Seat Revenge

After a series of bruising losses, Mayawati refines her electoral arithmetic

In Uttar Pradesh, the abysmal record of the ruling SP government has resurrected the BSP once again. Pawan Kumar / REUTERS
18 April, 2014

AT A STUMP SPEECH IN LUCKNOW on 2 March this year, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi resurrected a pet formulation of his, invoking the destruction of his rivals in Uttar Pradesh: “Sabka vinaash taye hain” (Everyone’s destruction is certain). The syllables of “sabka,” or “everyone’s,” were understood to stand for the initials of the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party, and the Congress respectively. Two days later, the BSP’s leader, Mayawati, made an uncharacteristic riposte at a press conference in Delhi. She is not a speaker known for her rhetorical flourish, but her indictment of the BJP took on some of the vigour and flavour of Modi’s own dramatic national campaign. The initials of the BJP, she proclaimed to listening journalists, stood for “‘Bahut jyada paap ka ghara,” a vessel too full of sin. She went further, making withering mockery of Narendra Modi’s “chappan inch chaati (56 inch chest),” and taunting him about his past, which she claimed had shown that he could neither do his duty to his family, nor his job.

The sledging underlined a new intensity of purpose for Behenji. She was sounding a battle cry—during a rare interaction with the media—just a few days before the official proclamation of the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. It indicated just how closely the battle for Uttar Pradesh may turn out to be a contest between Modi and Mayawati.

Over the last year, the BJP’s campaign in India’s most populous state has been cleverly calibrated by Amit Shah, the lieutenant Modi handpicked to accomplish a famous victory. Shah incorporated a three-prong strategy which leveraged his leader’s strong Hindutva credentials, a formidable top-to-middle caste alliance and the mantra of the Gujarat model of development, and propelled the party ahead in the electoral race. Now, BJP strategists privately acknowledge that Mayawati poses perhaps the only tangible threat to their brilliantly executed plan to capture New Delhi. The Modi campaign in Uttar Pradesh is backed by a redoubtable consolidation of upper and middle castes, supported by a section of upwardly mobile backward communities; its leaders recognise that only the BSP can stitch together an alliance of social groups capable of meeting this head on. “Behenji alone has the potential to dislocate what we believe is an unstoppable force that has gathered across Uttar Pradesh to make Narendra Modi the new prime minister of the country,” a party leader involved in the Uttar Pradesh campaign told me. “We will be foolish to underestimate her.”

Mayawati and her BSP pose a serious arithmetic obstacle to the BJP’s target of more than two hundred seats in the general election to come. To achieve this goal, the BJP must win forty to fifty seats in Uttar Pradesh, its chief battleground. But the stakes in this region are as high for Mayawati as they are for Modi. She knows she has to stop her party slipping backwards, as it has ever since its rout in the 2012 assembly polls, in which she lost her absolute majority to her rivals, the Samajwadi Party of Mulayam Singh Yadav.

Further cause for worry and mortification came late last year, with the BSP’s humiliating reverses in the recent assembly elections held across four states in north India. From the seventeen assembly seats it won in 2008 in Rajasthan, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the BSP slid by over 50 percent to win just eight in 2013. The loss underlined the sharp erosion of support for a party which had grown steadily over two previous decades. If she is unable to project herself as a winner in the near future, the danger is that even her core vote bank of Jatav-caste voters, still loyal to the BSP, will no longer remain captive.

However, back home, the abysmal record of the Samajwadi Party government, led by Akhilesh Yadav, has resurrected the BSP once again. Reports from Uttar Pradesh indicate that the Samajwadi Party is losing popular support with every passing day. With the Congress and BJP lacking local leaders of stature, Mayawati may well have swept back to power if assembly elections were held today. But Yadav holds a brute majority in the state assembly, and there is little chance of a mid-term collapse. Assembly polls are three long years away.

To overturn her political fortunes, Mayawati must make her stand now. She has been surprisingly quiet in the run-up to these elections—a sharp contrast to her high-pitched campaign in 2009, when she projected herself as prime minister, and failed. Five years ago, she neglected her home state and political bastion in her enthusiasm for national glory, but appears to have learnt from that mistake. Even as other powerful regional leaders such as Jayalalithaa and Mamata Banerjee have sought to capture the national limelight in recent months, Mayawati has been quiet, intensely focused on constituency-level combats in each of Uttar Pradesh’s eighty parliamentary seats.

In a big difference from both the 2009 general election and the 2012 assembly polls, Mayawati is making a concerted bid to gain support among non-Jatav Dalits, and the most backward caste groups. Several Dalit sub-castes who are not Jatavs were upset with the BSP leader during her chief-ministerial term between 2007 and 2012, because she was seen as openly favouring the Jatavs—the caste to which she belongs—but doing little for anyone else. By the end of her term, similar complaints were coming from a whole slew of poor and socially ostracised groups at the bottom of the backward-caste spectrum, who had voted almost unanimously for the BSP in 2007, hoping, among other things, for land and job allotments similar to those made to the scheduled castes.

Ram Kumar, the influential Dalit activist who founded the Dynamic Action Group, one of the leading Dalit civil society groups in the country, is currently helping the BSP mobilise votes for the party. When I asked Kumar about Mayawati’s new focus, he said, “Ever since she lost in 2012, Behenji and the BSP have been working systematically to get back her support from all Dalit and most backward caste groups. The terrible oppression unleashed on them by the upper and middle castes ever since the Yadav raj took over two years ago has also helped in consolidating support for the BSP, which has been largely forgiven for the mistakes it made when in power.”

Under the new Samajwadi Party rule, several schemes introduced by the Mayawati regime for the benefit of Dalits were scrapped; statues of Ambedkar and Mayawati were vandalised across Uttar Pradesh; and in the time since, the nature of the threats that Dalits have faced range from warnings that their memorial grounds will be opened up and rented out for weddings, to the fear that their promotion quotas will be rolled back. To add injury to insult, media reports indicate that under the current government, the state police has systematically overlooked violent crime against Dalits and lower caste communities, including rapes, murders and beatings, when such crimes have been carried out by their traditional oppressors, like Yadavs, Thakurs and Jats.

Mayawati’s new expansiveness has been telling. In April last year, she made the significant move to welcome a founding member of the BSP, RK Chaudhury, back to the party fold. Chaudhury is a leader of the Pasis, the second largest Dalit group after the Jatavs in Uttar Pradesh. He had been a close associate of Mayawati’s mentor Kanshi Ram, but she hounded him out of the party more than a decade ago, as she had many of his old associates—they were seen as threats to her own authority in the party.

It is quite out of character for Mayawati to reverse such decisions; she has rarely made peace with anyone she has decided is a political foe. The alliance with Chaudhury is a good example of Mayawati’s strategy to consolidate her Dalit base: the fact that she swallowed her intrinsic suspicion of a leader of Chaudhury’s stature shows how anxious she is to secure the Dalit vote bank. The new outlook clearly works in both directions: Chaudhury’s return to the BSP in spite of past humiliations illustrated that even the Pasis, who have traditionally had tense relations with the Jatavs, are now ready to make common cause under the leadership of Behenji.

Over this campaign season, Mayawati further worked to bolster her army of the poor and oppressed with the support of a variety of fragmented backward castes that can be numerically significant in individual constituencies, but do not often vote collectively because they are scattered communities. For example, there are seventeen backward castes, including those of the Kashyap, Bind, Gaur and Machua communities, that have legitimate claims over the same benefits that accrue to scheduled castes. Both the Samajwadi Party and the BSP have been fighting for these castes to get reservation.

In 2012, disappointed at the apathy of the BSP government, many of these scattered communities voted to bring the Samajwadi Party to power, but were in for a rude shock. Not only has the Akhilesh Yadav government done even less for them than the previous BSP regime, but many of these marginalised groups have been at the receiving end of daily harassment and caste humiliation. While last year’s riots in Muzaffarnagar district attracted national attention to the problem of the Yadav government’s uncertain grasp of law and order, reports of increased attacks on lower castes and Dalits had begun to trickle in as early on as the post-poll victory celebrations of the Samajwadi Party. Not surprisingly, these communities feel far more amiable towards the BSP today; when in power, the party had at least provided a modicum of administrative safeguards against their oppressors.

But the ruling party’s mistakes may account for an even more significant turnaround in Mayawati’s favour—the growing support for BSP in the powerful Muslim minority. In spite of steadily increasing support for the BSP among Muslim voters in Uttar Pradesh, the community has traditionally opted for either the Samajwadi Party or the Congress at the polls. However, the elections come at a moment of crisis for both these parties. The Congress-led central government is seen as incapable of ensuring security for the state’s Muslims, and this goes with the general perception that the Congress party has no core support base left.

As for the Samajwadi Party, the Muzaffarnagar riots were only the gravest of a series of Hindu-Muslim riots in Uttar Pradesh since Akhilesh Yadav assumed office. In the days after Muzaffarnagar, the administration further compounded the trauma of the victims with its bungling efforts at relief and rehabilitation. Since it controls the administration in Lucknow, the Samajwadi Party retains its hold on traditional opinion makers among Uttar Pradesh’s Muslims, including influential clerics in the community, even after the riots. But Muslims, more so than any other social group, are a community in transition. Young people and women may be particularly ready to reject their old political patrons.

In the long term, this may well result in Muslims supporting brand new parties like the Aam Aadmi Party or forming groups of their own, but in the immediate context Mayawati could be the chief beneficiary. Muslim voters may feel as though they have been left with few options in the wake of the tragedy. As elections approach, even upper-caste Muslims, who have so far been deeply reluctant to support a Dalit party, may begin to view the BSP as the only force capable of halting Modi’s victorious march across Uttar Pradesh.

While it is too early to do more than speculate on exact numbers, a combination of Dalits, Muslims, and most lower backward castes, is more than capable of taking on a BJP alliance. (Both these proposed equations leave out voters of the Yadav community, who are likely to remain with Mulayam Singh and the Samajwadi Party.) By some estimates, Dalits and Muslims collectively form up to 41 percent of the state’s electorate; political demography in Uttar Pradesh is such that with its core Dalit base spread out evenly across the state, and with substantive support from both Muslims and the lower echelons of backward-caste voters, the BSP could acquire a far more formidable force than a phalanx of Modi voters. A bipolar contest in Uttar Pradesh this summer could see the Congress getting wiped out, the Samajwadi Party squeezed very badly—and the BJP halted in its tracks, well below its goal of forty to fifty seats. Were Mayawati to pull this off, she would not only have a substantial number of parliamentary seats to play with in a fractured post-poll scenario, but also attain the halo of being the one who stopped Narendra Modi.

Mayawati is believed to have rejected a proposal by the Congress to forge an alliance earlier this year. She was reportedly convinced that, while the latter would gain from such an arrangement, it would hardly help the BSP. Her confidence may well be justified. The truth is that the stronger Modi looks in Uttar Pradesh, the greater is the power of the counter-polarisation simultaneously taking place. The BSP is currently drawing support like a magnet from the Dalits, most backward castes and Muslims. This groundswell of support for Mayawati is not very visible, since it is unlikely that either Muslims or backward-caste voters would care to advertise their voting preferences at the moment. Opinion polls, unsurprisingly, do not reflect this emerging battle. This is grassroots-level social conflict, with no relation whatsoever to the presidential Modi-versus-Rahul contest, news of which flashes daily on English television channels. In a career where she has repeatedly snatched victory from the jaws of insurmountable adversity, victory on this battlefield might yet be Mayawati’s most remarkable achievement.