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Can Vijay Sampla win over crucial ‘Dalit’ votes for BJP in 2017 Punjab Assembly polls?

New Delhi: With an eye of the sizeable chunk of Dalit voters in Punjab, the BJP has appointed Vijay Sampla, the party’s most prominent Dalit face in the state, as its new President of the
Raj Singh April 14, 2016 19:33 IST
Raj Singh

New Delhi: With an eye of the sizeable chunk of Dalit voters in Punjab, the BJP has appointed Vijay Sampla, the party’s most prominent Dalit face in the state, as its new President of the provincial unit.

The performance of the saffron party  will be crucial for the Shiromani Akali Dal(SAD) – Bharataiya Janata Party (BJP) alliance if the coalition government  has to return to power for third consecutive term.

After 10 years of SAD-BJP rule, Prakash Singh Badal led alliance is reportedly facing strong anti-incumbency in the state. Even in 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Punjab proved to be a weak link for NDA despite a strong Modi wave blowing across the country. Out of 13 parliamentary seats, SAD-BJP alliance could manage to win only 6 seats.

The resentment against Badal-led alliance was so strong that Arun Jaitley, the master strategist of BJP, lost out his maiden Lok Sabha election to veteran Congress leader and former chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh from Amritsar parliamentary constituency by a huge margin of more than 1 lakh votes. 

Political commentators reckoned that the corruption charges against Badal government were responsible for the poor performance of the SAD-BJP alliance in the state. They pointed out that the success of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in 2014 parliamentary polls clearly indicated that the people of Punjab were on the lookout for an alternative that promised a corruption-free polity. Since Arvind Kejriwal-led AAP forcefully stressed on its resolve to fight corruption, the electorate reposed faith in the party which surprised political pundits by winning  4 Lok Sabha seats.  2 years down the line, things remain more or less the same as far as the image of Badal government is concerned. 

Under these circumstances, when there is a palpable anti-incumbency in the state, the BJP realises that it has to deliver its best and that’s why it has decided to target Dalit voters who constitute a massive 31.9% of the total electorate.

In Punjab, Dalits have the highest percentage population compared to any other state of India. It clearly underlines how important the Dalit votes are for all the competing political parties in the state.

A close look at the demography of Punjab further indicates the significance of Dalit votes in the state. Sikhs are the largest community who constitute around 58 % of the population. Hindus, on the other hand, constitute around 38% of the total population. The rest 4% belongs to people of other religions including Islam, Christianity and Buddhists. 

It means that while Hindus constitute 38% of the entire population, the Dalits alone constitute around 32% of the entire population. Further, in the Doab region consisting of 5 important districts namely, Hoshiarpur,  Kapurthala , Phagwara,  Jalandhar and  Shaheed Bhagat Singh Nagar, Dalits constitute around  38 percent of the electorate.

Obviously, Dalits are the second largest electoral vote bank after Sikhs in Punjab. Traditionally, the Dalits have been voting for the Congress in the state with SAD having strong presence among the Sikh electorate especially in rural areas. Kanshi Ram, the founder of Bahujan Samaj Party(BSP) also belonged to Punjab and even BSP used to corner a good chunk of Dalit votes in the state.

But the entry of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the electoral fray as a serious contender has changed the equations. Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party(AAP) registered a spectacular victory in Delhi Assembly elections mainly on account of the massive support it received from the Dalit community which has a significant presence in the national capital. If Kejriwal manages to make inroads into the Dalit community of Punjab, things will become much more difficult for all other contenders including Vijay Sampla and his party, the BJP.

As far as Vijay Sampla is concerned, he has emerged as the tallest Dalit leaders of BJP in the state. Coming from a humble background, Sampla is looked upon as a hero in his community. This is primarily because he rose to the position of a  union minister and state BJP President from a petty labourer. 

After losing his father at a young age of 14, Sampla was forced to work as a labourer in Jalandhar from where he moved over to the middle-east where he worked as an assistant to a plumber from 1992-97.

After returning to India, Sampla joined RSS and became a member of BJP in 1998. He came into limelight in 2003 Talhan gurdwara row when the killing of a Dalit had resulted in violent clashes across Jalandhar. Sampla camped in the village till the row was over and he scored a point over other Dalit leaders of the region who could not do anything for the community during those difficult days.

From 2003 onwards, there was no looking back for Sampla although he did not contest any elections. In fact, he was never on very good terms with Kamal Sharma, the powerful Brahmin leader of BJP, who has been replaced by Sampla this time. 

That was the reason why Kamal Sharma opposed his candidature from Hoshiarpur Lok Sabha constituenct in 2014 parliamentary elections. Sharma could not do much because Sampla, by then, had developed good rapport with both Rajnath Singh and Narendra Modi. 

After emerging victorius in 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Sampla was made a union minister with MoS rank. Clearly, he had emerged as the new heavyweight of Punjab BJP. His appointment as the BJP President has further underlined his numero uno position in the state.

With Sampla as its state President, BJP is reportedly bargaining for higher number of seats in the upcoming Assembly elections.

In 2012 Assembly elections, out of 117 Assembly seats, SAD had contested 94 while BJP had its candidates on 23 seats. SAD won 58 seats with a vote percentage of 34.59% while BJP had won 12 seats with a vote percentage of 7.15%. It remains to be seen whether SAD agrees to give more seats to BJP this time. However, the possibility of SAD ceding more seats to BJP  is not very high, if political commentators are to be believed.

For the BJP. Vijay Sampla is the best bet in the state and the party has put its best foot forward in the elections. Will he succeed in bringing Dalit votes to BJP fold? Well, these are early days and we need to wait a little longer for a clear picture to emerge in the state.