How Close Is Uttarakhand to Electing a Dalit CM?

Congress leader Harish Rawat's statement that he would like to see a Dalit CM in the state, like Punjab, may have shaken things up. But will any party moot a Dalit chief ministerial candidate?

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Dehradun: Ahead of the Uttarakhand assembly elections, Congress leader and former chief minister Harish Rawat has shaken up the political climate in the hill state by suggesting that the next chief minister come from the Scheduled Caste community, which makes up around 18% of the state.

Addressing Congress party workers, Rawat said that he hoped a Dalit or a Shilpkar (SC) leader of the hills would be the chief minister of Uttarakhand during his lifetime. The former chief minister’s remarks were greeted by uneasy cheers – as can be seen in a video shared on social media – and have also irked many in the state Congress camp.

Why now?

Rawat is also in charge of the Congress in Punjab, and the fact that his remarks came a day after the Congress appointed a Dalit leader, Charanjit Singh Channi as the chief minister, is seen as a sign that the party believes that the ‘Punjab-model’ may help to revive its sagging fortunes in Uttarakhand.

The Dalit population in the hill state is significant and in more than a dozen seats in two districts – Haridwar and Udham Singh Nagar – the community’s vote is decisive. The Bahujan Samaj Party’s vote percentage went from 10.2% in 2002 to 12.2% in 2012 but by the time it was 2017, the BSP was wiped out. And the Congress is eyeing this 12% vote in the 2022 elections.

In 2017, the Congress vote share was 33.8% and it won 11 seats, whereas the BJP had 47 % and won 57 seats in Uttarakhand.

In all 70 seats, the majority of Dalit votes had shifted to the BJP, giving it its victory. In the 2017 rout, the Congress was reduced to 11 MLAs and its vote share percentage establishes that the majority of the SC/ST vote, abandoning the BSP, had swung to the saffron camp’s favour.

Also read: Uttarakhand: Congress Accuses Centre of Removing Governor Over Recruitment Scam Probe Order

BJP, AAP and Congress

Both Congress and BJP have picked a Thakur or a Brahmin as chief minister in the last 21 years.

In 2017, the BJP did not announce any candidate as chief minister before the election, even though in the saffron camp there were indications that state unit chief Ajay Bhatt would be the choice. But Bhatt lost the election and Trivendra Singh Rawat was hand-picked by the party high command in Delhi.

But in the last four and half years, the BJP has had three chief ministers and in the forthcoming election it faces the particular crisis of a lack of a significant face. The party has struggled to explain to voters why the government’s head has had to change twice.

Former Nainital MP, Balraj Passi, has no clear answer as to whether BJP will want to nominate a Dalit chief minister.

“Our party has had a Dalit president. So many OBC and Dalit leaders are in the PM Modi cabinet. It is up to the party to take the decision,” said Passi.

New entrant Aam Aadmi Party has announced retired Colonel Ajay Kothiyal, a Brahmin, as the chief ministerial candidate. “Colonel Ajay Kothiyal is our CM candidate in Uttarakhand and AAP’s main focus is on development of all sections of society. Caste politics is the hallmark of Congress and BJP. We believe in development for all,” said Shishupal Singh Rawat, AAP state vice-president.

Also read: Uttarakhand: AAP Welcomes BJP, Congress Rebels, Presents Itself As a Serious Contender

People’s sentiments

Not many are willing to take Rawat’s words at face value among Dalit community representatives.

Uttarakhand journalist, Mahesh C. Donia, said that Congress has never been truly pro-Dalit.

“If Harish Rawat is so progressive as to wish for a Dalit CM in Uttarakhand, he should have mooted the idea in 2012 when intense infighting came to the fore and he could not become CM himself,” Donia said.

He went on to add that even if Congress manages to gain a majority in the coming elections, it will not be able to form a stable government.

Doon-based social activist Bhaskar Kumar Dass, said, “Dalit votes hold the key in the Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab elections. But Harish Rawat’s remarks do not cut much ice. If the Congress is really serious, or say, as serious as it was in Punjab, then it must announce a Dalit leader as its CM candidate.”

Dass also pointed out that caste divisions are deeply rooted in the social fabric of Uttarakhand. “Rawat’s remark would tick off other Congress leaders in Uttarakhand and other parties would adopt silence over the Dalit CM card,” said Dass.

But Jagdish Chandra is not as sceptical. “It is very easy to discredit Harish Rawat or Congress for talking of selecting a Dalit leader for the chief minister’s post but in my opinion, this decision is no less a watershed moment in our country. A big chunk of politics is caste politics and in my opinion, the time has come for all national political parties to follow the Congress’s Punjab model,” he said.