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.
The Jatav-Chamars, unlike Dalits in other states, are economically well-off and, since the days of Ambedkar, politically organized. After the formation of the Republican Party (RPI) in 1957, UP and Maharashtra had about the same amount of RPI pockets, until the party splintered. Following the misdoings of RPI leaders in Maharashtra, heavyweight RPI leaders like Buddha Priya Maurya and Sangh Priya Gautam in UP went over to the Congress and BJP respectively. There was thus a leadership vacuum in UP for a decade or so when Kanshi Ram entered the scene. His strategic acumen could grasp the potential of his bahujan politics. He and Mayawati put in great effort to reconsolidate Dalits and attract the poorer sections of backwards and Muslims. When he could actually demonstrate the success of his strategy, giving a tough fight to well-established parties and winning seats, many social groups on the political fringes jumped on to the BSP’s bandwagon. Mayawati took over from there and astutely played the game her mentor taught her. Her ascent to chief ministership, with BJP support, further consolidated the BSP. It is from this position of strength that Mayawati began negotiating to her own advantage.
It is lamented by some well-meaning Dalit intellectuals that she has not done anything to uplift Dalits. The fact of the matter is that the game perhaps does not permit her to do so. As for the ruling class parties, it is vital that they keep the populace in backwardness and poverty; this is the same logic that informed Mayawati to hold Dalits in UP in a vulnerable state. She can build grand memorials, put up statues of Dalit heroes, name things after them, organize massive rallies and intoxicate Dalits with pride in their identity. But she is unable to afford to materially uplift them, lest the subsequent contradictions topple the tenuous caste-based apple cart. The monuments, and so on, contribute to the BSP’s status, and hence are accepted reluctantly by all constituent castes and communities—who developed stakes in the party—but differential material benefit would create unbridgeable fissures in society that would be politically unmanageable. This does not mean, however, that a Dalit or poor-oriented agenda could not be worked out at all. Limitations of the political framework notwithstanding, Mayawati might still show what a ‘Dalit ki beti’ can do for the poor people—she has not only squandered the opportunity, but exploited the people’s faith and allegiance.
Later, her heightened ambitions led her to play a dangerous game: she shifted from bahujan to sarvajan on the eve of the 2007 elections, doing a complete ideological volte face and further diluting whatever little concern she had for Dalits. Many analysts predicted then that Dalit voters would be alienated from the BSP, but to their dismay, Dalits thronged behind her more solidly than ever before and brought her unprecedented victory in 2007. This only exposed their vulnerability. They could not go away from the BSP, whatever its supremo may say or do, because they feared—without the BSP’s protective cover—heavy backlash from village SP supporters. If Mayawati takes pride in seeing her Dalit voters being faithful to her, she must take credit for rendering them so vulnerable that they cannot ordinarily afford to doubt. Surely, some Dalit castes have been lured away by the BJP this time. They must be the fringe castes—Gond, Dhanuk, Khatik, Rawat, Baheliya, Kharwar, Kol, and so on—which together are about 9.5 per cent of the Dalit population. Muslims are another vulnerable mass who have to constantly assess protective cover. This time, with the mounting Modi wave and declining BSP prospects, they veered towards the SP and were doomed. In the 2007 elections, all these castes—including the Brahmins, who wanted a piggy-back resurgence in the UP political sphere—thronged around the BSP and gave Mayawati her massive win, but the party could not live up to their expectations. They began retracting, which showed up just within two years. The BSP’s vote share declined from 30.46 per cent in 2007 to 27.42 per cent in 2009, a decrease of 3.02 per cent. It dropped a further 1.52 per cent to 25.9 in the 2012 Assembly election; and now, in 2014 it has come down to 19.6 per cent—a whopping drop of 6.3 per cent. Other castes and minorities are rapidly deserting the BSP, portent that even Dalits may slowly follow suit. Mayawati ought also to wake up to the fact that her national vote share itself has fallen from 6.17 per cent in 2009 to 4.1 per cent.
While the core Jatav-Chamar votes seem to be with her, it is only a matter of time until they let go as well. Mayawati has been exploiting their vulnerability with impunity. Not only has she been selling BSP tickets to the highest bidders, she has developed arrogance that she can transfer Dalit votes to anyone. She forsook the legacy of the Ambedkarite movement in campaigning for Modi in the post-2002 elections, when the entire world blamed him for the genocide of Muslims. She discarded even her mentor, Kanshi Ram’s slogan, ‘Tilak, taraju aur talwar, unko jute maro char’(‘Hit the Brahmins, Thakurs and Banias with shoes’), and opportunistically coined ‘Hathi nahi Ganesh hai, Brahma Vishnu Mahesh hai’ (‘It is not just an elephant; it is the symbol of Brahma, Vishnu, Ganesha and Mahesh’). Dalits could have been intoxicated with the identity brew for some time, but that does not mean they lost their brains. They are realizing her hollow politics and slowly drifting away from the BSP. They have made her UP Chief Minister four times, but she has only kept them backward and rendered more vulnerable during her rule. Dalits in UP continue to be more backward on any developmental parameters than their counterparts in other states—besides Bihar, Odhisa, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. She has created new benchmarks in corruption and the promotion of decadent feudal culture, antithetical to Ambedkar, in whose name she has raised her business. UP still remains the site of the most atrocities against Dalits, and yet Mayawati had the temerity to issue the grossly illegal dictate that no
atrocity would be registered under the Atrocity Act without the permission of the district collector.
The success of caste politics has completely blinded the BSP to the myriad changes that are creeping into society. The new generation is feeling the heat of the crises neoliberal economic policies have unleashed. Growth is jobless, and whatever jobs are created in the service sector, are being pushed into the low paying informal sector. Reservations are becoming increasingly irrelevant because of the shrinking public and government sector base. On the other hand, aspirations are increasing thanks to greater information intensity. The youth have not faced the heat of caste discrimination as their parents did, and hence are unable to experientially relate with the vile portraiture of the upper castes; many of them mingle with friends belonging to the latter without hassle. Although they would not dissociate from their social milieu, talk of development appeals to them far more than the ‘identitarian’ trash they have been hearing all their lives. Dalit youth are not immune to neo-liberal culture. Individualism, consumerism and utilitarianism are influencing them too, albeit relatively slowly. The subtle change that has even entered villages has altered the complexion of constituencies—which fact the BJP skilfully put to use in its recent campaign—but the BSP and SP remain rooted in their antiquated caste and community rhetoric. That the BSP could not attract the young Dalit voters in UP is evident: out of a total increase of 1.61 crore Dalit voters, only nine lakh voted for the BSP in this election.
The aggressive strategy followed by the BJP-RSS amalgam for appropriating Dalit and backward caste votes also had its impact on the BSP’s performance. Amit Shah, the coordinator of the BJP’s campaign in UP, along with RSS cadres, carried out extensive communication exercises with various caste leaders and associations. Shah made use of the Muzaffarnagar riots to lure backward castes into the fold. He also used Modi’s caste to enthuse OBCs that one of their own might become India’s Prime Minister. This strategy effectively weakened the SP’s appeal to backward castes in regions considered its strongholds. The strategy also included detaching the non-Jatav castes from the BSP’s Dalit base.
The BJP’s communication strategy, emphasizing development and exposing the BSP’s opportunistic caste politics, was no doubt a potent factor in the BSP’s bunk. But more than anything else, the BSP’s own misdoings have been responsible for its miseries.
One hopes Mayawati realizes that the BSP’s debacle is not a temporary cyclical decline; it verifies unmistakable marks of erosion in her base. It is in her own interest to arrest the rust to survive as a mainstream politician. As for Dalits, neither the BSP nor the BJP seem to have more than their votes