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Explained: Why Dalits and a Dalit CM matter in Punjab’s politics

Charanjit Singh Channi is the first Dalit Chief Minister of Punjab. What does this mean for the state's politics, in which Dalits have had only a chequered presence so far, despite constituting a third of Punjab's population?

Charanjit Singh Channi outside the Punjab Governor's house in Chandigarh on September 19, 2021. (Express Photo: Jasbir Malhi)

At a time when all political parties in Punjab were wooing Dalits ahead of 2022 Assembly elections and promising them plum posts if voted to power, the ruling Congress appointed the state’s first Dalit chief minister. What does this mean for Punjab politics in which Dalits have only had a chequered presence so far, despite constituting a third of the state’s population? What could be the implications of this move?

What do experts make of this move?

From a monarch (Capt Amarinder Singh) to a Dalit chief minister, Congress has created history and a powerful symbolism, say experts. This may be a move for vote politics, but every Dalit community including Ravidassia, Ramdassia, Valmiki, Ad-Dharmi, Mazhabi Sikh etc. are elated with the move, they further said, adding that this may not bring many votes to Congress, but the floating 5-7 per cent Dalit votes may go to its kitty if the new CM manages to deliver to some extent.

Prof Santosh K Singh, a sociologist who has researched and published on the theme of caste and religion interface in Punjab, said: “Anybody who knows the caste history of Punjab, would agree that this is a historical moment, a milestone which is loaded with immense symbolism. Despite having numbers, the Dalits of the region waited for far too long. So whichever way one sees it, it is clearly a grand departure towards inclusive democracy.”

“Having said this, it must be stated symbolism too has its limits. Beyond the politics of optics, it has to be rooted in realities and deliver in real terms,” he added.

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What are its possible implications in Punjab politics?

Prof Singh said: “Not only Punjab, not many seem to be talking about is the implication of this move in UP politics. Dalit politics in Punjab is strategically and historically linked with UP. Given UP elections too are round the corner, the move appears to be intended towards giving a larger message beyond Punjab.”

“This move is opening new vistas of democratic politics. Now Jats (upper caste) have to accommodate other communities like other backward classes which has very less representation in politics,” said Professor Surinder Singh Jodhka, who teaches sociology at JNU, Delhi.

“There may be a larger and shrewd political motive behind this move but Congress has shown guts and courage in a state like Punjab. This will change the ground reality now that Dalits are no longer will lead to decline of agrarian influence in Punjab politics and for posts like CM,” said Prof Jodhka, adding that it will also sharpen identity politics on caste basis.


Prof G C Kaul of DAV College Jalandhar, an expert on both Ad-Dharma and Ravidassia movements, said: “Though Jat Sikhs may not accept a Dalit CM from their heart, but because of vote bank politics, everyone will have to listen to him, who may or may not get solved long-pending issues related to Dalits like implementation of 85th Amendment (Consequential Seniority to promoted SC/ST candidate), which will further bring Dalits to the negotiation tables in politics of the state and other north Indian states where several young, educated Dalit leaders will be emerge now.”

What is the total Dalit population of the state and how do they vote?

According to the 2011 census Punjab has a 31.9 per cent SC population (2.77 crore) including 19.4 per cent SC Sikhs, 12.4 per cent SC Hindu and .098 per cent Buddhist SCs. Among these SC communities, 26.33 per cent are Mazhabi Singh, 20.7 per cent are Ravidassia and Ramdasia, 10 per cent Ad-Dharmi and 8.6 per cent are Balmiki.

According to the Centre for Study of Developing Societies, an Indian research institute for social sciences and humanities, among the Dalit votes, Congress managed to get 33 per cent, 49 per cent, 51 per cent and 41 per cent Dalit Sikh votes in 2002, 2007, 2012 and 2017 Assembly polls respectively, and 47 per cent, 56 per cent, 37 per cent and 43 per cent Hindu Dalit votes respectively.


So Dalit Sikhs and Dalit Hindus do not vote for a single party in Punjab, they go by their old party affiliations and commitments. “A Dalit CM can fetch 5 to 7 per cent floating votes in the party’s favour, if he performs,” said Prof Kaul.

What are BSP’s prospects in Punjab?

Despite the fact that BSP is a party synonymous with Dalits, it could not gain popularity in Punjab even though its founder Kanshi Ram was a Punjabi and Dalits form a third of Punjab’s population.

Experts said the party could not establish itself in state politics because its founder Kanshi Ram made Uttar Pradesh (UP) his main ‘karambhumi’ and Mayawati took all power in her hands due to his ill health in early 2000. Mayawati’s main focus was UP, she used to do a couple of tours in Punjab only during elections.

A senior BSP leader of the state said that Mayawati could not gain popularity among Dalit communities of the state and because of a lack of discipline and strong organisational structure, except its committed voters, other Dalit voters do not take the party seriously here. It did gain some ground for over a decade after its formation in 1984, but then its decline started, which has continued till the last Assembly election. From a 19.7 per cent vote share in 1992 Lok sabha elections (which took place a year later in Punjab due to terrorism), the party reduced to a 1.5 per cent vote share in 2017 Assembly polls.

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First published on: 21-09-2021 at 08:57:44 am
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