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BSP tie-up won’t help Akalis: It’s advantage Congress in Punjab 2022

BSP has been popular among Dalit voters in parts of India, and once ruled a state such as Uttar Pradesh. But the BSP has not been the Dalits’ popular choice in Punjab.Premium
BSP has been popular among Dalit voters in parts of India, and once ruled a state such as Uttar Pradesh. But the BSP has not been the Dalits’ popular choice in Punjab.

  • Mayawati’s party seems unlikely to be able to churn votes for the Akali Dal the way the BJP used to. The BSP’s vote share has hardly been of influence in past elections. Even the Dalit vote, which the Akali Dal hopes to attract, seems to favour the ruling Congress more

Last September, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) quit its long-time alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) following discord over the contentious farm laws. In June, it filled the void with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), with an eye on Punjab’s crucial Dalit vote in the 2022 Assembly elections. But past election trends show the Mayawati-led party may not be enough to get the Akalis across the line against the ruling Congress.

By forging the new tie-up, Punjab’s oldest outfit hopes to make up for the loss in its support base—some of it is natural after the fallout with the BJP, while there’s also anger over the party’s early support for the farm laws. But the BSP does not remain a strong force in Punjab either. In the 2017 polls, it got no more than 1.7% of all votes—a significant drop since the 1990s.

Contrast this with the Akali-BJP partnership. The SAD was always the dominant partner, contesting 94 of the state’s 117 seats since 2007. The saffron party used to add about 6-7% vote share, getting crucial seats for the alliance every time it won. This could mean a significant dent in the SAD’s votes in 2022.

To be sure, there was a time when the BSP wielded some presence in Punjab. When it did, it got roughly the same vote share as the BJP. Yet, this wasn’t enough to win seats. In the 1997 Assembly polls, the party won only one seat in the House—its last.

Dalit factor

It’s not mere revival that the SAD is seeking after the 2017 rout. The hope is to mobilize the Dalit vote towards its side. Eight of the 20 seats in the BSP’s kitty are in Doaba, a region with sizeable Dalit population, and the two parties tout the caste angle in public appearances. But it’s far-fetched to expect the BSP to deliver even on this front.

True enough, the BSP has been popular among Dalit voters in parts of India, and once ruled a state such as Uttar Pradesh. But the BSP has not been the Dalits’ popular choice in Punjab. In 1997, when the party polled 7.5% votes—its highest in the last few decades—neither Hindu Dalits nor Sikh Dalits voted for it in large numbers. Just over 10% Dalits have voted for the BSP in recent elections. The SAD may be making a mistake if it pins too much hope on its new partner to churn Dalit votes.

Popular choice

All this means good news for the Congress, which is seeking a second straight term.

Dalit votes are significant for Punjab: the community makes up 32% of the population as of 2011. One third are Sikh Dalits and the rest Hindu Dalits. The possibility of getting their support was evidently one reason why the Akalis picked the BSP, a party they had dumped in 1997 after a brief alliance. But it is the Congress that the community prefers.

This support is more pronounced among Hindu Dalits, over 40% of whom favoured the Congress in 2017. Even when it has failed to win Punjab, the Congress has had strong support from Hindu Dalits.

Despite the clear advantage, the Congress is not taking any chance, and has appointed Dalit face Sukhwinder Singh Danny Bandala as one of its four working presidents in the state.

Advantage Congress

The Congress has the edge even though its camp doesn’t seem as united as it would have liked to be before an electoral battle. What puts it ahead is its hold over not just Dalit Hindus, but even the non-Dalit Hindus. The last few elections have seen the Hindus of Punjab put far greater trust in the Congress than the SAD.

Some threat is likely this time—partly from the Aam Aadmi Party, and partly from the BJP now contesting separately. Here too, to keep the Hindu vote in its fold, the Congress has appointed Pawan Goel, a Hindu, as one of the working presidents.

In all Assembly elections since 2002, even in the ones it lost, the Congress had enjoyed a vote share of above 35%. Even if this takes a dip in 2022, it could still be enough for the party to win once again. With Hindus sharply polarized in its favour, and Jat Sikhs somewhat divided, it seems it is advantage Congress in Punjab at the moment.

(Sanjay Kumar is a professor at CSDS, and a political analyst)

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