The headlines coming out of the Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting on 16 October focussed mainly on the announcement that the party's next president will be elected in September 2022 as well as Congress president Sonia Gandhi telling detractors to express criticism directly and not through the media.
But there's one part of the meeting which didn't get as much attention but may provide an indication of the party's strategy.
During the meeting, former Congress president Rahul Gandhi is said to have narrated that when he informed Charanjit Singh Channi that he is being made the chief minister of Punjab, the latter cried and said that he had never expected that the party would make someone from a humble, Dalit family a chief minister.
Gandhi is known to have pointed out that none of the other people he had informed about being made the CM – be it Ashok Gehlot, Kamal Nath or Bhupesh Baghel – had reacted in a similar way.
A similar comment is relevant in this context, by former Uttarakhand CM and party's general secretary in-charge for Punjab, Harish Rawat. After playing an instrumental role in Channi's appointment in Punjab, Rawat said last month that he "hopes to see a Dalit becoming the chief minister of Uttarakhand as well."
These statements shouldn't be seen in isolation. Party sources say that these could be part of the Congress' effort to create a new base for itself, or rather strengthen its older base – among Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi communities.
EFFORTS TO INCREASE DALIT-BAHUJAN REPRESENTATION IN CONGRESS
Channi's appointment as Punjab CM may have partly been due to the competing interests of different factions in the Punjab Congress. But it has come to mean something bigger for the party. The Congress is showcasing it as part of its commitment to provide increased representation to oppressed castes in high positions.
Channi is not just the first Dalit chief minister of Punjab, he is presently the only Dalit chief minister in the country. Then the Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Mallikarjun Kharge, is also a Dalit.
Consider also the fact that the other two Congress chief ministers happen to be from an OBC background. While Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot is from the Mali caste, Chhattisgarh CM Bhupesh Baghel is a Kurmi. In contrast, most of the BJP chief ministers are from dominant communities.
Outside of the Northeast, only Shivraj Singh Chouhan, an OBC, is from a non-privileged caste background. Even in the Northeast, the BJP replaced a reasonably popular tribal CM Sarbananda Sonowal, with a Brahmin in Himanta Biswa Sarma.
At the Centre, it replaced Leader of the House in the Rajya Sabha, Thawar Chand Gehlot, a Dalit, with Piyush Goyal, a Bania.
Recently, Vadgam MLA and Gujarat Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani also announced his support for the Congress.
The party is also in the process of bringing in Pappu Yadav and secure the merger of his Jan Adhikar Party. He has some influence among Yadavs and minorities of the Kosi region in Bihar.
"A new leadership is being created in the Congress. The idea is to fundamentally change the nature of the party by bringing about change at its very core," a source close to Rahul said.
There is a belief in the Congress – particularly among those close to Rahul – that the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Left Parties are both on a decline nationally and there is a scope for the Congress to aggressively play pro-Dalit and pro-poor politics. The party also sees this as a way to undercut BJP's Hindutva politics.
The Congress is likely to conduct an outreach among Dalit intellectuals and influencers.
"It's still early stages so I can't disclose much. But I think there is scope for Dalit activists and intellectuals and the Congress to arrive at some kind of common ground. Unlike the Hindu Right or Communists, the Congress doesn't deny the existence of caste oppression or try to appropriate it within the framework of Hindutva or class struggle. This can be a good starting point," a Congress leader told The Quint.
CAN THIS WORK?
This is the tricky part.
According to Lokniti-CSDS data, the NDA managed to get 59 percent of the Upper Caste vote, 54 percent of the OBC vote, 46 percent of the Adivasi votes and 41 percent of the Dalit votes across India in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
However, there are state-wise variations.
According to the CSDS survey for the 2019 polls, the UPA got more Dalit votes than NDA in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Gujarat, Jharkhand and Punjab while it lagged behind in Haryana and Bihar.
In Uttar Pradesh, the party was way behind both the BJP and the Mahagathbandhan among OBCs as well as Dalits. In Maharashtra, the NDA had a small lead over the UPA among Dalits and the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi was ahead of both, according to the CSDS survey.
Except Punjab, these are all states that the NDA swept. But except for Haryana and Bihar, Dalits didn't consolidate behind the NDA to same extent as Upper Castes, OBCs and even Adivasis.
This means that there is some potential for the Congress to actively cultivate a stable Dalit base for itself at the national level. However, the party would need to work harder among Adivasis and even more so, among OBCs a section in which the BJP has become increasingly dominant and the Congress weak since the past few decades.
EQUATIONS WITHIN CONGRESS
Electoral considerations are only one part of the story. Rahul's plan of promoting people belonging to oppressed communities is also a way of breaking down entrenched interests within the Congress.
Channi replacing Captain Amarinder Singh as Punjab CM is a case in point. Captain had been the towering figure for the Congress in Punjab and was often considered larger than the party in the state.
A similar principle can be used to sideline several other leaders part of the Congress' old guard.
During the CWC meeting, Rahul Gandhi emphasised on both the need to have ideological clarity as well as breaking glass ceilings. He made it a point to stress that this principle would apply even to the topmost positions in party and government.
Whether this leads to political success for the Congress in the short term or even the long term remains to be seen. But it does seem that this could lead to a churn within the party.
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