With around eight percent of Gujarat’s population, the Dalits are not a numerically dominant community in the state, but their votes in the forthcoming general election are likely to be split between the ruling BJP, the opposition Congress and the new Aam Aadmi party, say political observers. All political parties are trying their best to woo the community because, aside from 13 seats (out of 182 in the state) reserved for the scheduled castes, Dalit voters say they have a few dozen other seats up for grabs throw.
While the BJP is confident that Dalits will vote in favor of this year’s state assembly polls, Congress says it pays attention to seats with 10 percent or more Dalit population. The BJP has won a majority of the 13 seats reserved for Scheduled Castes since 1995. In 2007 and 2012, she won 11 and 10 of those seats, respectively, while Congress had won two and three seats.
But in 2017, the BJP faltered, only winning seven seats while Congress won five. One seat was won by a Congressional-backed independent. One of the Congressional MLAs, Pravin Maru of Gadhada, resigned in 2020 and joined the BJP in 2022. Atmaram Parmar of the BJP won the constituency by-election.
Sociologist Gaurang Jani claimed that the Dalits in Gujarat are a confused community in terms of political affiliation. Not as large in number as many other communities, they are further divided into three sub-castes – Vankar, Rohit and Valimki. “They are divided among themselves, with the BJP attracting Vankar, the highest in the stratum. They are louder and more urban. But Valmiki, who are mostly sanitation workers, are divided,” claimed Jani, a retired Gujarat University professor.
The three political parties and the three caste segments would lead to a split in Dalit votes, he said. “This will cause their political importance to diminish, especially as the community lacks a strong leader,” he added.
With newcomer AAP claiming the legacy of Dr. BR Ambedkar raises, community voices are likely to be split in three directions, Jani said. “The new generation of the community is confused … The voting behavior of the youth is divided between all three parties. The partition will not benefit any political party or the community,” he said.
The BJP has been in power for 27 years. In every election that has taken place over these 27 years, Dalits have supported both the BJP and Congress equally. The BJP has also taken many initiatives to attract Dalits. Because they were in power, Dalit leaders were given positions on various bodies, he said. “Dalits enjoy a long association with the BJP,” said Jani. On the other hand, Congress cannot hold the Dalit community as it has long since left power, he said. “Even in the opposition, it hasn’t raised their issues as well as was expected. Many Dalit leaders in Congress switched to the BJP. The party’s KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslim) strategy could not work as polarization towards Hindutva further marginalized the Dalits,” said Jani.
Dalits make up just eight percent of the state’s population. In the villages they are usually an absolute minority. Even in urban areas, their number in a given pocket is not large, he said. “Also, the AAP’s strategy of attracting Dalits by claiming Babasaheb Ambedkar’s legacy by aligning it with Mahatma Gandhi makes them attractive to the community,” he said.
The AAP, led by Arvind Kejriwal, has already promised the state’s citizens a series of “guarantees” if elected to power. “I think the voting behavior of the Dalit youth is shared between the three parties. It will not go to a single political party. I don’t know which political party will benefit from this, but Dalits will not benefit from it,” he claimed. Meanwhile, BJP spokesman Yagnesh Dave said that apart from releasing state and central government plans aimed at the community, they also involve religious leaders of holy sites associated with the Dalit community such as Jhanjharka and Rosra: ” Also in 2017, the Dalit community supported the BJP and we believe they will give us the same support in 2022,” he said.
Congress aims to increase Dalit turnout, particularly in non-reserved seats where the community makes up 10 percent or more of the population. The AAP hopes its “guarantees” such as 300 units of free electricity per month, unemployment benefits and a Rs 1,000 subsidy for women will attract Dalits, among other communities. Deliberate efforts to claim Ambedkar’s legacy will also play a role, political observers said.
Hitendra Pithadiya, chair of the Congress’ planned caste division, said the party pays special attention to seats with 10 percent or more Dalit population. “This is probably the first time Congress has not restricted itself to reserved constituencies. We identified around 40 constituencies with more than 10 percent Dalit voters,” Pithadiya said.
Congress won 19 of those 40 constituencies in 2017 and narrowly lost some seats, he added. “We want the Dalits to come out strong and vote for Congress in these constituencies. If that happens, we can win. We will try to ensure that we also field Dalit candidates in non-reserved places,” he said.
Congress had put forward Dalit candidates for the full seat of Sayajigunj in Vadodara city in 2017 and Limbayat in Surat city in 2012. He lost in both places. The 2017 elections were preceded by protests against the ruling BJP over the flogging of members of a Dalit community by cow guards in Una, Gir Somnath district.
While attacks on Dalits by members of the dominant upper castes and other backward classes and discrimination are not uncommon in rural Gujarat, the Una incident presented an important issue for Congress to rally the community to its side. Dalit activist Jignesh Mevani, who led the protests after the Una incident, won the 2017 election with Congress support in the Vadgam seat reserved for candidates of the planned caste.
Mevani recently announced he will be contesting the 2022 election on the congressional ticket.
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