After a series of defeats since 2012, the results of the recent panchayat polls are being seen by her as a tide changer for the upcoming UP assembly elections, reports Akshat Kaushal.
Not since her victory in the 2007 legislative assembly poll in Uttar Pradesh had Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati tasted electoral success. A string of defeats -- 2012 UP assembly election, 2014 general election, Delhi and Bihar assembly elections -- had pushed her to the margins. A member of the Rajya Sabha, she rarely spoke or participated in debates; her party also lost the tag of a national one, as she failed to win a single seat in the Lok Sabha elections.
Her nine-year wait ended this month, after the local bodies’ election in UP went in her favour. Buoyed, she spoke earlier this month with renewed confidence: “No power can stop us from coming to power in UP”
In the panchayat elections, candidates backed by her party won the highest number of seats. The Samajwadi Party came second, followed by the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress.
The BSP also wrested back its lost ground in western UP, which it had lost to the BJP in last year’s general election. For SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav, the loss was also personal, with many of his kin having lost to the BSP. As embarrassing for the BJP was its candidate in Jayapur, the prime minister’s adopted village near Varanasi, losing to the BSP.
This was the first time Mayawati had backed candidates for panchayat polls. Usually, her party avoids fighting for local bodies and by-elections, as she believes it involves too much effort by her cadre for little gain. This time, “she wanted to test the waters ahead of the assembly elections”, said a leader of her party.
Since declaration of the results, Mayawati has begun the process for a win in the UP election in 2017. She conveyed a meeting of district presidents, MLAs and senior party workers and instructed all to start interacting with voters. The main sale pitch being the better law and order situation during the BSP’s 2007-12 rule and failed promises of the SP and BJP.
On Sunday, on December 6, the death anniversary of BR Ambedkar, her party held a big rally in Lucknow. Though she was not present at the venue, it is seen as a start to the process of campaigning for the state polls. She has even announced the names of her candidates to fight the 2017 elections already; no other political party has.
A confident Mayawati was also visible in the Rajya Sabha last week. Rarely participating in Rajya Sabha debates, since losing the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, she spoke for over an hour on the first day of the winter session. In her speech, Mayawati distanced herself from both the BJP and the Congress. While she blamed the Congress for having done little for the welfare of the Dalits, she criticised the Modi government over the Dadri killings and the remarks of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat on reservation. And demanded reservation for the economically backwards among the upper castes.
Though her party has supported the government’s Goods and Services Tax, she is also leading the Opposition attack against the government in the Rajya Sabha, over V K Singh’s, minister of state for external affairs, remarks on the death of Dalits in Haryana.
Even as Mayawati prepares for the next battle, the defeat of 2012 will be in her mind. In 2012, her social engineering formula, of a coalition between upper castes and Dalits, had not clicked with enough voters. A section of her core Dalit voters moved away and she failed to attract any new social block to her party.
Data from the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies shows the percentage of jatavs (traditional BSP voters) voting for the BSP declined from 86 per cent to 62 per cent. A part of this vote slipped to the SP -- the proportion of jatavs voting for the SP increased from four to 15 per cent. Among balmikis and other scheduled castes, the percentage of those voting for the BSP fell from 71 per cent to 42 per cent, and from 58 to 45 per cent, respectively.
At the same time, Mayawati’s vote share among the upper castes didn’t change much. The vote share among Brahmins increased from 16 per cent to 19 per cent. It was unable to win the confidence of Muslims, a fifth of whom voted for her. Whereas, 39 per cent of Muslims went for the SP, down from 45 per cent in 2007.
Why did Dalits leave Mayawati? Ram Kumar, a Dalit activist and convenor of a ‘Dynamic Action Group’, says Mayawati, in the process of consolidating her upper caste vote bank, took the Dalit vote as a given and ignored the community’s interests.
“The hope was that because of the coming together of Brahmins and the lower castes, the unequal relationship between the two communities would get balanced. This did not happen. Instead, Mayawati gave too much emphasis to Brahmin leaders in her party at the cost of Dalit interests. The inequality continued through her term as chief minister.”
The second reason is seen as Mayawati’s less than tactful handling of seniors. The expulsion of former minister Babu Singh Kushwaha is a case in point. Kushwaha, once a confidant of Mayawati and face of the party among the Most Backward Castes, was expelled in 2011 for ‘conspiring against the party’. According to a paper published by political scientist and UP expert A K Verma, he was known for his influence over the Kushwaha, Maurya, Pal, Shakya, Saini and Kachi communities, nine to 10 per cent of the electorate. Between 2007 and 2012, Mayawati’s vote share among this community fell by nine per cent. Verma hints the fall could be attributed to Kushwaha’s expulsion.
It appears Mayawati recognises these reasons. She has begun the process of rebuilding her social alliance. To attract upper castes, she has announced her party is in favour of quotas for the socio-economically backward upper castes in government jobs and in education. To firm up Dalit support, the BSP has opposed an amendment to the Uttar Pradesh Zamindari Abolition and Land Reforms Act, 1950, meant to allow an SC landowner to sell or transfer his lot. Earlier, no SC could transfer or sell his land to a non-SC buyer without permission of the district magistrate. Dalits fear the change will lead to alienation of their land. Also her party has renewed its demand for reservation in promotions for the scheduled castes in government jobs.
Mayawati has also announced that if she comes to power, she will not construct any more museums or monuments. This is meant to attract the urban educated who picked the BJP over her during the 2014 general election.
So far, the BSP has said it will not tie-up with any political party for polls. Soon after the 2014 defeat, Mayawati had blamed her perceived closeness to the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance as a reason for the loss.
A leader of the BSP, who met Mayawati before the Bihar elections, said she was confident of winning the elections alone and was not inclined to ally with any political party.
Her speech last week in the Rajya Sabha was also aimed at distancing herself from both the Congress and the BJP, and appear as the only alternative to the SP in UP. Swami Prasad Maurya, the party’s national general secretary, said: “We will not ally with any political party.” The Congress was a spent force in UP, he said, without grassroot workers. The fight in the state, he contends, is between the BSP, SP and BJP. “People remember the work of Mayawati to establish law and order in Uttar Pradesh. People are unhappy with both the gunda (hooligan) raaj of the SP and the danga (riot) raaj of the BJP,” he added.
A section of the party believes an alliance with the Congress will help ensure a higher Muslim vote. Maurya disagrees, saying: “Muslims will vote for that party which they think has a higher chance of defeating the BJP.”
There is much at stake for Mayawati in 2017. In a new volume of her autobiography, released in 2015, she compares herself with Winston Churchill, former prime minister of Britain. She writes that just as Churchill lost the elections in 1945, despite wining the second world war for Britain, she lost the 2012 elections, though she did ‘great work’ in UP. She concludes, “So, a loss in one election should not weaken the Dalit movement.”
Image: BSP chief Mayawati holds a garland given to her during her party's campaign rally. Photograph: Amit Dave/Reuters