Dalit identity has become more assertive, but Mayawati has moved at a snail's pace

There are allegations that she has a tacit understanding with the BJP

Mayawati | Pawan Kumar Mayawati | Pawan Kumar

On February 2, eight days before the first phase of the Uttar Pradesh elections, Mayawati came out of hibernation. She chose Agra, the dalit capital of India, to address her first rally. “I was busy building the organisation from the booth level,” she told the crowd. “I stayed home and interviewed all 403 candidates. I was betrayed by senior leaders who are no longer here; they did not keep caste equations in mind and put up dummy candidates in collusion with other parties.”

The audience kept quiet, perhaps not buying the explanation, but erupted when she trashed “biased opinion polls” and promised a repeat of 2007. The polls then had dismissed the Bahujan Samaj Party; it won a brute majority.

But a decade and a half is an eternity in politics, and Mayawati has not kept pace. These elections are a battle of credibility for the former chief minister, and also for the future of the party.

The BSP's political journey can be charted through its slogans for each election. This time, it is: 'Har polling booth jitana hai, Basapa ko satta mein lana hai' (We have to win all polling booths, and bring the BSP to power). Mayawati knows that other parties, especially the BJP, have far superior booth-level management; hence, the focus on that aspect.

In recent years, parties such as the BJP and the Samajwadi Party have adopted the BSP’s social engineering strategy; the BJP has even overtaken its core social justice plank ‘Sarvajan Hitay, Sarvajan Sukhay’ (Benefit for all, comfort for all) with the slogan ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas’ (With everyone, for everyone’s development).

With these elections, Mayawati would also look to build a second-rung of leaders; she completed 20 years as party president in December.

But, despite consistent poll setbacks, Mayawati has continued to hold around 20 per cent of the votes. In 2007, the Brahmin-dalit-Muslim consolidation had made her chief minister for the fourth time. The slogan then was: ‘Brahmin Shankh Bajayeya, Haathi Aage Jayega’ (The Brahmin will blow the conch, the elephant will move forward).

The party has used the same strategy since the time of its founder Kanshi Ram. “We follow the principle jiski jitni hissedari, utni bhaagedari (representation based on population),” said BSP spokesperson Faizan Khan. “We have given nearly 100 tickets to Muslims. Our strategy is to involve the upper castes, especially Brahmins, the backward castes and minorities.”

The party has often been criticised for being averse to change. For instance, Mayawati sent out her first tweet in February 2019 and appointed spokespersons (three of them) for the first time last August. The party has only now created WhatsApp groups at the booth level.

“We have always campaigned door to door,” said Khan. “The BSP is not just a party, but also a mission. That keeps the faithful firmly behind it. Unlike other parties, we work throughout the year.”

But, at a time when the dalit identity is more assertive, Mayawati has moved at a snail’s pace. There is, of course, respect for her contributions, but the young and the restless are looking for options. “Look at her 2007 cabinet and MLAs. None of them, barring her, are there now,” said former three-time BSP MLA Jagpal Singh. “Mayawati has stopped interacting with people and access to her is controlled.”

Singh, who joined the BJP in November is contesting from Saharanpur. “[This is] perhaps the first time that a dalit has been allotted a general seat,” said Singh. “This experiment has endeared the BJP to dalits. If you look at the booth-wise data of the 2019 [Lok Sabha] elections, dalits had already started deserting the BSP. It has lost the plot.”

Though she still has the support of the Jatavs, a sub-caste to which she belongs, the other dalit groups had flocked to the BJP in the polarised 2017 elections. Apparently, the SP has made amends and claimed the Ambedkarite legacy to woo these groups this time.

Where Mayawati scores is her emphasis on the improved law and order situation during her latest term (2007-2012). ‘Chad Gundo ki Chhati pe, Mohr Lagegi Haathi pe’ (Climb on criminals’ chests, vote for the elephant) had been her slogan then. Now, the Yogi Adityanath government's key plank is also improved law and order.

“The difference is that we had taken even our own MLAs and ministers to task if they were in the wrong,” said Khan. “The BJP always compares its law and order [control] with that of the SP government as it was the worst. Why don't they compare it with the BSP's?”

Another plus for Mayawati is that, in several places in western Uttar Pradesh, she seems to have picked better candidates than the SP-Rashtriya Lok Dal alliance. The party has accommodated those who came from other parties, and has even changed several candidates at the last moment.

With these elections, Mayawati would also look to build a second-rung of leaders; she completed 20 years as party president in December.

Said Ajoy Bose, the author of Mayawati's biography Behenji: “Except for the Jatavs, no one supports her. She is no longer a leader who is visible to her cadre and community followers. It is no longer the old Behen ji. She [is on a] pedestal, as the statues she built.”

Mayawati’s challenge also comes from emerging leaders like Bhim Army founder Chandrashekhar Azad. If she was silent during the massive anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests, Azad was on the ground against it. He also makes it a point to visit victims of caste violence.

“Dalits have political empowerment,” said Bose. “Now, even the BJP, the Congress and the SP call themselves Ambedkarvadi. Dalits might be gaining, but their own party is losing. They do not have a party of their own, though they are far more aggressive and organised.”

The BSP, though, dismissed Azad as a threat. “The way it is [AIMIM president] Asaduddin Owaisi for Muslims, the same is Azad [for dalits],” said Khan. “They make more noise, so attract more attention.”

There are also allegations that Mayawati has a tacit understanding with the BJP. “There are unconfirmed reports that, if not an open deal, there is a tacit deal so that they (BJP) stay off her back,” said Bose. “She has not been active on controversial issues. The Muslims are concerned. Despite so many tickets, they may support Akhilesh. Overall, it is a gloomy election for her.”

Given her survival instincts, though, it may be too early to write off Mayawati.