuesday to assuage sentiments of Dalits who see the Constitution’s chief architect BR Ambedkar as their icon; but the right wingers are not willing to relent.

punjab Updated: Apr 26, 2018 10:13 IST
Sukhdeep Kaur
Sukhdeep Kaur
Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
Congress’s dilemma,Phagwara clash,votebanks of Dalits
A dharna against caste violence in Phagwara on Wednesday. (Pardeep Pandit/HT)

As tension simmers in Phagwara, in the heart of Dalit-dominated Doaba belt of Punjab, the ruling Congress is on the back foot. Clashes between some “upper caste” Hindu right wing outfits and a Dalit organisation on April 13 night, when members of the latter put up a banner carrying a new name ‘Samvidhan (Constitution) Chowk’ and BR Ambedkar’s portrait at a crossing in the city, left five men injured; and has put the two national parties in a fix.

Chief minister Capt Amarinder Singh okayed renaming of the chowk after the samvidhan or Constitution on Tuesday to assuage sentiments of Dalits who see the Constitution’s chief architect BR Ambedkar as their icon; but the right wingers are not willing to relent.

The Congress government had won accolades from the RSS, ideological parent of the BJP, earlier this year for “solving” the targeted killings of right wing leaders. But the state government did not rein in the many trigger-happy ring wing outfits enjoying police security and political clout. In fact, their security was enhanced following the targeted killings.

The compulsions of the Congress are linked directly to votes too. It was able to end its political exile of 10 years after return of its traditional votebank of Dalits and “upper caste” Hindus to its fold. It cannot afford to appease one and antagonise the other. Also, at a time when the party is trying to pin the BJP down over atrocities on Dalits in many parts of the country, Punjab, being a Congress-ruled state, cannot afford to be a caste flashpoint.

The developments, though, should worry the BJP too. As it piggybacks on ally Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), which has a Sikh core, the saffron party finds its Hindu votebank shifting. It has been reduced to three seats in the assembly and one in Lok Sabha from the state. Its lone Parliament seat is from Doaba while its lone assembly seat in the belt is Phagwara, reserved for Scheduled Castes (Dalits); and the local MLA Som Parkash has decided to toe the party line to support the Hindutva outfits. This only underlines that the caste compulsions are complex.

The Congress is already battling anger of Dalit and Backward Class MLAs over “inadequate” representation in the expanded cabinet. Three of its MLAs have resigned from party posts in protest. Even some senior cabinet ministers feel the party should have taken the caste arithmetic into account while appeasing Hindus and Sikhs. Of the 18 ministers, three are Dalits, five from other castes among Hindus, and remaining 9 Sikhs, a community whose vote was divided among the SAD, Congress and Aam Aadmi Party.

Senior government functionaries blame the ring wing outfits for the developments. “Dalit leaders want to rename the chowk not as ‘Ambedkar Chowk’ but after the Constitution. Why should anyone object to it?” a senior official who was part of the meeting of a Dalit delegation with the CM on Tuesday said. It must here be recalled that Phagwara had seen a communal flare-up in 2016, when some Shiv Sena leaders targeted some local Muslims.

The right wing, including BJP leaders, have instead presented revolutionary freedom fighter Bhagat Singh’s name as an option for the chowk’s new name. The cross-community appeal of Bhagat Singh means further complexity.

Amid all this, running the state government that is responsible for law and order, the Congress has to strike a fine balance between its Dalit vote and right-wing Hindu politics.

First Published: Apr 26, 2018 09:44 IST