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The Karhal assembly seat in Uttar Pradesh (UP) is in news, where Samajwadi Party (SP) president and former chief minister Akhilesh Yadav will contest elections this time. An incident of 1974 from this constituency may help you understand the state’s underlying Dalit politics.

The Congress had never won in Karhal before, and that year, the party fielded a woman who was new to politics. She was convinced that she could win only with the support of women and downtrodden sections, but the goal was not easy.

In the campaign trail, she visited a Dalit household, where the head of the family was a good poet. He was impressed by the candidate’s conduct, and began attending the party’s events where he would recite poetry, and his melodious voice would attract crowds. The poems essentially praised the Congress and its candidate, and they started troubling the local casteist musclemen. The candidate didn’t , but the party managed to save its deposit for the first time. One evening, the poet, accompanied by his wife and children, arrived at the woman leader’s house seeking shelter. He was bleeding and frightened. The musclemen had thrashed the poet badly, and had threatened to kill him. A striking aspect of the polling was that Dalit voters could not cast their votes in almost half of the polling booths. The poet was beaten up as a warning against Dalits trying to cast their vote in future. However, no one knew that change was around the corner.

Somewhere far away, a person named Kanshi Ram was working to prevent such incidents. After much contemplation, he laid the foundation of Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti (DS4) in 1981. Enthused by the large support he received, he founded the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in 1984. In just six years, he became so powerful that Mulayam Singh of the Samajwadi Party joined hands with him. Singh won the Lok Sabha elections from Etawah for the first time in 1991. Four years later, Mayawati, the BSP’s second-biggest leader, was elected chief minister in 1995—unexpected in a state where Dalits were prevented from voting just 10 years earlier.

Since then, the Dalit electorate has emerged as a major political force in the state. A total of 86 seats in UP are reserved for scheduled castes (SC) and scheduled tribes (ST). The throne of Lucknow goes to the one who manages to win most of them. In 2017, the BJP had won 70 of these seats. The SP, which won an absolute majority in 2012, had won 58 of them. The BSP won a majority in 2007, and its victory over 62 of these 86 reserved seats was a major contributor to getting the magic figure.

However, these reserved seats are just symbolic ones. SC and ST voters also influence the election results for general seats. How will they choose this time? Dalit voters have changed their preferences many times in UP. Earlier, they used to be with the the Congress. Later, the BSP managed to get their votes. After that, the BJP made inroads into this ‘vote bank’.

Broadly, Dalits have supported the Congress and the BSP, three decades each, but now, with the generational changes, the mindset of Dalit voters has also changed. Young voters do not walk with one leader for a long. Will the BJP be able to make a deeper dent in the BSP vote bank this time? The saffron party is working hard towards this, by providing several facilities including food grains to the poor.

It is often said Dalit and backward voters do not go together. This actually is a half-truth. The SP and the BSP formed a coalition government in the 1990s. This jugalbandi could not last because the leaders preferred personal ambitions over social coalitions. Not only this, Mayawati had gone a step further in 2007. She had succeeded in forging a Dalit-Brahmin alliance. Had she been able to keep this going, she herself would have risen to the top of politics, as well as having the distinction of being an inspiration for a unique social reform. She couldn’t do that. Now, the SP wants to take advantage of the resultant situation.

It needs to be noted here that Mayawati will start her formal election campaign only on 2 February. One can remember that even in 2007, She had coined a slogan before the election, which turned all the equations upside down. Will she be able to repeat it, this time around? There are many such questions, and we will have to wait till 10 March for the answers, but these are the questions which give us a taste of our political reality. These questions may also pave the way for economic and social development. The 2022 assembly elections are here to change the direction.

Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan. The views expressed are personal.

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