Taking a cue from party president Rahul Gandhi, the Congress in a bid to consolidate its Dalit voter base has hailed the protests in the wake of clashes in Bhima Koregaon as “potent symbols” of Dalit resistance against the Narendra Modi government’s so-called “anti-Dalit” policy.
On January 2, Gandhi said in a tweet, “A central pillar of the RSS/BJP’s fascist vision for India is that Dalits should remain at the bottom of Indian society. Una, Rohith Vemula and now Bhima Koregaon are potent symbols of the resistance.”
On Wednesday, raising the issue in the Lok Sabha, Leader of the Opposition Mallikarjun Kharge accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi of turning into a “mauni baba” over such issues. “Some fascist forces who wanted to oppress the Dalits are behind instigating the violence in Maharashtra,” he said. “Whether it is in Gujarat, Una or Rajasthan, wherever BJP is in power, there is injustice. A Supreme Court judge should be appointed for inquiry into this (the violence in Maharashtra),” he said.
Keen not to be seen as alienating the dominant Maratha vote bank, the Congress has shied away from labelling the violence as an inter-caste clash. Blaming right-wing forces for the violence, which claimed the life of a Maratha man, the party’s strategy is to tap the simmering unrest among Dalits, while not coming across as being anti-Maratha.
Maharashtra Congress chief Ashok Chavan, too, blamed right-wing forces for the violence while terming it as “premeditated”. While the Dalits have traditionally remained loyal to the Congress, the vote bank had shifted decisively in the BJP’s favour in the 2014 polls, when the Congress suffered a stunning loss. The party has been since looking at ways to re-consolidate.
Party insiders pointed to indications in the recent local body polls in Maharashtra, which showed the Muslim vote bank was again veering towards the Congress. With the party still enjoying sizeable clout in the Maratha community, the Congress is now eyeing the Dalit vote bank to better its prospects in the 2019 polls.
“Some mistakes were made in the past, which saw the Dalit vote bank swing away from the Congress. We have apologised for these mistakes. But now the Dalit population has begun to realise that the strategy of the BJP and the Shiv Sena is to finish them off. It is a battle for existence. The funding support for the community’s welfare has dwindled and it has been exposed to violence. We have been reaching out to the community to fight for their recognition,” said Raju Waghmare, president of the Maharashtra Congress’s Scheduled Caste Cell. Dalits account for roughly 13 per cent of voters in Maharashtra.
Sharad Pawar’s National Congress Party, which enjoys its maximum clout in the dominant Maratha community, has also been blaming the “right-wing forces” for the violence at Bhima Koregaon.