Last week, more than a thousand workers of the Bahujan Samaj Party in Basti district of eastern Uttar Pradesh quit and joined, wait for it, the Samajwadi Party. They were led by a local BSP leader of some standing, along with one former MP and two former MLAs.
This is no big deal, sympathisers of Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) might say. People have been joining and leaving the BSP forever. The vote is cast in Mayawati’s name. The rest are mercenaries for hire.
But it’s different this time. Mayawati’s supporters and voters are no longer sure if Mayawati still commands the unquestioned loyalty of Dalit voters.
The proof was the 2019 Lok Sabha election. The Samajwadi Party (SP) and the BSP fought on almost equal number of seats. The BSP won 10, the SP five – a clear indication that many Dalit voters did not listen to Mayawati’s advice to vote for the SP.
If Mayawati is unable to make her vote transfer, is she really the supreme leader of Dalits?
But Dalits might still vote for Mayawati, the BSP could argue. If the elephant is there on the EVM, their motor memory won’t allow them to vote for anyone else.
Although, even that seems to be increasingly doubtful. Mayawati’s hold over the Dalit vote is facing a multi-pronged attack. It is significant that politicians from the Basti district are joining the SP, and not the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or the Congress. Akhilesh Yadav has been able to project an image that is different from how Dalits have so far seen the Samajwadi Party.
When Mayawati blamed the SP, called it names, and unilaterally broke the alliance after the 2019 Lok Sabha election result, Akhilesh Yadav did not respond. He continues to wish her on her birthday. This has made Mayawati seem like the spoilsport in the larger purpose of joining forces against the incumbent BJP, while Akhilesh Yadav comes across as the good guy.
There’s another threat that Mayawati faces: Chandrashekhar Azad of Saharanpur. Mayawati is so rattled by the Bhim Army chief that she names him in her press conferences, and accuses him of being a part of the conspiracy to cut BSP votes. But Chandrashekhar Azad has become a face of curiosity and aspiration in Uttar Pradesh politics. Azad wants to do agitational politics, shake things up, be a force of disruption. Mayawati wants to stick to her old formulas that stopped working in 2014.
Chandrashekhar Azad has already announced that he intends to launch his own political party. Whether this party will contest all seats in Uttar Pradesh in 2022, or enter into an alliance with the SP or Congress, remains to be seen. The amount of traction he would get can also only be a matter of speculation. But Mayawati is making sure that Chandrashekhar Azad becomes a well-known figure for Dalits across Uttar Pradesh by naming him in virtually every press conference.
The rise of the BSP was about fighting against ‘upper’ caste domination. But today, Dalit youth want more than that. Having won the first round and made their point against caste domination and discrimination, the new generation Dalits want to assert equality. It is a different aspiration and Chandrashekhar Azad epitomises it.
BSP under siege
Dalits have already been deserting the BSP for the BJP since 2014, especially non-Jatav Dalits. Some Jatavs, too, have been attracted to the BJP thanks to Modi’s economic populism: free houses, toilets, LPG cylinders. And then there’s the Congress party, which Dalits used to vote for until the rise of the BSP in the early 1990s. Mayawati has also been attacking Priyanka Gandhi. Dalits going back to the Congress has always been her fear.
In other words, Mayawati is under siege from all sides. And she is not reacting astutely at all. Her response reveals her anxieties. All she wants is to retain her Dalit vote-bank. And therein lies the mistake. The biggest reason why even Dalits are giving up on Mayawati is because they see no hope of her returning as chief minister any time soon. She’s unable to project ‘winnability’.
Closed to new ideas
For this, Mayawati has only herself to blame — although if you ask Dalit intellectuals, they will blame her Brahmin aide, Satish Chandra Mishra. Mayawati has closed herself to any new ideas. She thinks the old formula can still work: marry Dalit vote-bank to non-Dalit candidates, who will also bring votes of their own caste. Two plus two equals victory.
This formula worked in the past. But now, caste politics alone won’t work. The once fragmented ‘lower’ Other Backward Classes (OBCs) have been solidly mobilised by the BJP, whose caste coalition is formidable. But caste is not the only thing that matters.
As part of her old formula, Mayawati did not need to campaign on the ground. She only needed to address a few big rallies on election eve and that was enough. But as the BSP stares at a likely implosion, Mayawati needs to get out and travel across Uttar Pradesh, re-establish connect with the masses. Kanshiram built the BSP on his bicycle. Mayawati will need to leave her ivory tower – even though it seems unlikely that she will. She might think it will reduce her stature.
All she can think of is going back from a ‘Dalit+Muslim’ strategy to a ‘Dalit+Brahmin’ strategy. So, the leader of the BSP in the Lok Sabha has been changed from Muslim to Brahmin. What she really needs to do instead is travel across Uttar Pradesh and campaign on law and order, utilising the perception that law and order in the state is best when she is the chief minister.
She doesn’t think she needs to campaign. At least not until a week before the first phase of the polling. Why campaign when you are the queen of social engineering?
Views are personal.