What Punjab vote share data tells us about Congress’s Dalit CM gambit

Voting pattern in Punjab shows while Jat Sikhs have largely favoured the Shiromani Akali Dal, the Congress had been the party of choice among Dalits – both Sikh and Hindus; the AAP’s 2017 foray dented that vote base

Charanjit Singh Channi may not have been the Congress’s first choice to replace Captain Amarinder Singh as Punjab’s chief minister, but analysis of the state’s two-decade-long community-wise voting pattern suggests that in giving the state its first Dalit CM, the Grand Old Party may have, unwittingly or through a calculated risk, tried to win back recently dwindling support among the formidable scheduled caste community.

According to data from the CSDS-Lokniti Survey for voting patterns in Punjab since the 2002 Assembly polls, Dalits of the state – both Sikh and Hindus – had traditionally preferred the Congress party over its principal rivals, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the BJP, irrespective of which party ultimately won the elections.

Also read: For Cong, promoting Dalit Sikh as CM a double-edged sword

The SAD and the BJP had been contesting elections in alliance since 1997 but broke up earlier this year over the former’s protests against the Centre’s controversial farm laws. The debut of Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Punjab’s 2017 assembly polls marked a steep 10 per cent fall in the Congress’s vote share among Dalit voters. The AAP, though unable to win a majority in the elections with its 20-seat tally against the Congress’s 77 in a House of 117 members, clocked in an impressive 19 per cent vote share among the Scheduled Caste voters.


For the uninitiated, the five-decade-long hegemony of the Jat Sikhs on Punjab’s chief ministerial throne – an early exception was Giani Zail Singh (1972 to 1977) who belonged to the backward Ramgharia community – may give an impression that Jat Sikhs constitute a majority of the state’s electorate. In reality though, the Dalits far outnumber the Jat Sikhs.

At 32 per cent of the population, Punjab has the highest proportion of Dalits across any Indian state. The Jat Sikhs constitute around 25 per cent. However, despite this high concentration and 34 of the state’s 117 seats reserved for the scheduled caste community, Punjab’s Dalit have historically lost out to the rich, land-owning Jat Sikhs in dominating the state’s politics and political offices.

This is, perhaps, where the Congress hopes to make amends while simultaneously also trying to woo the equally important Jat Sikh vote bank through the community’s popular face – Navjot Singh Sidhu, chief of the Punjab Congress. After all, while the Dalits have traditionally rallied behind the Congress in Punjab, the numerically smaller, but electorally dominant Jat Sikhs have been largely unwavering in their support for the Akalis. Interestingly, the AAP’s 2017 debut had dented these electoral fiefs of the Congress and the Akalis alike, chipping away at the Grand Old Party’s share of votes among the Dalits and the SAD’s base among the Jat Sikhs.

The data from CSDS-Lokniti survey is instructive in the insights it provides into Punjab’s voting pattern. In the past four polls for the Punjab Assembly, the Congress won in 2002 and 2017 while the SAD-BJP alliance emerged victors for two consecutive terms in 2007 and 2012. The overall vote share of the Congress and the SAD-BJP coalition in the three polls – 2002, 2007 and 2012 – as well as that of the AAP following its debut in the Punjab’s assembly election is given below.

This break-up is interesting. As is evident, before the AAP’s 2017 debut that turned Punjab into a three-cornered electoral contest, 2007 was the only bipolar fight since 2002 when the victor had a substantial lead in its vote share. In 2002, the Congress formed the government under Amarinder Singh, but lagged behind the SAD-BJP coalition by one per cent in the overall vote share. This apparent anomaly repeated itself in 2017 when though the SAD-BJP combine had a 30.6 per cent vote share, it won 18 seats while the AAP, with a 23.7 per cent vote share bagged 20 seats to emerge as the single largest Opposition party.

It is this ambiguity in Punjab’s voting pattern that makes the community-wise vote share for each party worth analysing and also shows why the Congress’s Dalit-Jat Sikh combination of Channi and Sidhu seems like a winning gambit, at least on paper. Consider the CSDS-Lokniti data sets given below:

Though the Congress lost the Punjab assembly polls to the SAD-BJP combine in 2007 and 2012, the party maintained a substantial lead over its rivals in terms of its vote share among the Dalit Sikhs (the Ramdasias – the sub-caste that Channi belongs to, the Mazhabis, Rai Sikhs, Mashkis, Nais, and so on), the Hindu Dalits (Valmikis, Chamars, Raigars, etc.) and the non-Hindu Dalits (Ravidasias and others). In the 2002 and the 2017 Assembly polls that the Congress won, though its vote share among the various Dalit sub-categories fell, it remained substantially higher than that of its key rival.

The Congress’s worry over it hold on Punjab’s overarching Dalit vote bank, however, came in 2017 when the AAP forayed into the state’s assembly polls. The 2017 election witnessed a huge dip in the Congress’s vote share among Dalit Sikhs with the AAP being the principal beneficiary of this attrition. While the Congress lost 10 per cent of its vote share among Dalit Sikhs, clocking 41 per cent in 2017 against the 51 per cent it garnered in 2012 or the 49 per cent it secured in 2007, the AAP made an impressive in-road with 19 per cent of this vote share.

Though the Congress kept its hold over the Hindu Dalit and non-Hindu Dalit vote share, the AAP debuted with impressive in-roads in these categories too – 21 per cent vote share among Hindu Dalits and 23 per cent among non-Hindu Dalits. Of the 20 seats that the AAP had won in 2017, nine were reserved for scheduled castes; on half a dozen Scheduled Caste-reserved seats the party had finished second. The Congress, on the other hand, had won 21 of the state’s 34 constituencies reserved for Dalits.

What makes these voting patterns particularly insightful is that a huge lead in the overarching Dalit vote share hasn’t always guaranteed the Congress a victory in the Punjab polls. In fact, its vote share among Dalit Sikhs was the highest in 2007 and 2012 when it lost the polls to the SAD-BJP combine. For instance, the Congress cornered a 56 per cent vote share among Hindu Dalits against the SAD-BJP combine’s 25 per cent and 49 per cent vote share among Dalit Sikhs against the SAD-BJP’s 32 per cent in the 2007 polls but failed to return to power.

Also read: How Amarinder Singh went from Punjab Captain to ‘Captain Cooked’

This skewed arithmetic is, perhaps, better understood when the vote share of Punjab’s political parties among Dalits is read simultaneously with the votes they secured of the other two formidable blocs – those of the Jat Sikhs and the more amorphous but large Other Backward Caste (OBC) Sikhs.

The CSDS-Lokniti Survey demonstrates that the 25 per cent of the Jat Sikh population of Punjab has traditionally favoured the Akalis (or the Akali-BJP coalition). As has been the case with Congress’s dominance over the state’s Dalit vote, the Jat Sikhs of Punjab have always voted in larger numbers for the Akalis, irrespective of the outcome of the polls. The Congress, however, seems to have succeeded in wresting power whenever the Akalis have seen a dip in their vote share among Jat Sikhs without a corresponding rise their vote share among the umbrella Dalit vote bank. In 2017, when the Akalis lost a huge chunk of their Jat Sikh votes, they still maintained a 9 per cent lead over the Congress as the main beneficiary of this shift was the AAP.

In the 2012 polls, the Akalis won their second consecutive election despite their vote share among the Jat Sikhs falling to 52 per cent from the 61 per cent they had cornered in 2007. The SAD-BJP combine seems to have made up for its losses in 2012 by winning a larger share of the Hindu Dalit votes (25 per cent in 2007 against 33 per cent in 2012) and the Dalit Sikh votes (32 per cent in 2007 against 34 per cent in 2012). In this election, though the Congress’s overall vote share among these communities was higher than that of the SAD, it was either lower than what the party had got in the previous elections or showed only a very marginal hike, which was evidently insufficient to offset the gains made by the Akalis.

By going into polls with Channi, a Dalit chief minister, and Sidhu, a Jat Sikh PCC chief, the Congress is trying to win back the lead it had traditionally held over the Dalit vote bank, but was steadily losing in recent years while simultaneously trying to keep the Jat Sikhs happy. Of course, for the Grand Old Party, haunted by its swiftly eroding electoral footprint across the country, having a Dalit chief minister might also help bolster its appeal in the community in two other states that will go to polls along with Punjab in February-March 2021 – Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand – both of which have a sizeable Dalit population.

Of course, if the Congress wins Punjab in 2022, Sidhu, who went to great lengths to ensure Amarinder Singh’s departure from the chief minister’s office but ultimately, could not be his immediate replacement, may not want to uncork the bubbly in haste. The electoral dividends that the Congress hopes to reap with the publicity of its Dalit CM may quickly reverse if the party uses Channi as a showpiece for all of four months only to be replaced when it returns to power.

The Grand Old Party may have to consider the price such a volte face may extract considering that Dalits, including Dalit Sikhs, constitute a sizeable vote bank in Rajasthan, where the Congress is presently in power despite internal turmoil, and Haryana, a state it narrowly missed wresting from the BJP in 2019.