Ahmedabad: As the poll battle intensifies in Gujarat, the tussle is on for support of the Dalit community, perceived to have moved from the Congress to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) but neglected by both with discrimination continuing as it has for decades.
"The Narendra Modi government has not implemented any schemes for the welfare of the Scheduled Castes (SC) like educational scholarships, employment schemes, financial aid and reservation at the promotional level," said social activist Father William.
"Atrocities against Dalits are still rife in Gujarat. According to a survey by Dalit NGO Navsarjan Trust, untouchability still exists as does manual scavenging," he told IANS.
The Congress, trying desperately to wrest control of Gujarat after having lost two successive elections, says the BJP regime has been anti-Dalit but admits that it has done little to win the Dalits, who form seven to eight percent of the state's 60 million population.
"Modi's rule and before that Keshubhai's ((Keshubhai Patel's) government have been anti-Dalit," said Ishwar Makwana, president of the Congress' SC Morcha.
What about his own party?
"I agree that in recent years, the Congress has drifted away from Dalits. But we are rectifying that," said Makwana.
The BJP of course rejects the allegations.
"The Modi regime cares for Dalits. We have provided the community with reservations in jobs, loans, assistance in businesses and justice from atrocities," Jivraj Chauhan, president of the Gujarat BJP's SC wing, told IANS.
As the election fever catches on—polls for the 182-member assembly are due on 13 and 17 December—the parties would do well not to neglect the Dalit vote, say analysts.
"The Dalit vote, though small, is significant. Dalits can influence the outcome of the elections in seven-eight constituencies. Also, 13 constituencies are reserved for the Scheduled Castes," said Manu H. Makwana, head of the sociology department in Ahmedabad's Gujarat University.
Dalits in Gujarat are divided into four major subcastes: Vankars, Chamars, Garodas and Valmikis. Gujarati Dalits are found in both the Hindu and Christian communities.
Dalits in the state have been traditional Congress supporters since Gujarat was formed in 1960. In the 1970s and 1980s, the community was part of Congress' 'KHAM' (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslim) formula.
But with the rise of the BJP and the polarising work of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal, many Dalits turned to the right. Indeed, Sangh outfits have often been accused in the past of brainwashing young Dalits and provoking them to attack Muslims in many riots, including that of 2002.
The results seem to prove that the Dalits have embraced the Hindu right. In 2007, just two of the 13 reserved seats went to the Congress with the BJP taking the rest. In the 2009 general elections, both the reserved seats (Kutch and Ahmedabad) went to the BJP.
Dalit activists and intellectuals bemoan the turn to the right by some sections of the community.
"The new generation of Dalits in most urban areas of the state have not seen the terrible sufferings borne by previous generations, especially in the rural areas. They are loyal to the BJP as they see the party as a stepping stone to political power," said Makwana.
"Modi has only favoured landlords and big business. He has done nothing for the socio-economic uplift of Dalits," he added.
According to a Dalit government official, Dalits who vote for the BJP "do not know history".
"In 1981 and 1985, when there were strident anti-reservation campaigns in Gujarat, it was the BJP's predecessor, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, that had taken a lead in supporting these campaigns," the official said on the condition of anonymity.
The problem is that the Dalit community does not have too many options other than the BJP and the Congress.
The Republican Party of India does have some presence in Gujarat as does the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Lok Janshakti Party. But, as a Dalit activist pointed out, they don't have grassroots support.
"Plus, the Gujarat BSP and LJP are led by a Brahmin and a Gurjar respectively. Why will Dalits vote for them?" he asked.
The next government must implement various schemes for the SC, offer protection from atrocities and remove untouchability, community leaders say.
Can the Congress and the BJP make up for lost time and focus on the community's needs, for votes if nothing else?