While politics does make for strange bedfellows, next year’s Assembly elections in Punjab could very well turn out to be a fight for survival for both
One is a party led by Jat Sikhs, the dominant political group in Punjab, the other is regarded as the main voice of Dalit politics in India. At first sight, there is nothing the two have in common, but Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)’s tie-up with Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) may not be as dramatic as it appears at first sight and, while politics does make for strange bedfellows, next year’s Assembly elections in Punjab could very well turn out to be a fight for survival for both.
Not the first time
At the very outset it has to be remembered that SAD and BSP have fought elections together in Punjab before, and enjoyed good success, too. That was the 1996 Lok Sabha elections, when their alliance had cornered 11 of the 13 parliamentary seats in Punjab, SAD picking up eight while BSP bagged another three seats.
This time though, the alliance is for Assembly elections at a time when the fortunes of both parties have appeared bleak in recent polls.
If SAD contested 10 and won only 2 of the 13 Lok Sabha seats in Punjab in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, BSP mustered zero seats out of the three it fought as part of the Punjab Democratic Alliance, which included CPI and an assortment of local parties. SAD managed to win about 28 per cent of the votes compared with the 3.5 per cent share that BSP mopped up.
Before that, in the 2017 Assembly elections, in which Congress ousted SAD, the incumbent contested 94 of Punjab’s 117 Assembly seats (its former NDA ally BJP contested the remaining 23 seats), winning only 15 while BSP had the unflattering distinction of seeing its candidates forfeit their deposit in 110 of the 111 seats they contested as it turned in a duck for the fourth consecutive state polls in Punjab. But if you think that’s a clear hint why BSP should not be fancying its chances in Punjab, think again. Because not only does the state have old links with the party now led by UP’s Mayawati, it also has a Dalit voter base that should, at least on paper, have had seen it be a notable player in
BSP and Punjab go back a long way
Kanshi Ram, the BSP founder and icon of Dalit politics, was born in Ropar district of Punjab in March 1934. His birthplace is in the fertile Doaba region where Dalits have a strong presence, although that has hardly ever benefited his party.
Kanshi Ram’s family belonged to the community of Ramdasia Sikhs, who were originally part of the larger group of Punjabi Chamars. It was under the fourth Sikh guru, Guru Ramdas, that they are believed to have become a part of the Sikh movement.
But if Kanshi Ram found more success mobilising Dalit voters in Uttar Pradesh than in his home state, it was because of the deep divisions among the Dalits in Punjab.
BSP’s electoral form has been indifferent in Punjab
Its first poll outing in Punjab, for the 1992 Assembly elections, has also been BSP’s best so far as it won nine of the 105 seats it contested. But since then, the trajectory has pointed downwards. In 1997, it picked up a solitary seat and that was the last time it sent a legislator to the Punjab Assembly.
BSP’s lack of electoral success in Punjab is all the more surprising because the state has the highest share of Scheduled Caste residents in the country. At close to 32%, every third person in Punjab belongs to the SC community, according to data from the Census 2011. Further, as many as 34 of the seats in the Punjab Assembly, that is more than a third, are reserved for SCs.
But it is the fault lines that run through the community that are largely seen as being the key factor behind Dalits’ lack of political power in the state.
Political observers say that where BSP is concerned, its failure to unite two of the biggest SC communities in Punjab — the Adi-dharmi/Ravidassia and Valmiki/Mazhabis — has resulted in the party’s candidates being reduced to also-rans in elections in the state. BSP has managed to make inroads within the Adi-dharmi/Ravidassias, but the Valmikis and Mazhabis have remained traditional voters of the Congress though in recent years SAD has managed to wean away some of that support to its side.
SAD also succeeded in clinching three of the reserved seats in the fertile Doaba region, which has a large concentration of SCs, in the 2017 elections.