After years of bartering Dalit and backward caste interests, Mayawati and the BSP’s fall is no shock; what’s surprising is how far and how fast

Anand Teltumbde Kharagpur 

the last general election was full of surprises, despite the foregone conclusion. While most pre-poll and post-poll surveys corroborated this national mood, until the eve of the results, few expected the BJP to cross the magic figure of 272 with such a comfortable margin, or the NDA to go so far beyond 300. Well, the BJP eventually got 282 and the NDA 336. Many regional satraps, like Sharad Pawar in Maharashtra, Mulayam Singh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh and Nitish Kumar in Bihar were brought to their knees. Yet, by far the biggest shock of the election results was the complete rout of the BSP on its own turf of Uttar Pradesh (UP). Given the fancy—endorsed by BSP protagonists—that Mayawati might turn dark horse and leap to the prime minister’s seat if the NDA failed to reach 272, the BSP’s defeat is truly stunning. What really happened?

In a post-results press conference, Mayawati claimed that her constituency of Dalits and lower castes was intact and the poor poll showing was merely due to BJP-led communal polarization. She said that while the upper and backward castes were lured away by the BJP, Muslims were scared to vote for the Samajwadi Party. She, of course, offered no explanation as to how these well-established election games were illegitimate. In terms of voting percentage, it is true that the BSP stands third in Uttar Pradesh, as well as nationally. At the national level, it received 2.29 crore votes, with a vote share of 4.1 per cent, falling far behind the BJP’s 31 per cent and the Congress’s 19.3 per cent, closely followed by Mamata Banerjee’s All India Trinamool Congress (TMC)—a relatively young party—at 3.8 per cent. The BSP had 21 seats in the 15th Lok Sabha, 20 of which were from UP alone. Several parties, despite having lower vote shares than the BSP, managed many more seats. The TMC’s 3.8 per cent vote share, for instance, fetched them a good 34 seats, while AIADMK—with a smaller vote share, 3.3 per cent—notched up 37, three more seats than the TMC. Even AAP, with a vote share of just two per cent, managed to win four seats. In UP, the BSP got 19.6 per cent votes—just behind the BJP’s 42.3 per cent and the SP’s 22.2 per cent. There is still some silver lining: Election Commission data showed that the BSP finished second in 34 of the sprawling state’s 80 constituencies.

The foremost reason for this anomalous result—that the third-biggest vote-catcher is nonexistent in Parliament—is our election system. The first-past-the-post (FPTP) system is consistently surprising, e.g. the BJP, with just 31.0 per cent of the polled votes, could win 282 seats (i.e., 52 per cent). As per the Election Commission’s data, polling percentage in the election was 66.38 per cent, which means that the BJP had the support of just one-fifth (20.5 per cent) of the voters, and still it commanded more than half the seats. In contrast, although the BSP came up third, they received no seats. As I have said before, the FPTP is one of the endearing intrigues of our ruling class, one which most colonies of the erstwhile British Empire adopted as default. In a country hopelessly divided horizontally and vertically into castes, communities, ethnicities, languages, regions, religions, and so on, there is seemingly no way to assure continued polity dominance by any other election method. The FPTP provides scope for manipulations. The empirical result, in terms of the Congress or BJP dominating national politics, is the proof of the pudding. If, for instance, the proportional representation (PR) system—a more effective election method, and more popular among representative democracies—were adopted, all small groups would gain their ‘independent’ representation and pose a threat to the elite. In the context of Dalits, PR would eliminate the need for even that much-vaunted social justice instrument, reservation, which has only served as a humiliating adage of their existence. No Dalit party, however, and least of all the BSP, would ever raise objections against the FPTP system, because it gives their leaders the same manipulative leverage for enormous benefit as it does to the ruling class parties. 

Due note must be made of the perils of identity politics, which, paradoxically, paid the BSP spectacular dividends so far. The BSP’s entire success is based on the peculiar demography of Dalits in UP, wherein Jatav-Chamars, a single Dalit caste, constitutes 57 per cent of the Dalit population. The next Dalit caste is Pasi, 16 per cent of the population. This is unlike any other state where the difference between populations of the first two or three Dalit castes is not very pronounced. In most states, the Dalit castes are competitors, one claiming allegiance to Babasaheb Ambedkar and another to Jagjivan Ram, or some other leader. But in UP, with such a big difference in population between Jatavs and Pasis, there is no rivalry of this kind, allowing political consolidation with the common caste interests. With the next three castes—Dhobi, Kori and Balmiki—added, this combination becomes 87.5 per cent of the total Dalit population, which means 18.9 per cent of the state’s total population, and approximately that much in votes. This constitutes the BSP’s core constituency. The BSP’s 19.6 per cent vote share in this election reflects that its core constituency may have remained, for the most part, intact.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JUNE 2014