Leaders from community will be identified, nurtured and involved in every stage of decision-making, he says

The Congress hopes to usher in a third wave of Dalit empowerment, party vice-president Rahul Gandhi said here on Tuesday: leaders from the community will be identified, nurtured and involved in every stage of decision-making.

If Babasaheb Ambedkar had provided the constitutional framework for political equality, Kanshiram in the second stage, Mr. Gandhi continued, channelled “the energy created due to reservation,” using political mobilisation for social equality. Mayawati played a role in the second phase, he acknowledged, but since she had “captured the leadership of the movement,” preventing others from growing, she provided the Congress with an opportunity to fill that vacuum.

“I told Mr. [K] Raju [who heads the Congress SC Cell] and Mr. [P.L.] Punia [MP and Chairperson of the National Commission for SCs] to create a Dalit leadership at every level — from the panchayats, to the MLAs and MPs to the policy-making level,” Mr. Gandhi said, inaugurating a two-day National Awareness Camp on Empowerment of the Scheduled Castes, organised by the National Commission for the SCs, at Vigyan Bhawan here.

In recent months, the long defunct SC cell — now manned by ex-civil servants, activists, lawyers and one person from the NSUI who has had experience in conducting party elections — has been revived in the hope that it will become the vehicle for unfulfilled Dalit aspirations, with each member of the central team given a clutch of States to work in.

Realising that the party is no longer the default choice for Dalits, Mr. Gandhi, party sources told The Hindu, has mandated the SC cell to create space for Dalit leaders and strengthen their voices in policy-making. At the panchayat and ward levels, reactivated State cells will be expected to help Dalits access their constitutional and legal rights, identify and nurture Dalit leaders, select and train them, eventually giving them ticket to contest elections.

The State cells will be instructed, party sources said, not to hold random meetings but to follow a plan of action concentrating on issues of access to rights, and swift justice for victims of atrocities. In each State, pilots will be run in a few districts to see whether, after a year, socio-economic indicators have improved there.

On Tuesday, as he outlined his plans to bring Dalits back into the Congress fold, Mr. Gandhi also sought to inject an emotional dimension into the subject. Acknowledging the overwhelming odds Dalits still needed to surmount to accomplish something, more than six decades after Independence, he borrowed a phrase from aeronautics: A Dalit, he said, must achieve the “escape velocity” of Jupiter to attain any success. (Escape velocity is defined as the lowest velocity a body must have in order to escape the gravitational attraction of a particular planet or other object.)

Paying a tribute to his grandmother, Indira Gandhi, he said a story she told him as a child lingered in his memory. Indira Gandhi, as a child, travelled to Germany when Hitler was in power, and while there, she went to watch an ice-hockey match between Germany and another team. As Germany overwhelmed its opponent, the home crowd cheered. Finally, the opposing team scored a goal and young Indira stood up to cheer, only to find herself being jeered by the rest of the spectators. Scared, she swiftly sat down but later she told herself that she would never be cowed down again — she would always stand up for the underdog.

This story, Mr. Gandhi said, made such a powerful impact on him that he remained determined to stand up for the weak and powerless. Exhorting the Dalit representatives in the audience, he said, to loud cheers: “You, too, must not just sit, you must stand up and fight for your rights.”

Mr. Gandhi’s speech at Vigyan Bhawan — followed by another at Talkatora Stadium to mark Dalit Adhikar Diwas (Dalit rights' day), where he described the community as the reed ki haddi or spine of the Congress — comes against the backdrop of the party’s new focus on Dalits.

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