CHANDIGARH: Caste politics may take centre stage in most north Indian states, but in agrarian Punjab where Scheduled Castes and Backward Classes make up 55 per cent of state's population, it doesn't play any decisive role, say political experts.
The reason: neither section, whose concentration is highest in the Doaba region (the area between the Beas and the Satluj), have no loyalty to any particular political party.
Though Dalits, both among Sikhs and Hindus, are seen as the Congress' traditional supporters, while the Akalis bank on the Jat Sikhs (comprising 25 per cent of the population), the present Congress ministry led by Captain Amarinder Singh is dominated by Jat Sikhs - eight cabinet ministers (including the CM) out of 18, against three Dalit ministers and none from Backward Classes.
For the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), a victory in Punjab is still a distant dream, despite the state being the home turf of party founder Kanshi Ram and having a Dalit population of 31.9 per cent - the highest among Indian states.
In the 2017 assembly polls, the BSP's performance was abysmal, which was not strange given its largely unimpressive showing in the Lok Sabha elections in the previous two decades.
Chandigarh-based Institute of Development and Communication's Chairman Pramod Kumar said: "BSP's ideology does not find space in Punjab due to the dominance of Sikhism and the Arya Samaj."
According to him, before the BSP entered into state's political scene in 1992, the SCs and the Backward Classes supported either the Congress or the Left parties -- the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India-Marxist.
While the CPI-M's former state Secretary Mangat Ram Pasla maintains the BSP got a foothold in the state as "mainstream Left parties hobnobbed with the Congress in their lust of power and forgot the issues of the Dalits", Mayawati's party has been on a downward trend since it got a 16 per cent vote share in the 1992 Assembly election.
In 1996, the BSP forged an alliance with the Akali Dal-Badal in the parliamentary elections, and they won three of the four seats.
However, by 2017, the party's share reduced to dismal 1.5 per cent, mainly due to emergence of the AAP.
Veteran journalist Sham Singh told IANS the six-party coalition - the Punjab Democratic Alliance - which comprises BSP and AAP rebels, could have made the contest three-cornered on some seats by the decisive caste arithmetic if it had been launched much ahead the election announcement.
He cited the "leadership crisis" for caste politics for not coming up in the state.
"With the death of Kanshi Ram, the BSP's focus mainly shifted on strengthening its roots in Uttar Pradesh. Since then there is a vacuum of leadership in Punjab," he added.
Interestingly, a BSP candidate - Vikram Singh Sodhi, contesting from Anandpur Sahab - leads the pack of super-rich candidates with assets worth Rs 140.83 crore. Running a business in Europe and owning a huge tract of agricultural land, he is also an international polo player.
Out of the 13 Lok Sabha seats in Punjab, the Akali Dal-BJP combine currently holds five (four Akali Dal; one of BJP), while the Congress has four seats and AAP another four.
Punjab will vote on May 19 in the last phase of the multi-stage Lok Sabha elections.