Punjab will host two mega rallies on March 15, the birth anniversary of Dalit icon Kanshi Ram. While Aam Aadmi Party leader and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal will address a gathering in Kanshi Ram’s ancestral village in Ropar district, Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati will attempt to revive her party’s flagging fortunes with a rally in the adjoining Nawanshahr district. Both leaders aim to draw disgruntled voters to their parties in a bid to end the two-term rule of the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance.

With Assembly elections in Punjab less than a year away, it’s no surprise that parties are lining up to secure the Dalit vote. After all, Dalits account for 32% of the total electorate in Punjab, the highest percentage in any state in India.

In view of widespread disillusionment against the ruling coalition, and the continued disenchantment with the Congress, the Aam Aadmi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party are working desperately to fill the vacuum. There are clear signs of Dalit reassertion and resurgence. The youth, in particular, have been spreading the message of Dalit pride – a number of songs around that theme are a rage among youngsters, who no longer shy away from their identity.

Mayawati’s test

This election is crucial for Mayawati, who faces her other big test in Uttar Pradesh in 2017. Despite Punjab having a high percentage of Dalits, the BSP's core constituency, the party has not performed very well in the state. Its vote share and representation in the Assembly have gradually declined over the years. Its best performance was in 1992 when it secured 16.32% of the vote and bagged nine seats out of the state’s 117. Its vote share dipped to 7.48% in 1997 when it won just one seat. That was the last time it had a presence in the Punjab Assembly, with its vote share further dropping from 5.75% in 2009 to 4.29% in 2012. One of the major reasons for the BSP’s poor performance in Punjab was the lack of any dynamic or popular state leader.

The Congress had initially benefitted from this scenario, but Dalits seemed to have turned against it in the 2012 Assembly elections, choosing the SAD-BJP alliance instead. This was obvious from the fact that the Congress failed to win even a single seat from Doaba region, which is dominated by Dalits, and where the Congress has traditionally beaten the SAD and BJP.

AAP’s Kejriwal appears to be emerging as a popular leader among Dalits and he is trying hard to garner their support. He has visited Dalit homes and met victims of caste atrocities and their families. During a recent rally, he told Dalits to “hear and take note” of Congress state president Amarinder Singh’s demand to seek a quota for the poor. Pointing out that reservation can only be upto 50% according to a Supreme Court ruling, he said that the demand could mean that the Dalit quota could reduce.

Kejriwal ahead?

It is no wonder that the family of Kanshi Ram and the residents of Pirthipur Bunga, his ancestral village, have invited Kejriwal to be the chief guest at the Dalit icon’s birth anniversary. They don’t share good relations with Kanshi Ram's political heir Mayawati, who they believe exploited Kanshi Ram and kept him captive, and away from his family, when he was on his deathbed. Mayawati will instead address a rally about 30 km away.

The Congress, meanwhile, continues to flounder in a way only it can. Its leaders had a considerable amount of egg on their faces last week over the nomination of a candidate from the Dalit community to the Rajya Sabha.

The Congress had initially announced that popular Sufi singer Hansraj Hans would be its nominee for one of the two seats it is expected to bag in the Rajya Sabha (based on the number of seats it has in the Punjab Assembly.) Hans’s name was reportedly pushed at the behest of Amarinder Singh.

Hans had contested and lost as an Akali candidate in the previous election. But Amarinder Singh had wooed him and had assured him of a Rajya Sabha seat if he ditched the Akalis to join the Congress. Hans obliged. However, after a formal announcement was made that he would be the Congress’s Rajya Sabha nominee, the party suddenly reversed its decision and declared that a former state party chief Shamsher Singh Dullo, another Dalit leader, would be its candidate instead. Dullo had threatened to resign along with his supporters if Hans was given the nomination. This development obviously upset Hans and his fans. The Sufi singer went to the extent of saying that the Congress was against the Valmiki community to which he belonged. Thus, instead of earning goodwill for nominating a Dalit, the Congress has received criticism, and Amarinder Singh has been embarrassed.