The Congress have projected Sheila Dikshit, a brahmin, as its chief ministerial candidate for the assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, and is looking to win back the support of the Brahmins in the state who were traditionally its vote bank. But, scratch the surface and you will find that the party has been working to win back another section of voters, too—the dalits.
"The focus now is on Sheila Dikshit. However, over the last two years, a massive effort has been made in terms of cultivating the dalit constituency," said a senior Congress leader.
In the last two years, the party has focused on the reserved constituencies in UP, identifying suitable candidates and providing them with organisational and logistical support.
This was done as part of a project which the Congress named Development Mission for Reserved Constituencies. "All this effort has been made at the micro level. And hence, it does not occupy the same publicity as the nomination of Sheila Dikshit," the leader said.
State Congress leader Bhagwati Chaudhary was in charge of the project. He was recently named vice president of the party in UP, signifying the importance the party has given to the task of cultivating reserved constituencies.
Besides identifying the dalit leaders who can be given tickets from these constituencies, the Congress has made an effort to develop a support base among non-Jatav dalits. Jatav is a sub-caste that has stood firmly behind BSP supremo Mayawati, who belongs to the same caste, and have steadfastly voted for her. The exercise of building a dalit support base has involved identifying families that are not from the Jatav community and reaching out to them. In a significant gesture, Congress President Sonia Gandhi began her roadshow in Varanasi recently by garlanding a statue of Ambedkar.
Congress leaders feel that while the derogatory remarks made by a BJP leader against Mayawati has definitely angered dalits, it has not resulted in any new voter moving towards her party. The assessment is that she has only consolidated her existing vote bank. It is also felt that Mayawati will not get too aggressive in taking up the comments made against her in the elections as she needs the upper caste votes, too.
K. Raju, chairman, AICC scheduled castes department, said the dalits have noticed the kind of stand that the Congress has taken on issues related to the community.
"They can see that the Congress is espousing their cause and the BSP, after it has come to power, has not done anything substantial for them," he said.
He said that whenever incidents of atrocity against dalits have happened, the party has taken them up, raising the issues in Parliament and outside. "Rahul Gandhi has been to every site of incident, be it Rohith Vemula, or a remote village close to the Pakistan border, or a village in Haryana, where two children were burnt, or Una," he said.
The Congress, Raju said, has taken up the issue of budgetary allocation for dalits and has pressurised the government to amend the SC/ST Atrocities Act.
He also said that the party has been successful in dispelling misconceptions in the minds of dalits about the Congress and about Ambedkar that had been "planted wrongly by the BSP", in the past one year through programmes it undertook to celebrate the 125th birth anniversary of B.R. Ambedkar.