BSP's failure to repackage its message cost it dear in Lok Sabha election

The party no longer works towards sustained cultural awakening

PTI05_20_2024_000035A Lonely in the Crowd: Mayawati after casting her vote in Lucknow | PTI

What is the difference between a zero and an all-time low? In politics, it is not as clear as in mathematics. The Bahujan Samaj Party got no seats in the Lok Sabha polls, but in vote share it went back 35 years to when it fought its first election in 1989.

The absence of caste-level committees undid the sharp equations that the BSP had hoped to benefit from in its candidate selection.

The BSP, known for its stunning political performances and mystifying alliances, has been on a slow slide for a while. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, five years after its best ever performance of 2009 (21 seats), it fell to zero. In 2019, despite its vote share being lower than 2014, it won 10 seats. This time the party garnered around 2 per cent of the votes nationally, and 9.4 per cent in Uttar Pradesh. In 2019, it got 3.66 per cent votes nationally and 19.4 per cent votes in UP.

Nationally, though, it was not the BSP’s worst show. In 1991, it had just 1.61 per cent of the vote and three seats. And in terms of vote drop, it saw a sharper decline in 2014 (1.98 per cent).

But if this election is being dubbed the BSP’s lowest point, it is because of what it means in the larger electoral universe―the kind that matters most. In the Lok Sabha election of 2019, it won 10 seats and came second in 27, where it polled between 30 to 48 per cent of the vote. In 2024, its candidates did not come second in any constituency in the state. In the 10 seats that it had won in 2019, it stood third in nine and came fourth in one.

It repeated candidates in Amroha and Jaunpur constituencies; they both finished third. In Shravasti and Ghazipur constituencies, where its MPs defected to the SP and contested, both won, while a third defector lost as a BJP candidate in Ambedkar Nagar.

The BSP’s losses were mopped up mostly by the SP, which won six of the 10 BSP seats, while one seat each went to the Congress, the BJP, the Rashtriya Lok Dal, the Aazad Samaj Party (Kanshi Ram).

But was this shift pro-SP or anti-BJP?

It is unlikely that the BSP voter saw the SP as a natural alternative. Remember, this is the same party that opposed the reservation in promotion bill in Parliament. At its helm is the same leader, Akhilesh Yadav, who renamed districts christened after dalit icons (Bheem Nagar, Mahamaya Nagar, Ramabai Nagar, among them). The SP, however, was seen as the party likeliest to take on the BJP’s alleged plans for changing the Constitution. This is a deeply emotive issue for the dalit voter.

The BSP’s lustre is dimmed by factors that hem it in from all sides. The party has been unable to repackage its message which still has overriding appeal. Its agenda of ownership of resources by numbers is the socioeconomic census being touted by the Congress. Its biggest manifesto, the Constitution, has been owned by the Congress and the SP. And its core strength of mobilising support at the smallest level has been successfully emulated by the BJP, just as its reliance on one prominent face―that of Mayawati―has been supplanted by that of Narendra Modi in the BJP’s poll tactics.

“The BSP does not issue a manifesto because of its belief, espoused by Kanshi Ram, in the Constitution as the best manifesto,” said Vivek Kumar, professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. “Now that fulcrum of politics has been taken over [by the Congress and its alliance partners].” On a more prosaic level, it does not help that the BSP has stuck to its old campaign mould. “It no longer works if Behenji just waves to the voter sporadically,” said Kumar.

Sunil Savant, the BSP’s district president of Ambedkar Nagar (where the party polled 1.9 lakh votes against 5.6 lakh in 2019), said that the party had fought the election under abhav (want). “We did not even have a single vehicle for many sectors. Election offices were not set up. This gave out a very poor message to our supporters,” he said. Identity is at the core of dalit politics, and to have its aspirational value so negated that there is not even a physical space to turn to was disheartening for many partymen.

This message was bolstered by the constant hammering of the opposition that the BSP was fighting the election as the BJP’s B team. “The party did nothing to counter the messaging,” said Savant. The reliance on the voter’s own understanding that the party was a serious contender was misplaced. A post-election counting of votes has also yielded that in 16 seats the BSP’s votes were more than the winning margin of the NDA/BJP, and thus benefitted the latter.

The absence of caste-level committees formed in earlier elections also undid the sharp caste equations that the BSP had hoped to benefit from in its candidate selection. It changed candidates in 14 seats. But unlike the SP, which did so in 11 seats, this flip flop did not benefit the BSP anywhere.

The gaps in dialogue between the party and its supporters have been growing. This was a party that once had an ongoing conversation with the thought leaders of various castes to bolster deep networks through them. As the BSP frittered away this tool, it has been put to use by the BJP and the SP. Some measure of this erosion is also pinned on the fact that the BSP no longer works towards sustained cultural awakening. To a young voter, who has not witnessed Kanshi Ram’s push for such an awakening, the politics of dalits seems more prosaic―limited to numbers and bereft of the throbbing life that literature, poetry and intellectual stimulation brought to it.

Girish Chandra, the BSP candidate who came third in Bulandshahr (polling 1.1 lakh votes against the winning BJP candidate’s 5.9 lakh), argued that the party’s core voter (the Chamars who constitute 14 per cent of UP’s population as per 2001 figures) had not deserted it, but had voted against those responsible for unemployment and fear. “I got the votes of our core supporters, but could not draw in the ‘plus’ vote which is necessary for a win,” he said.

So where is the BSP voter headed?

Kumar argues that a monolithic dalit vote (Jatavs plus) is a fallacy. He says that the BSP’s ideological core will have to be separated from the reality of electoral battles. Thus the party will have to take on the messaging media (social media, PR agencies, non-reliance on rallies) used by other parties. It is in this re-packaged medium for the message that lies the difference between a low and zero.