Realising that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is on the defensive over the suicide by Hyderabad University research student Rohith Vemula, the Congress thinks it is a good opportunity to connect with the youth and win back the trust of Dalits, both of whom had abandoned the grand old party for Brand Narendra Modi in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

This has resulted in a debate in the party over how it should pitch this issue so that it is able to reach out to these two key constituencies.

Focus on Dalits

There is one view in the Congress that it should portray the suicide as a case of caste discrimination and build a sustained campaign around it to woo the Dalits and hit out at the BJP.

It is also being argued that though the Congress should keep the focus on the discrimination faced by Dalits in universities, the party should reach out to the youth in general by pointing out that Rohith’s suicide had raised fundamental questions about the larger issue of freedom of expression.

The party, it is being argued, should underline how the BJP and its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, are inimical to any viewpoint which is contrary to their ideology. The issue of intolerance and suppression of free thought, it is being pointed out, resonates with the youth, cutting across caste and class barriers.

Since the Congress has been making concerted efforts over the past several years to win back the scheduled caste vote, the party ‘s immediate reaction has been to portray the episode as a caste battle. The party was quick to use this opportunity to slam the BJP for its “anti-Dalit” mindset and stepped up its demand for the removal of human resource development minister Smriti Irani and labour minister Bandaru Dattatreya.

Consequently, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi was the first political leader to travel to Hyderabad where he interacted with the protesting students and met with Rohith’s parents. At the same time, party spokespersons have been constantly on the offensive, charging that Rohith’s suicide reflected the “guilt, complicity and collusion of BJP-ABVP-University authorities in perpetuating anti-poor, anti-Dalit agenda on the University campus”.

The Congress also lined up its Dalit leaders – Kumari Selja and Mukul Wasnik – to demand answers from Prime Minister Narendra Modi while charging that Dalit scholars were being persecuted at the instance of BJP ministers and Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarthi Parishad activists. BJP national general secretary P Murlidhar Rao’s description of organisations like the Ambedkar Students Association as “anti-national” and “supporters of terrorism” provided fresh ammunition to the Congress to hit out at the BJP.

Dissenting voices

While the focus of the Congress attack had, so far, been on caste discrimination, Rahul Gandhi did refer to the attempts being made by the RSS-BJP combine to suppress contrary views and shut out any dissenting voices in his meeting with students at Hyderabad University.

While seeking action against the BJP ministers responsible for Rohith’s death, the Nehru-Gandhi scion also underlined that students should be free to express their political opinion irrespective of their caste and economic status without fear of punishment. At the same time, he also called for a legislation assuring freedom of expression for students.

It is to be seen how the two narratives will play out in the coming days as the Congress draws up plans to build a long-term campaign on the twin issues of caste discrimination and freedom of expression in universities which will allow the party to reach a wider audience. Congress party’s Scheduled Caste department chief K Raju, who is known to be close to Rahul Gandhi, has held several meetings with the National Students Union of India, the Youth Congress and the Andhra Pradesh and Telangana state units over the past few days to chalk out a plan of action to keep alive these issues.

Connecting with youth

However, there are lurking doubts about the effectiveness of such a programme, particularly the ability of the Congress cadres to sustain this campaign and ensure that the message percolates down to the grass roots. The party’s frontal organisations are just not geared for it while the state units in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh are in shambles. Except for hard-hitting sound-bytes by Congress spokespersons and Delhi-based demonstrations by its student wing, the party failed to follow-up on Rahul Gandhi’s high-profile visit to Hyderabad. “The problem is that our party does not have a students wing like the Left’s Students Federation of India. Holding a dharna is not enough…what we need is for our members to establish a connect with students by holding small private conversations with them on a sustained basis. That’s just not happening,” remarked a senior Congress office bearer.

In addition, there is some uncertainty in the Congress whether Rohith’s suicide and the subsequent protests by students and professors in Hyderabad University will resonate across the country. Although the party effort is to take it beyond Hyderabad, it is not sure if it will have an impact in universities other than those which have strong and assertive Dalit student organisations. “I am not sure that this will generate the kind of angry outpouring we witnessed after the Nirbhaya rape case,” remarked a senior Congress ideologue. “That’s because atrocities on Dalits usually do not elicit outrage and anger,” he said.

Nevertheless, the Congress realises that it has to seize this moment or, for that matter, every moment to win back the loyalty of the Dalits, who once constituted the party’s core support base but deserted it subsequently. While Rahul Gandhi is already working on a special Dalit agenda, there is a realisation in the party that he also has to come up with creative ideas to connect with the youth. Although the Congress vice-president was billed as a “youth icon” and he did made a special effort to reach out to students through his frequent visits to universities, he eventually lost this constituency to Narenda Modi who wooed the youth with the promise of a better tomorrow. The real challenge now before Rahul Gandhi is to wean them away from Modi.