Circa 2012: An animated discussion on the caste complexities of the state is on at the sprawling house of a prominent Jat farmer in Baraut village in Baghpat, the home district of Choudhary Ajit Singh, national president of the Rashtriya Lok Dal.
A few men from their neighbourhood joined the discussion. They are Dalits.
After listening intently for a while, one of them retorted, “Gone are the days when we feared Jats. Today, flushed with money and muscle power, we determine the politics of Jat dominated western Uttar Pradesh.”
He invited us to visit the neighbouring house where an election meeting of Dalits was underway. He was bang on. The blue flags of the BSP fluttered in Jat dominated Baraut and Baghpat as BSP won both the seats.
Two years later Chaudhary Ajit Singh lost his traditional Baghpat Lok Sabha seat in general elections, signalling the end of an era when Jats controlled the politics of West UP by pressurising the then docile Dalits to either stay at home or follow the diktats.
In a lighter vein, RLD leader Ajit Singh had once said, “We believe in bullet and not ballot.”
The region was infamous for caste clashes and oppression of Dalits but 2007 elections came as a watershed when Mayawati formed a majority government, giving voice to suppressed classes in the state.
Mayawati’s mentor Kanshi Ram often described Uttar Pradesh as his political lab to carry out experiments to achieve their goal of changing the upper caste dominated democratic face of the state.
Way back in the mid 1980’s the BSP started its political journey with full throttle attacks on upper caste to unite Dalits. After the party consolidated the base vote, Mayawati dangled carrot before the Brahmins in 2007, offering them representation in power to broaden its vote bank.
Ten years later a beleagued Mayawati is blatantly moving from a time-tested political trajectory of caste to communal politics, the base of which is sheer arithmetic.
Political expert Dr Badri Narayan explains, “Mayawati has 25,000 to 27,000 Dalit votes in almost every constituency. As no other caste is seemingly inclining towards the BSP, she has decided to shift to communal politics. It’s a strategy or experiment which may succeed or fail. “
Her desperation to win the 2017 polls is reflected in her knee-jerk action of picking up Quami Ekta Dal , dumped by the chief minister Akhilesh Yadav. She even compromised her prime slogan of law and order by giving ticket to infamous QED leader Mukhtar Ansari.
Ironically, in ensuing polls she faces the toughest challenge of keeping BSP, brutally bruised by the BJP alive. Linked with the party are the aspirations of millions of Dalits especially Jatavs, whose political empowerment is yet not complete.
Why Dalits Deserted Congress
The Congress represented Dalits for decades after Independence but their status in society changed only after Kanshi Ram came on the scene. He first built a network of Dalits and lower caste employees under BAMCEF ( All India Backward and Minorities Communities Employees Federation) in 1972 before floating a political party in 1984.
Though Kanshi Ram, the founder president of the Bahujan Samaj mission, hailed from Punjab, his acolyte Mayawati moved from Delhi’s Patparganj locality to UP contesting her first by-poll from Bijnore. He made UP his laboratory for various formulas to win elections.
Political analyst Badri Narain explains, “The two sub-castes of Dalits in Punjab – 17 percent Jatavs and 14 percent Bhangis --have always been at loggerheads, whereas in UP Jatavs, a major chunk of the votebank were rudderless.”
According to him the BSP leader also found the menace of untouchability rampant in UP and thus decided to turn the state into Jatavarth (Jatav land).
Professor Vivek Kumar of JNU says, “Dalits for the first time found a party led by their own caste as the Congress and other parties were ruled by upper caste leaders . Lower caste leaders were subservient to them.”
Incidentally, Mayawati also never lost an opportunity to highlight her Dalit status. In all her speeches, she described herself as ‘Dalit ki Beti’. Kanshi Ram organised caste sammelans to unite the lower caste. The glue was their highly anti upper-caste narratives and slogans that touched the core of the voter’s heart. They had suffered for long and found a saviour in him.
Later Kanshi Ram tested various caste formulas and rested only after the dramatic rise of Mayawati to the chief minister’s chair in 1995, after breaking away from poll partner Mulayam Singh Yadav.
It is in UP that Kanshi Ram and Mayawati tested waters in alliance with the Congress. And it is in UP that they gave country its first government by rotation in 1997 -- BSP ruled for six months followed by the BJP. But Mayawati pulled out of the coalition arrangement much before the completion of one month. Their all acts were aimed at alleviating Dalits and grabbing power.
Again it is in UP that Mayawati constructed a rainbow coalition of Brahmins , Dalits and Muslims to gain full majority in a 404-member (one member is nominated) house in 2007 and now Dalit-Muslim combination.
Alongside, Kanshi Ram worked tirelessly in states like Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Bihar and Punjab but could make little headway as the BJP and the Congress dominated the states and there was little space for the BSP to expand. On the other in UP, the Congress was growing weak after the demolition of the disputed shrine in Ayodhya while the BJP was losing its most potent issue – the liberation of Rama’s birthplace after the demolition of the shrine .
Mayawati became the country’s tallest Dalit leader- a status once enjoyed by Jagjivan Ram.
Mayawati’s political puissance is at test. Though she is seen as an alternative to the ruling Samajwadi Party, the BJP’s 2014 rise is a major roadblock as she will have to share the anti-incumbency space with the saffron brigade currently riding high on demonetisation and Narendra Modi’s popularity.
Secondly, the BJP has also poached her Dalit vote bank taking away some of the sub-castes.
Thirdly, she knows Muslims will do tactical voting - vote for the winning horse against BJP. However her mathematical calculations seem to be going awry after Congress and SP came together winning the battle of perception.
Mayawati has given tickets in abundance to Muslims while her trusted lieutenant Naseemuddin Siddiqui is touring the minority dominated areas. They don’t trust her as she twice formed government with BJP.
Despite the weaknesses, she remains in the fight and could well be the dark horse. One can surmise her party’s prospects from her statement “Just as BSP today is a symbol of Bahujan Samaj’s dignity, Mayawati, in the opinion of intellectuals, has acquired a standing in Indian politics where in people may criticise her, even condemn her, but nobody can ignore her.”
But she also realises that 2017 is a crucial election for her party’s survival. She has to perform if not form the government.