New Delhi: The battle between the Congress and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) to win over the Dalit vote in Uttar Pradesh escalated on Wednesday, the 119th birth anniversary of B.R. Ambedkar, one of the architects of the Indian Constitution and a Dalit icon.

The tussle comes ahead of the crucial 2012 assembly elections in the state.

Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi chose Mayawati’s home turf, Ambedkar Nagar district, to flag off a series of rallies fanning across the state while his office claimed that Gandhi was informed by the district administration after midnight on Tuesday that he could not garland Ambedkar’s statue as it would create “law and order" problems. Gandhi garlanded Ambedkar’s photograph in the parliament building in New Delhi before he left for Ambedkar Nagar on Wednesday.

Gandhi has been trying to rebuild his party in the state using the development agenda while his main rival Mayawati banks on the caste factor. Gandhi’s political initiatives in Uttar Pradesh paid off in the 2009 general election. The Congress won 22 of Uttar Pradesh’s 80 Lok Sabha seats, up from nine in the previous elections. The BSP won only 20.

Gandhi chose Ambedkar jayanti to launch a 103-day yatra (march) in 10 different directions of the state, to mark 125 years of the party’s founding.

Battleground: Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi at the launch of Congress Yatra 2010 in Akbarpur, Uttar Pradesh. PTI

He warned Mayawati: “The days of the politics of caste and religion are long over. It is time for the politics of the youth and the future."

In an attempt to counter the Congress’ attempts to woo the Dalits, Mayawati urged her BSP cadre to hold demonstrations across the state against the Women’s Reservation Bill—to provide 33% reservation for women in the Lok Sabha and assemblies—one of the pet initiatives of Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, but opposed by some parties which have demanded quotas within the quota, for other backward classes.

However, political analysts found the Congress leader’s move to launch the rally on Ambedkar’s birthday as an attempt to adopt the political symbolism of the Dalit icon, which has been used by the BSP.

“It’s the politics of capturing symbolic power of Ambedkar to mobilize electoral support. Mayawati has been doing it and now Rahul Gandhi is trying it," said Badri Narayan, an Uttar Pradesh-based political analyst.

Narayan, who specializes in Dalit politics, added: “It seems Congress also realizes that the developmental agenda alone may not work in the state and that they should have to engage in the politics of symbolism also... However, Congress still struggles with lack of party infrastructure."

Vivek Kumar, associate professor in the Centre for Study of Social Systems at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, added that the lack of a Dalit leader in Uttar Pradesh could limit the Congress’ expansion in the state.