Shortly after Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah alleged that the recent Dalit protests in Gujarat were politically motivated, the Congress said it had extended tacit support to the civil society groups leading the agitation and will work in tandem with them in the run-up to next year’s assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh.

K Raju, head of the party’s Scheduled Caste department and a Rahul Gandhi confidant, told on Friday that the Congress did not take a lead role in the Dalit agitation against the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government in Gujarat. But the party’s Dalit members and socially conscious leaders were working closely with the NGOs that have launched a protest movement against atrocities inflicted on members of the lower castes and had undertaken a 10-day Dalit Asmita Yatra in the state earlier this month, he said.

“Nearly 80% of the participants in this yatra were Congress Dalit members, “ Raju claimed. “These Congress members have provided a broad umbrella of support for the NGOs which have taken up the cause of Dalits in Gujarat.”

Raju’s comments come on the same day the BJP president told the Economic Times that the Dalit protests were “100% politically motivated.” Shah did not name the Congress but merely remarked, “ We know what we have done for the Dalits and Dalits know what we have done. So our political rivals won’t be successful.”

The Congress Scheduled Caste department chief said though party vice president Rahul Gandhi was among the first political leaders to visit Una in Gujarat to meet the families of the Dalit boys who were publicly flogged by gau rakshaks for skinning a dead cow in July, the Congress decided to keep a low profile subsequently. Since the Congress does not enjoy the confidence of the Dalits in Gujarat for a variety of historical reasons, the party’s strategists felt it would be more effective if the movement was kept apolitical and was led by civil society groups.

Building alliances

The Congress faced a lot of flak for retreating from the battleground, which strengthened the public perception that the party’s organisation in Gujarat is incapable of leading a sustained campaign on any issue.

Attempting to dispelling the widely-held view that the Congress had adopted a hand-off approach in Gujarat, Raju said that “socially conscious” leaders from the party who are already in touch with organisers of the movement will also launch an apolitical platform, likely to be called the Dalit Swabhiman Abhiyan, to collaborate with civil society groups working on community issues. “ In Gujarat, this is the best way for the Congress to occupy this space,” Raju said.

The party, he said, will prevail upon these groups in the coming months to work openly with the Congress as it is better placed to sustain such a movement. Raju explained that agitations and movements led by NGOs generally tend to fizzle out after a few months as these groups do not have the resources to keep it going. “ We have the capability to sustain the movement given our network in the state,” he said.

Pointing to the synergy between Congress members and NGOs in Gujarat, Raju said the party will do the same in poll-bound Uttar Pradesh. Admitting that wooing the Dalits in Uttar Pradesh is far more challenging than Gujarat, Raju said since the the Jatavs are firmly with Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party, the Congress plans to reach out to Dalits from the Valmiki and Pasi castes who had supported the BJP in the last Lok Sabha election but are now disillusioned with the it. ”The non-Jatavs are not looking at the BJP," Raju said. "The message that the BJP is anti-Dalit is now deeply embedded among the Dalits.”

UP strategy

Entrusted with the task of drawing up Rahul Gandhi’s Dalit agenda, Raju said the Congress had started work in Uttar Pradesh. The party has identified potential Dalit candidates in all the reserved constituencies and has even given them responsibilities to enable the party to assess their capabilities. He also promised that the candidates will not be selected on an ad hoc basis but purely on merit.

While Uttar Pradesh is certainly high on the Congress agenda, the party is also drawing up elaborate plans to win over the 31% Dalit population in Punjab with an eye on next year’s assembly election. A meeting of Dalit leaders (from block to state levels) is likely to be held in Chandigarh in a week’s time to work out a detailed strategy to reach out to Dalits who are also being wooed arduously by the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Admi Party.

Raju said a beginning in this direction has already been made by Punjab Congress chief Amarinder Singh who has released a pledge in which he has made specific commitments to the Dalits if the Congress is voted to power. This is to be followed up by a door-to-door outreach programme by Congress workers with the specific task of disseminating Singh’s message to the people. Raju said the party has identified ten workers from each constituency who have been given the responsibility of conducting a house-to-house campaign to explain how the Congress planned to meet their demands.