Congress leaders are likely taking a hard look at its manifesto, trying to tweak it enough to woo the Dalits, who brought the Congress a windfall of 30 seats in the 2009 Lok Sabha election. However, chances of a repeat performance from the reserved seats look rather slim this time around and Dalit leaders within the Congress are a distraught lot. They would be happy if their party manages to get even half the SC seats that it won last time, they concede privately.
Despite the "Jupiter's escape velocity" clarion call by Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi to empower Dalits through reservations in private jobs, scholarships and skill development to boost entrepreneurship, and visits and sleepovers at Dalit homes, the odds seem stacked high against the Congress. The reason, to the diehard Dalit leaders within the Congress, lies in the failure of the top leadership to connect with the Dalits by giving them grass-root leaders.
"Dalit IAS could be great administrators, but are not natural leaders who can connect seamlessly with those who are living in abysmal poverty and under social apartheid in far flung remote villages. The Congress has lost out on this very count," laments a middle level Congress functionary from Dalit stock.
They rue the fact that the All India Congress Committee has shut down its Scheduled Caste (SC) cell since 2005, and that even after it was revived recently it was given to an IAS officer, K Raju, who was made chairman of the AICC's SC department.
"This was too late and too little a step to make a dent. The post should have gone to a mass Dalit leader who could connect with the masses," says another party functionary.
But where are these mass Dalit leaders in the Congress now?
"The system to allow Dalit leaders evolve from the grass-root died along with Indira Gandhi, who understood the ground reality and brought up a whole battery of such leaders. Rahulji is enveloped in a cocoon of techies and bureaucrats and cannot understand the importance of the bottom-up approach, and we cannot reach up to him to tell him the truth," says a disgruntled Congress leader.
He cites the example of Uttar Pradesh, which has 17 SC constituencies. "Congress has lost out on the largest possible Dalit vote bank here. Even in western UP constituencies like Hathras, Nagina and Bulandshahr, where Naseeb Singh and Madhusudan Mistry have done good ground work, the party entered into a seat sharing alliance with the Rashtriya Lok Dal and gave all the three seats to the party.
Congress leaders privately say that AAP as well as BSP will also woo away some Dalit votes from them; the BSP has lately strengthened its Dalit connect.
Similarly, even in other states, regional parties and the BJP will have an edge over the Congress, which will end up paying a price for its disconnect as well as the accompanying pressure of inflation.
The system to allow Dalit leaders evolve from the grass-root died along with Indira Gandhi, who understood the ground reality and brought up a whole battery of such leaders. Rahulji is enveloped in a cocoon of techies and bureaucrats and cannot understand the importance of the bottom-up approach, and we cannot reach up to him to tell him the truth.
— A disgruntled Congress leader