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Monday, October 18, 2021

An Expert Explains: Is appointing Channi, a Dalit, the CM the Congress’ masterstroke in Punjab?

How far can Congress gain from its selection of Charanjit Singh Channi as Punjab’s first Dalit CM? Survey data show it was already the popular choice among both Sikh and Hindu Dalits, but it needs to hold on.

Written by Sanjay Kumar , Edited by Explained Desk |
Updated: September 21, 2021 7:14:46 am
Charanjit Singh Channi took oath as Punjab Chief Minister on Monday.

After the resignation of Amarinder Singh as the Chief Minister of Punjab, the Congress chose Charanjit Singh Channi over various other leaders as the first Dalit Chief Minister of Punjab. It has been claimed that Channi was the party’s unanimous choice, which may be true, but it cannot be denied that his selection as Punjab’s first Dalit Chief Minister was made with an eye on the sizeable Dalit vote in the state. As per Census 2011 estimates, Scheduled Castes constitute 32% of the total population of Punjab; among them, one-third are Dalit Sikh.

Assembly elections in Punjab are due next year.

The Dalit numbers

The importance of the Dalit vote can be assessed from the fact that there are 54 Assembly constituencies where Dalits constitute more than 30% of the total voters. In another 45 Assembly constituencies. Dalits constitute between 20% and 30% of the voters (Table 1).

In the contest that the state is set to witness among the Congress, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) — Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) alliance and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), one-third of the vote — from any one community — are going to play a significant role in the victory or defeat of any political party.

The Expert

Sanjay Kumar is Professor and Co-Director of Lokniti, a Research Programme at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS). While his core area of research is electoral politics, he has been engaged in survey-based research on a very wide range of themes - Indian youth, state of democracy in South Asia, state of Indian farmers, slums of Delhi and electoral violence.

The significant number of Dalits is the reason why, over the last few months, all political parties have made attempts to mobilise them on their side. One way or the other, each party had indicated that it would give a decent share in power to the Dalits if it is voted to power. While the AAP promised to appoint a Dalit as Deputy Chief Minister if voted to power, the SAD formed an alliance with the BSP in an effort to woo Dalits.

The resignation of Amarinder Singh provided an opportunity to the Congress to appoint a new Chief Minister, and the party has trumped its rivals by appointing Channi as the first Dalit Chief Minister of Punjab. At the moment, it is difficult to say which party will be able to swing the Dalit vote in its favour, but many see this as a masterstroke by the Congress party.

(Vote shares in all tables are in %); Source: Punjab Assembly Election Studies 2002, 2007, 2012 & 2017; CSDS Data Unit

Dalit vote in previous polls

The results of the last few elections suggest that no particular party has done significantly better in SC-reserved constituencies compared to the non-Dalit constituencies. During the 2017 Assembly elections, the Congress won 21 of the 34 SC-reserved constituencies, but its votes share in these constituencies was slightly lower than its average vote share. On the other hand, in 2012, although the Congress’s vote share was equal in SC-reserved and unreserved constituencies, it won fewer reserved seats — only 10 out of 34. Clearly, the overall performance of the party in reserved and unreserved constituencies does not help us understand how Dalits in Punjab have voted in various elections (Tables 2 and 3).

But evidence from surveys conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) indicates that even in the past, the Congress has successfully mobilised both Hindu Dalit and Sikh Dalit votes. The findings also indicate that the party needs to maintain its hold over the Dalits if it aims to win the 2022 Assembly elections.

The evidence suggests the Congress has been the popular choice among both Dalit Sikhs and Hindu Dalits, although in slightly different proportions (Table 4). Having formed an alliance with the BSP, the SAD is eying the Dailt vote. But now, having appointed a Dalit Sikh as the Chief Minister, the Congress would be hoping to make a significant dent in the SAD’s Sikh Dalit vote bank. It is important to note that only recently, the Congress had also appointed Sukhwinder Singh ‘Danny’ Bandala, a Dalit leader, as one of its four working presidents in Punjab. Having a Dalit Sikh as the Chief Minister and another Dalit leader in another important position is likely have an impact on how Dalits vote in next year’s elections.

It is also important to note the evidence that suggests that among Hindu Dalits, the Congress is more popular than the SAD. The Dalit Hindus of Punjab have voted for the Congress in larger numbers than they have for the Akalis during the last few elections. The entry of the AAP, and the fact that the BJP is contesting on its own, may potentially impact the Congress Hindu votebank to an extent, but having a Dalit Chief Minister might help the party mitigate this impact and keep its Hindu Dalit vote intact.

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