Dalit voters who constitute a significant chunk in 25 of the 182 assembly seats in Gujarat are likely to be split between the three key players in ensuing state elections, say political observers.
Of the 25 seats, 13 are reserved for the scheduled castes, and in each of the remaining 12 seats, Dalit votes are more than 10 per cent, an observer said.
In the last assembly election, the Bharatiya Janata Party won seven of the 13 seats, while Congress won five and an independent, Jignesh Mevani, was also elected.
At eight per cent of Gujarat's population, Dalits are not numerically dominant, and their votes are likely to get divided among the ruling BJP, opposition Congress and the new entrant Aam Aadmi Party in the upcoming assembly elections, the observer said.
The following are the 13 seats reserved for SC candidates, along with the parties which won them in the last elections: Danilimda (Congress), Asarwa (BJP), Dasada (Congress), Rajkot Rural (BJP), Kalavad (Congress), Kodinar (Congress), Gadhada (BJP), Vadodara City (BJP), Bardoli (BJP), Kadi (BJP), Idar (BJP), Gandhidham (BJP) and Vadgam (Independent).
Dalit voters constitute more than 10 per cent in the following 12 unreserved constituencies: Amraiwadi, Bapunagar, Thakkarbapa Nagar, Jamalpur, Dholka, Patan, Chanasma, Siddhpur, Keshod, Manavadar, Vav and Abdasa.
While the BJP is confident Dalits will vote for it in the assembly polls due this year-end, the Congress says it is paying attention to seats with 10 per cent or more Dalit population.
The BJP has won a majority of the 13 seats reserved for the scheduled castes since 1995.
In 2007 and 2012, it won 11 and 10 of these seats, respectively, while the Congress won two and three seats.
In 2017, the BJP won only seven of these 13 seats, while the Congress won five.
Mevani, who was backed by Congress, won the Vadgam seat as an independent.
Congress MLA Pravin Maru from Gadhada resigned in 2020 and joined the BJP in 2022.
BJP's Atmaram Parmar won the byelection in the constituency.
Sociologist Gaurang Jani claimed Dalits in Gujarat are a confused community as far as political affiliation is concerned.
They are numerically not as sizable as many other communities and are divided further in three sub-castes -- Vankar, Rohit and Valimki.
"They are divided among themselves, with the BJP attracting Vankar, the highest in the stratification. They are more vocal and urban. But Valmiki, which are mainly sanitation workers, are divided," claimed Jani, a retired professor at the Gujarat University.
The presence of three political parties in the fray will lead to a division of the Dalit votes, he said.
"This will lead to their political significance diminishing, especially as the community lacks a strong leader," he added.
With the new entrant AAP laying claim to the legacy of Dr B R Ambedkar, the community's votes will be split three ways, said Jani.
"The new generation of the community is confused. The voting pattern of the youth is going to be divided among all the three parties. The division will not benefit any one political party, nor will it benefit the community," he said.
"The BJP has been in power for 27 years. In the elections during this period, Dalits supported both the BJP and the Congress. The BJP has also taken many initiatives to attract Dalits. Being in power, Dalit leaders were given positions in different bodies," he said.
"Dalits have enjoyed a long association with the BJP," Jani said.
On the other hand, the Congress could not keep its grip on the Dalit community as it has been out of power for a long period, he said.
"Even in the opposition, it failed to raise their issues as well as it was expected to do. Many Dalit leaders of the Congress shifted to the BJP. The party's KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslim) strategy could not work as polarisation on Hindutva further marginalised Dalits," Jani said.
Dalits are normally an absolute minority in villages, and even in urban areas, their number is not large, he said.
"Also, the AAP's strategy to attract Dalits by claiming the legacy of Babasaheb Ambedkar by side-lining Mahatma Gandhi makes it attractive to the community," he said.
The Arvind Kejriwal-led AAP has already promised a number of 'guarantees' to people of the state if it is voted to power.
"I think the voting pattern of Dalit youth will be divided among the three parties. It will not go to a single political party. I don't know which political party will benefit, but Dalits will not benefit from this," he claimed.
BJP spokesperson Yagnesh Dave said his party is publicising schemes of the state and central governments that are meant for the community, and is also roping in religious heads of holy places associated with the Dalit community like Jhanjharka and Rosra,
"Even in 2017, the Dalit community supported the BJP, and we believe it will extend us the same support in 2022," he said.
The Congress aims to increase the Dalit voter turnout, especially in the unreserved seats where the community accounts for 10 per cent or more of the population.
The AAP is hoping for its 'guarantees' like 300 units of free electricity per month, unemployment dole and Rs 1,000 allowance for women to attract Dalits and other communities.
Congress' Scheduled Caste department chairman Hitendra Pithadiya said his party is paying special attention to seats with 10 per cent or more Dalit population.
"We want Dalits to come out strongly and vote for the Congress in these constituencies. If this happens, we can win. We will try and ensure that we field Dalit candidates in unreserved seats too," he said.
The Congress had fielded Dalit candidates in the unreserved seat of Sayajigunj in Vadodara city in 2017 and in Limbayat in Surat city in 2012. It lost in both the places.
The 2017 election was preceded by protests against the ruling BJP over the flogging of some Dalits by cow vigilantes at Una in Gir Somnath district.
While attacks on Dalits by the members of dominant upper castes and Other Backward Classes and discrimination are not uncommon in rural Gujarat, the Una incident provided a major issue for the Congress to rally the community on its side.
Dalit activist Mevani, who led the protests after the Una incident, won the 2017 election from the Vadgam seat. He recently announced that he will contest the 2022 election on Congress ticket.