By Bloomberg

By Bloomberg

Rahul’s unannounced Varanasi visit seen as attempt to woo Dalits

Rahul’s unannounced Varanasi visit seen as attempt to woo Dalits

New Delhi: Congress party general secretary Rahul Gandhi has stepped up his efforts to lure the Dalit support base of Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati.

By Bloomberg

Political observers say it is an attempt to provoke Mayawati and to pitch his party against the ruling Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in the state polls, expected to be held early next year.

The Congress party had managed to turn the electoral scenario into a battle between it and the BSP after Gandhi’s intense campaign against land acquisition from farmers in the state. His campaign lost its edge in the aftermath of anti-graft activist Anna Hazare’s movement, string of controversies and rising prices, say observers.

“By visiting Ravidas Mandir, Rahul Gandhi appears to be taking the electoral battle to a different level. While making an attempt to create a bonding with the community, he is trying to bring back the BSP versus Congress scenario in Uttar Pradesh," said Badri Narayan, a professor at the Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute in Jhusi and a political analyst specializing in Dalit affairs. “He is reviving his party’s bonding with the community because the Brahmin-Jatav-Muslim used to be the Congress party’s main support base before the BSP entered into the electoral scene."

On Tuesday, Gandhi also visited nearby villages, populated by Dalits, to interact with the villagers, said Akhilesh Pratap Singh, spokesperson of the Congress’ Uttar Pradesh unit.

Jatavs are considered to be the largest group of Dalits in Uttar Pradesh—one in four voters in the state is a Dalit. Mayawati and Kanshi Ram, the founder of BSP, belong to the Jatav community. A post-poll study by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in 2007 said the BSP got 80% of the Dalit votes, but a similar study after the 2009 parliamentary elections—when the Congress party performed well—showed that the support for BSP dropped to 62.5%.

Gandhi is trying to provoke Mayawati into attacking him, said a Uttar Pradesh-based political analyst, who declined to be named. Gandhi expects to benefit from pitching his party as the main opposition in the politically crucial state, displacing Mulayam Singh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party.

Narayan pointed out that although Jatavs overwhelmingly backed Mayawati in the last elections, they have a “soft corner" for the Congress, especially the Gandhi scion. “In the last annual festival in Ravidas Mandir in Varanasi, around 7,000 calendars of Rahul Gandhi were sold," said Narayan, who documented the January festival.

The Congress party seems to be also trying to cash in on the increasing dissatisfaction among the non-Jatavs in the Dalit communities against BSP and Mayawati. “There is growing uneasiness among the other Dalit communities against Jatavs because of the benefits and advantages they are enjoying. Congress has to make use of it in favour of us," said a party leader involved in the party’s electioneering in the state.

Narayan was, however, doubtful whether Gandhi’s fresh political moves would turn into votes in the 2012 elections, but “will definitely be an advantage to him in the next general election". Uttar Pradesh’s 403-member assembly is scheduled to go for polls early 2012.

The Congress party, which won 83 of 85 Lok Sabha seats in the state in the 1984 general election, had been on a decline till 2009, when Gandhi inspired a partial comeback, with the party winning 21 seats in Uttar Pradesh. The Congress party has ceded some of its initial advantage because of internal strife in the state unit and absence of a strong organization.