Once a champion of the marginalised, she is now struggling to remain relevant in heartland politics after a decade of electoral setbacks.
“When I become Prime Minister, S.C. Mishra, Naseemuddin Siddiqui, and Swami Prasad Maurya will be Union Ministers with important portfolios, but only a Dalit who has dedicated his life for the BSP will be Chief Minister of UP,” a combative Mayawati said in July 2009, two years after she led her party, the Bahujan Samaj Party, to victory in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election, winning 206 out of 403 Assembly seats and securing 36.7 per cent of the votes.
Fifteen years after that victory, the BSP could win only one seat in the Assembly election in 2022, securing 12.7 per cent of the votes in a State where Dalits account for 20 per cent of all voters and half of the Dalit voters belong to Mayawati’s Jatav caste.
In the past decade, Mayawati, having suffered successive defeats in Assembly elections in 2012, 2017, and 2022, has tried every trick in the book to stay relevant. The reasons for her becoming the marginalised mascot of Dalit politics are not far to seek. For one, Brahmins, whom the BSP had won over with the “Brahmin Bhaichara Sammelan”, moved lock, stock, and barrel to the BJP—although S.C. Mishra is still with the BSP. Her attempt at social engineering by aggressively wooing Muslims and Extremely Backward Classes (EBCs) also failed. The non-Jatav Dalits and the EBCs shifted their loyalties to the BJP, while Muslims voted largely for the Samajwadi Party (SP) despite the BSP fielding the most number of Muslim candidates in 2017 (99) and 2022 (88).
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Naseemuddin Siddiqui, the BSP’s most prominent Muslim face, who was also its first Muslim MLA in 1991, was expelled from the party in 2017, a year after Swami Prasad Maurya, who belongs to the EBC Koiri/Kushwaha caste, quit the party alleging that the party ticket was being auctioned. Clearly, by 2022, the BSP had become a Jatav party.
Fall from pinnacle
Today, the BSP is a pale shadow of the party that installed the country’s only Dalit woman Chief Minister way back in 1995. It was the first party of Dalits to come to power in Uttar Pradesh on its own, in 2007. She served a full term in what was her fourth time as Chief Minister between 1995 and 2012. India has had Dalit Chief Ministers before Mayawati, such as D. Sanjivayya (1960-62) in Andhra Pradesh, Bhola Paswan Shastri (1968-71) and Ram Sundar Das (1979) in Bihar, and Charanjit Singh Channi (2021) in Punjab, but none who became Chief Minister four times.
Sharat Pradhan, a Lucknow-based political analyst, said: “Mayawati had clearly carved out an unparalleled space for herself. However, in the past decade she has faded out of the main political turf. Many believe that it could be because of the CBI sword dangling over her neck.”
The CBI probe into her “disproportionate assets” case has been pending for years, and the current political dispensation’s open use of the Enforcement Directorate and the CBI against its detractors may have forced her to keep a low profile. More often than not, one can see how the once fiery BSP chief stays silent on key issues against the government. Even when she musters the courage to speak, her guns are trained on the opposition parties. Some of her remarks tend to benefit the BJP, which is why she is often termed as the “B team” of the ruling party.
Pradhan believes that her support base is dwindling because of her absence from street politics, something that has caused harm to her party and to her own popularity among the Scheduled Castes, whose unflinching support she once enjoyed. “This has made it easy for the BJP and other parties to take away the support of some of these castes,” Pradhan said. “She may continue to remain the glue for her own Jatav community, but a large chunk of other low castes and a section of the EBCs do not see Mayawati as their messiah any more and have switched loyalties.”
The revival of her party is only a remote possibility, according to Pradhan, while others speculate that she could be a part of the INDIA bloc, closer to the Lok Sabha election, once she is convinced that it would be able to give Prime Minister Narendra Modi a run for his money.
- Mayawati is the only Dalit to become Chief Minister four times.
- The CBI probe into her “disproportionate assets” case has been pending for years, and the Centre’s open use of the ED and the CBI against its detractors may have forced her to keep a low profile.
- Experts say her support base is dwindling because of her absence from street politics.
- The BSP leader has worked out alliances with small parties ahead of the elections in the heartland States in an attempt to remain relevant.
The BSP leader used the current round of Assembly elections to work out alliances with small parties in an attempt to remain relevant. For instance, she has entered into an alliance with the Gondwana Gantantra Party in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. The charge against Mayawati is that even when her party managed to win a few seats she failed to keep the flock together.
In Rajasthan, for instance, all six BSP MLAs joined the Congress in 2019, just a year after they were elected. It was a repeat of 2008, when the BSP won six seats and all its MLAs later joined the Congress. In Madhya Pradesh, Mahendra Singh Boudh, who defected to the BSP from the Congress five years ago, went back to the Congress in 2023, while Sanjeev Kushwaha, the BSP’s lone MLA, backed the Congress government in 2018 and joined the BJP in June last year. In Chhattisgarh, though, the BSP’s two MLAs who won in 2018 have remained with the party.
Not surprisingly perhaps, whenever the BSP was not in power in Uttar Pradesh, it failed to make a dent in these three States, which have a significant Dalit population. In 2008, the BSP won six seats in Rajasthan, twice its 2003 tally, and 7.6 per cent of the votes. In 2012, it lost in Uttar Pradesh, and in the Assembly election in Rajasthan the next year, the party won only three seats with a vote share of 3.44 per cent. However, going against this trend, in 2018 the BSP won six seats in the State and a vote share of 4.03 per cent, but the joy was short-lived as all her MLAs defected to the Congress a year later.
In Madhya Pradesh, the party won seven seats in 2008, five more than in 2003, with a vote share of 9 per cent. But in elections held after the BSP lost power in Uttar Pradesh, the story was different: in 2013, the party won four seats and a vote share of 6.3 per cent, and in 2018, the two figures were down to two and 5.01. In Chhattisgarh, its vote share declined to 4.3 per cent in 2013 from 6.12 per cent in 2008, for one seat, and to 3.9 per cent in 2018 for two seats.
Mayawati once said: “I am not scared while I am in Uttar Pradesh. But after the BSP got an absolute majority there and began making inroads into other States, the other parties got unhappy. That’s why they keep telling me to stay in UP, where I am safe.”
However, this has not prevented her from venturing out of Uttar Pradesh. In 2018, she tied up with Ajit Jogi’s Janata Congress Chhattisgarh in Chhattisgarh, with Om Prakash Chautala’s Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) in Haryana, and with H.D. Deve Gowda’s Janata Dal (Secular) in Karnataka. She also toyed with the idea of an alliance with the Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab.
In a bid to improve her party’s performance, Mayawati deployed her nephew Akash Anand, also the party’s national coordinator, on a “Sankalp Yatra” in Rajasthan in August, in constituencies with sizeable Dalit, tribal, and OBC populations. The State as a whole has a Scheduled Caste population of 18 per cent. Anand, who is considered to be Mayawati’s heir apparent, held more than a hundred meetings in the State.
In Punjab, the birthplace of BSP founder Kanshi Ram, Dalits constitute 31.9 per cent of the population, but the BSP has not tasted much success in the State. Its best performance was in 1992, when it won nine seats, after which its fortunes plummeted to just one seat in 1997. Its vote share also declined from nearly 18 per cent to 6.37 per cent. In 2022, too, it won only a single seat, and its vote share was a paltry 1.77 per cent.
History of BSP
The BSP was formed on April 14, 1984, the birth anniversary of Dr B.R. Ambedkar, by Kanshi Ram. He first set up the Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti, known as DS4, in 1981 with the slogan “Brahmin Thakur, Baniya chhor, baaki sab hain DS4” (Except Brahmins, Thakurs, and Vaishyas, all others are DS4). DS4 was absorbed into the BSP in 1984. The BSP also once had the slogan “Tilak tarazu aur talwar, inko maro joothe char” (Thrash the Brahmins, Vaishyas, and Thakurs/Rajputs with shoes), although in later years, when Mayawati was reaching out to the privileged castes, she denied that the BSP ever had such a slogan.
In the last two decades, the party has undergone multiple transformations in its political line and tone, like reaching out to Brahmins in the run-up to the 2007 Assembly election with the slogan “Brahmin shankh bajayega, haathi badhta jaayega” (As the Brahmin blows the conch, the elephant (BSP’s symbol) will keep marching forward) and batting for reservation for economically weaker sections among privileged castes in 2015, as it tried to orient its election pitch from “bahujan” (the majority) to “sarvajan” (everyone).
Kanshi Ram was perhaps the first politician who openly battled for disruptive politics, espousing the line that the first election is to court defeat, the second to defeat others, and the third to form the government. The BSP’s unpredictability was at its worst in April 1999, when it announced its support to the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government in the confidence motion, but its five MPs went on to vote against the government. The Vajpayee government fell by one vote.
In the wake of the Babri Masjid demolition, Kanshi Ram and Mulayam Singh formed a coalition government in Uttar Pradesh in 1993, with the slogan “Mile Mulayam-Kanshi Ram, hawa mein ud gaye Jai Shri Ram” (When Mulayam and Kanshi Ram met, Jai Shri Ram, BJP’s campaign pitch, lost its steam). But the unity was short-lived as the BSP withdrew support within two years, and Mayawati formed the government with the BJP’s support in 1995.
In general elections, while it scored a duck in 2014, it won 10 seats in 2019 in alliance with the SP while spurning an offer from the Congress. However, soon after the election, Mayawati snapped ties with the SP, claiming that its vote did not get transferred to the BSP.
Decline in Uttar Pradesh
Since 2012, the BSP has been going through its worst phase in Uttar Pradesh. Its decline has been precipitous since 2012 when it won just 80 seats as against the 206 (30.4 per cent vote share) it held in the previous Assembly. In 2017, the party was down to just 19 seats (21 per cent vote share) and in 2022 to just one (12.9 per cent).
Its only solace in recent times is coming second in the 2022 Lok Sabha byelection in Azamgarh, a SP bastion, where its candidate, Shah Alam alias Guddu Jamali, secured 2.6 lakh votes. In the process, the BJP won the seat, as a sizeable number of Muslims backed the BSP rather than the SP.
The BSP’s vote share faces challenges from all corners. When Congress leader Rahul Gandhi took up his “dine with Dalits” programme from 2008 to 2011, Mayawati was livid. She said: “You cannot wipe out Dalits’ poverty just by embracing poor children and spending nights in their huts.”
But that did not deter the Congress from its Dalit outreach. Recently, Congress leaders began an event after garlanding statues of Dr Ambedkar in Uttar Pradesh. In the run-up to the 2022 Assembly election, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra did the same when she started her campaign.
After 2013, the BJP has been making inroads into the Dalit voter base and as a result got a major chunk of non-Jatav Dalit votes in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, a gain it has consolidated with the passage of time. It is believed to have made inroads even into the Jatav voter base in the 2019 general and 2022 Assembly elections. A new challenge for the BSP is the emergence of the young Dalit leader Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan.
In their book Maya, Modi, Azad: Dalit Politics in The Time Of Hindutva, Sudha Pai and Sajjan Kumar say: “Besides the external challenge from BJP, Mayawati is also facing an internal crisis, wherein she seems to have lost the support of the younger generations of Dalits, many of whom are flocking to the new Dalit organisations emerging in various parts of UP. Having played a significant historical role in providing self-respect, confidence and political empowerment to the weaker sections for over a decade, the BSP has succeeded in catapulting the Dalit question as a central normative presence across the political spectrum so much so that all parties today compete to prove their better credentials over the plank.
“However, in the new grammar of politics, it seems the BSP is fast losing the plot. The space vacated by the party is rapidly being filled by the BJP and new players. While it may not be the end of the road for the BSP, it is certainly the end of Dalit discourse as we have known it since the 1980s.”