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BSP’s Dalit empowerment agenda has failed to find takers in community bastion Punjab

It's the BSP's depleting vote share in Punjab that has forced it to enter this election season as part of a 'fourth front' mainly comprising AAP rebels.

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Chandigarh: Punjab is the birthplace of Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) founder Kanshi Ram and Dalits account for 33 per cent of the state’s population, a share higher than in any other part of India.

But neither of these factors has helped the BSP, which projects itself as the primary platform for Dalit empowerment, emerge as a major player in the state, where it hasn’t won an assembly or Lok Sabha seat since the mid-1990s.

It was the BSP’s depleting vote share — down to 1.5 per cent in the 2017 assembly election, from a high of 19.7 per cent in 1992 — that forced it to enter this election season as part of the Punjab Democratic Alliance (PDA), a coalition primarily comprising outfits led by rebel leaders of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).

Besides the BSP, the PDA comprises the Communist Party of India (CPI), the Punjab Ekta Party (PEP), headed by former leader of opposition in the assembly and AAP MLA Sukhpal Singh Khaira, the Lok Insaaf Party of the Bains brothers, who are MLAs, and the Punjab Manch, headed by suspended AAP MP Dharamvira Gandhi.

The PDA is looking to emerge as the fourth front in a polity currently dominated by the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alliance, the Congress, and the AAP.

As part of the alliance agreement, the BSP will contest three of the state’s 13 Lok Sabha seats — Anandpur Sahib, Jalandhar and Hoshiarpur — for which the party announced its candidates Monday.

This Lok Sabha election marks exactly three decades since the BSP, which was founded in 1984, made its debut in the 1989 parliamentary polls.

It won one of its four seats that year from Punjab, as Harbhajan Lakha emerged as the sole victor among the BSP’s 12 candidates and wrested Phillaur.

The ensuing years have seen the BSP forge several tie-ups, including a doomed one with the SAD, and mount ambitious campaigns, but it has largely remained on the fringes.

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High points

The year 1992 marked a high point for the BSP in Punjab, as it won nine of the 105 assembly seats it contested in its maiden run for the state House.

The Akalis, who boycotted the election amid tensions over Khalistani militancy, supported the BSP on several seats, and the latter mopped up 16.3 per cent of the vote share — a big jump from the 8.62 per cent it won in the 1989 parliamentary election.

The party improved its vote share further in the parliamentary poll later that year, securing over 19.7 per cent of the votes polled in Punjab even though it won just one of the 12 seats contested.

While the rest of the country voted for the 10th Lok Sabha in 1991, the election was postponed till 1992 in Punjab amid the disturbance on account of militancy.

For the 1996 parliamentary polls, the BSP tied up with the SAD and contested from four seats, winning three. The victors included Kanshi Ram from Hoshiarpur. The BSP has not won a Lok Sabha seat from the state since.

Later that year, the SAD snapped its ties with the BSP after Kanshi Ram decided to forge an alliance with the Congress in Uttar Pradesh. The SAD then decided to tie up with the BJP, a bond that remains till date.

The slide

The BSP’s downfall in Punjab began with the 1997 assembly polls. It first tried to ally with the Congress, but the move failed.

The BSP then tied up with Simranjeet Singh Mann’s SAD (Amritsar), an extremist faction of the SAD, and contested from 67 seats. Only one of its candidates won — Shingara Singh Sahungra from Garhshankar — and the BSP’s vote share fell to just about 7.5 per cent, a loss of over 12 percentage points in five years.

This was the last assembly election in Punjab where the BSP won a seat.

In the February 1998 parliamentary polls, the BSP tied up with the Congress and the CPI, and contested from four seats. It lost all four, even as it notched a decent vote share of over 12 per cent.

The party contested the 1999 parliamentary polls in alliance with Gurcharan Singh Tohra, former chief of the Sikh Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, the apex Sikh administrative body. The BSP fielded three candidates, all of whom lost, and the party’s vote share dropped to 3.8 per cent.

In the 2002 assembly election, the BSP contested from 99 of the state’s 117 seats but failed to win any, even as its vote share improved to 5.6 per cent.

In the 2004 Lok Sabha election, the BSP went solo, fielding candidates from all of Punjab’s 13 seats. It was defeated on all seats, with 11 BSP candidates also losing their deposits. The vote share, however, went up to 7.6 per cent.

Also read: Congress, BJP and every other party owe Dalits their land, not just khichdi

UP model fails to strike chord

Following the 2004 elections, the BSP began to be seen as a non-serious contender in the state.

In the 2007 assembly polls, it contested from 116 seats (election to one seat was postponed due to the death of a candidate) but lost, with all but two of its candidates losing their deposit. The vote share of the party fell to 4.1 per cent.

In the 2009 Lok Sabha election, the BSP worked hard to emerge as an alternative to the SAD-BJP combine and the Congress.

In power in UP at the time, the BSP tried to replicate its model of social engineering in Punjab as well, drawing candidates from all castes, but to no avail. All of its 13 candidates lost their deposit, with the party’s vote share estimated at 5.7 per cent.

The worst yet to come

The Mayawati-led party was, however, yet to see the worst point of its Punjab foray.

In the 2012 assembly polls, the party contested from all the state’s 117 seats, but lost. As many as 109 candidates lost their deposit, with its vote share recorded at 4.9 per cent.

BSP state president Avtar Singh Karimpuri, a party old-timer, was replaced by his protégé Parkash Singh Jandali, but he could not turn the fortunes around either.

In the 2014 Lok sabha polls, the BSP’s vote share in Punjab went down to 1.9 per cent, with all its candidates losing their deposit. Jandali was expelled from the party and replaced with Karimpuri in 2014. Rachpal Raju, a former patwari, or village accountant, took the post in 2016.

In the 2017 assembly polls, the vote share of the party went down to 1.5 per cent. It fielded candidates from 111 seats, but only one managed to save the deposit.

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  1. There is space for a tall Dalit leader with pan Indian appeal. Ms Mayawati could have grown to play that role. Barring some pinpricks of light in MP or a few neighbouring states, the BSP remains confined to UP. Had Shri Akhilesh Yadav’s patience in forging a coalition not succeeded, Behenji’s political career would have fizzled out. When she says she will not ally with the Congress in any state, after making allowance for the Congress’ poor handling of alliance formation, it does underline the fact that she is a difficult person to deal with.

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