The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Sonia signals Dalits with Shinde cap

New Delhi, Jan. 19: With Sushil Kumar Shinde’s elevation to the top job in Maharashtra, the Congress might be seeking to send across an important political signal to its traditional Dalit constituency across the country.

The Congress’ first Dalit chief minister in the crucial western state is being considered in the party as its response to rival BJP’s Mayavati card.

The BJP-BSP (Bahujan Samaj Party) coalition in Uttar Pradesh — the third time the two parties have come together in eight years — however, might still be fragile and its longevity uncertain.

Still, the Congress central leadership is said to have attached considerable significance to Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayavati’s appearance at the BJP’s Gujarat poll campaign last month. “At a time when even the BJP’s NDA constituents chose to distance themselves in Gujarat, the Bahujan Samaj leader lent her support,” a Congress leader said.

According to party sources in the know, the Dalit factor was discussed threadbare at the Congress Working Committee meeting here a fortnight ago.

Some committee members, including a couple of chief ministers, emphasised that the Congress should not be complacent about the support of Dalits and other weaker sections, especially after they have moved away from the party in crucial states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

The debate apparently prompted Congress president Sonia Gandhi to ask Manmohan Singh to examine the Gujarat voting pattern and poll results to find out, among other things, whether the Dalits had stayed loyal to the party or drifted away.

Some in the Congress leadership believe the BJP in Gujarat had mobilised Dalits after the Godhra carnage.

Apart from the Gujarat context, the committee meeting threw up the strong view that the Congress had not really projected a Dalit national leader after Jagjeevan Ram. Things were such that Lok Janshakti Party chief Ram Vilas Paswan had to be drafted for the party’s poll campaign, a Congress leader said.

Whether the discussion on the Congress’ Dalit support base was a precursor to Vilasrao Deshmukh’s exit in Maharashtra is not clear. Deshmukh did not sit through the entire meeting.

Shinde’s promotion is thus viewed by some in party circles as a conscious exercise in social engineering to guard the Congress’ traditional support base.

Similar reasons might have weighed heavily with Sonia in her extreme reluctance to remove the party’s OBC chief minister in Rajasthan, Ashok Gehlot, from his post.

Though the powerful Jat lobby in the Congress in Rajasthan is making a concerted bid to wrest the chief ministership for one of its members, the party’s central leadership is not really convinced.

According to a party source in the know, Rajasthan’s Jat support for the Congress is a “myth”. To buttress the point, the source cited the Assembly poll results of 1993 and 1998.

In 1993, the Congress secured 70-odd seats in the 200-strong Assembly. In the last polls, a landslide saw the party bagging over 150 seats. “The number of seats we won in Jat-dominated areas remained the same at 23,” the source said.

According to sources, with the ongoing organisational revamp -- from Maharashtra and Rajasthan to Karnataka or any other Congress-ruled state -- the party leadership is seeking to send out a clear message to its traditional support base among Dalits, OBCs and minorities.

This message is as important as putting dynamic leaders in positions of responsibility in the party organisation to prepare for the Lok Sabha polls next year, the sources said.

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