Despite electoral setbacks, why BSP chief Mayawati is no pushover

Other than UP, the BSP has significant pockets of support across states. This gives it a significant national presence

Updated: Sep 24, 2018 09:34:06

By Prashant Jha

Bahujan Samaj Party national president Mayawati in Lucknow, May 11, 2017 (HINDUSTAN TIMES )

How is it that a party which has lost - and lost miserably - in the last three elections still one of the most relevant, but unpredictable, actors in Indian politics?

To unravel this puzzle, it is important to understand Mayawati, her strengths, her vulnerabilities, and thus her choices and what influence them. As she decides to do a Karnataka in Chhattisgarh - by allying with a regional party (Ajit Jogi’s Janta Congress Chhattisgarh) and becoming a third force, leaving the Congress disappointed - this question assumes more urgency.

Mayawati’s Bhaujan Samaj Party (BSP) lost the 2012 elections in Uttar Pradesh (UP); it did not get a single seat in the Lok Sabha elections of 2014; and it yet again lost the 2017 elections for the UP assembly. These were potentially devastating setbacks, for a single leader-centric party often needs to be in power to keep the party machine going.

But it did not cripple her for the simple reason that her vote share has remained formidable. It is not just the fact that her Dalit voters remain loyal, but that the loyalty quotient is so high that they vote for whichever party Mayawati allies with that gives the BSP such staying power. This is of course most true for UP – the BSP’s core state. But with significant pockets of support across states, it gives her a small but significant national presence.

The social base is clearly Mayawati’s strength. But the fact that she is confined to this social base is also vulnerability. While the BSP’s core vote - Jatavs in UP for instance - is loyal, there is no other social group which is voting for the party. And that is why Mayawati wins substantial votes in a significant number of constituencies, but is not being able to translate it into seats. She needs at least one more demographic section to overcome the first past the post threshold.

The BSP has adopted three strategies to deal with this problem of its substantial but limited social base in the past. One, it has banked on the caste group of the party candidate, who is usually non-Dalit. But this has not yielded the desired results in the last few elections. The party may put up, say, a Koeri candidate, but it has not meant that the majority of the constituency’s Koeris have flocked to the BSP.

Two, it has tried to ally with another significant social group. So in 2007 in UP, the BSP succeeded because it managed to draw on both the Brahmans and lower OBCs; in 2012, they moved away; in both 2014 and 2017, she banked on Muslims to provide the additional votes but that did not happen for either Muslims largely stayed with the Samajwadi Party or fragmented.

And three, it has stitched pre-poll alliances, especially in the 1990s. This has been the least used of the methods recently because Mayawati feels that while the BSP votes get transferred, the votes of other parties do not get transferred to the BSP candidate.

The big change since the UP defeat of 2017 is the BSP’s openness to the third option: Pre-poll alliances, in UP and elsewhere.

But there are two factors that influence Mayawati here.

The first is ambition. The BSP has always punched above its weight electorally. Kanshi Ram had a formula for polls - you first lose, then ensure another candidate loses, and then win. So initial elections are meant to register one’s presence, cultivate a base and expand the party organisation. Then it is to become influential enough to affect the outcome. And finally, you begin winning yourself.

In various states, Mayawati is at different stages of her ambition. This is difficult for the Congress to accept in units like Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh because these states are primarily bipolar, and giving into the BSP’s demands for seats would mean conceding space and enabling a potential rival to grow. So the BSP chooses to go in for regional parties, which will allow it to compete in more seats: Karnataka, Harayana and Chhattisgarh are models of this.

The second factor which will influence her decision is the need for security - and this stems from the mode of operation. The BSP has been an entirely centralised, top-down machine. This has meant that resources have also been collected at the top, during elections and in government. All parties engage in financial transactions that are not entirely above board. But the fact that most transactions are rumoured to happen directly at the top in the BSP make the party leader more vulnerable to legal challenges. If the first factor makes her more ambitious, the second factor constrains her.

Mayawati’s decisions in the run up to 2019 should be understood within this framework of her strength, weakness, ambition and constraints.

First Published: Sep 24, 2018 09:32:31


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