The elevation of Charanjit Singh Channi has revived the talks of caste in Punjab politics. The Congress trained guns at the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) while claiming credit for appointing Charanjit Channi, a 58-year-old leader from the Dalit community as the Punjab chief minister, and asking its arch-rival why it did not do the same in other states.
Channi is the first Dalit community member to become the Punjab chief minister. Punjab has the highest share of Dalits in its population among all states. However, the politics of Punjab has traditionally been dominated by Jat Sikhs.
The economic and political dominance of Jat Sikhs has created sharp divisions in Punjab’s society even though one of the foundation pillars of Sikhism is the rejection of caste identity.
CASTES OF SIKHS
The Jat Sikhs are the single-largest caste group in Punjab comprising over 25 per cent of the total population. It is the largest group among the Sikhs, forming about 60 per cent of the Sikh population.
They are said to have entered into the fold of Sikhism in the 16th century during the time of Guru Arjan Dev, and rose to position of aristocracy during the time of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.
Jat Sikhs and Dalits have been the key voters in Punjab. Dalits form about 32 per cent of the total population of Punjab across Sikhism and Hinduism.
Among Dalit Sikhs, the prominent groups are called Mazhabis (roughly Balmikis) and ‘Ad-dharmis’ also called Ramdasias.
Other non-Jat Sikhs include the Ramgarhias (to which Giani Zail Singh, who became Punjab chief minister in 1972 and the President of India in 1982), the Rais, the Lohars, Chimbas, Lannas and Kumahars.
CASTE OF PUNJAB VOTERS
Sikhs form about 58 per cent of total population of Punjab. Dalits are part of both Sikh and Hindu religious dispensations. Overall, Hindus form about 38 per cent of the population of Punjab.
Muslims form about two per cent of Punjab’s population and Christian little over one per cent.
Among Dalit Sikhs, Mazhabis form about 60 per cent of the community.
HOW CASTES VOTE IN PUNJAB
According to an analysis by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), Jat Sikhs had voted traditionally for the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)-BJP coalition, which broke away last year.
In 2002, 55 per cent of Jat Sikh votes went to the SAD-BJP alliance. It rose to the high of 61 per cent in 2007 before slipping to 52 per cent in 2012. The coalition formed a back-to-government government in Punjab in 2007 and 2012.
In 2017, the entry of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) created a split in the Jat Sikh votes. The AAP cornered 30 per cent of Jat Sikh votes reducing the SAD-BJP share to 37 per cent.
On the other hand, the Congress’s vote share of the Jat Sikhs has remained relatively stable. In 2002, 23 per cent Jat Sikhs voted for the Congress when it formed the government. In 2002 and 2007, the Congress polled 30 per cent and 31 per cent of Jat Sikh votes respectively but failed to win power.
In 2017, the AAP-induced split in the Jat Sikh vote while diminished the prospects of the SAD-BJP, Congress still got 28 per cent of their votes to form government in Punjab.
DALIT SIKH VOTERS
Dalit Sikhs have been traditional voters of the Congress. However, a lower support from the Dalit Sikh voters has seen the Congress winning power in Punjab. For example, the Congress formed governments in Punjab in 2002 and 2017.
In 2002, 33 per cent of Dalit Sikh voters favoured the Congress. In 2017, 41 per cent Dalit Sikhs voted for the party. In contrast, the Congress got 49 per cent votes of the Dalit Sikhs in 2007 and 51 per cent in 2012 but sat in Opposition.
This could signal that the support for a party from one community could be a result of more intricate caste-aligned polarisation. On the other hand, the SAD-BJP’s share in the Dalit Sikh votes remained between 32 per cent and 34 per cent between 2007 and 2017.
The AAP polled 23 per cent of Dalit Sikhs in 2017.
The Hindu voters have been strong vote bank for the Congress. The party got 47 per cent of Dalit Hindu votes in 2002 and 43 per cent in 2017 when the Congress formed government in Punjab. In 2007 and 2012, 56 per cent and 37 per cent Dalit Hindu voters voted for the Congress.
Among the non-Dalit Hindu voters, the Congress got support from 52 per cent in 2002 and 48 per cent in 2017 when it won the Punjab Assembly elections. In the losing cause of 2007 and 2012, 49 per cent and 46 per cent of non-Hindu voters stayed behind the Congress.
A swing in non-Dalit Hindu votes seems to be a deciding factor in Punjab. The SAD-BJP got 38 per cent of non-Dalit Hindu votes in 2007 — a jump of 12 per cent over 2002 — to form government in Punjab.
The SAD-BJP maintained sway over the non-Hindu Dalit voters in 2012 with 36 per cent support. But in 2017, the coalition saw a negative swing of 14 per cent in when it lost power to the Congress. The AAP incidentally polled 23 per cent of their vote share in 2017.