As Mayawati's birthday bash pans out in India in the form of a celebration of present-day Dalit aspirations, her Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) is serving up a political stew that can only taste bitter for the Congress and the BJP in an election year that will see assembly polls in nine states. For sure, the Mayawati factor will add to the delimitation worries of the two political majors.
Analysts, see in brand Mayawati a marketing success in the poll arena as she deftly mixes a relatively new political idea - of a Dalit leading a rainbow coalition of deprived castes, classes and upper caste poor across India -- with a development-oriented economic policy push. Her stress on infrastructure - roads, airport - is a case in point. Her idea had worked so well in Uttar Pradesh, but will it pitchfork her into a nation-leader true to her jumbo-sized ambitions?
She may not succeed in the next general elections, but she may well unsettle the calculations of the Congress and to some extent of BJP, in important poll-bound states like Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Delhi and Chhattisgarh.
Political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan, who teaches history at Delhi University, says "Mayawati has a strategy in place and is perhaps the only one ready for a snap general election. She is already trying to rope in all the sections of the society left out of the economic liberalization process.
Prof Anand Kumar of the Political Science department of the Jawaharlal Nehru University is convinced that she will damage only the secular forces. So, "including Mayawati in the Congress game plan would benefit it immensely. Mayawati could become the Dalit card of Sonia Gandhi," he says.
But so far, Mayawati has not shown any inclination of allying with anyone. Her electoral game plan, a legacy from her mentor and BSP founder Kanshi Ram, envisages three stages of political growth, says Dalit intellectual Chandrabhan Prasad. "In the first, the BSP will contest to lose and in the second to defeat other parties," he said. "In the last stage it will contest to win, as in UP."The most recent showing of BSP in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, as also its showing earlier in different states indicates that its game plan is working.
In Gujarat, when the BSP contested just about a dozen seats in 1998, it had polled a token 0.08 per cent votes. The vote share increased in 2002 to 0.32 per cent, when the BSP contested nearly 25 seats. Contesting all the 182 seats in 2007, the BSP votes hare has gone up to 2.62 per cent. It hurt the chances of Congress in 10 to 12 seats. Its vote share has been steadily inching up in every state, from Karnataka in the South to Punjab in the North.
In Karnataka, BSP had a somewhat stronger nuisance value. In the 2004 assembly polls, BSP candidates dealt a blow to Congress chances in at least 20 seats. The BSP got a mere 1.7 per cent votes, but its impact was crucial. The Congress had the highest percentage of votes polled at 35.27, but could muster only 64 seats, down from a comfortable tally of 132 seats in 1999, while the BJP won 79 seats and became the single largest party, despite getting only 28. 32 per cent votes.
In Rajasthan too the BSP presently holds just two assembly seats out of 200 but is slowly increasing its vote share and in the last assembly polls in 2003 it was 7.1 percent. With scheduled castes comprising 16 per cent of the state's population, analysts have calculated that BSP candidates have the potential to ensure the defeat of Congress nominees in at least 45 assembly seats. The BSP may play a spoiler in Madhya Pradesh too. It has only two seats in 230-strong state assembly (though it had won 11 seats in the 1993 and 1998 elections). But its vote share has risen from five per cent in the 1998 to 7.1 per cent in the 2003 polls.
In Uttar Pradesh of course, the BSP has moved into the third stage of its strategy by capturing power in May 2007 on its own.
This victory has fired the imagination of the modern Dalit who now wants to see a Dalit leading the nation, said Prasad. Having shown that a Dalit can win power, Mayawati has become a powerful symbol."If in the 2004 general elections, the Dalits voted substantially for BSP candidates in places as far apart as Andaman and Nicobar and Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala, though they knew there was no chance of the BSP winning, they will do so in far greater numbers in the coming polls," he predicted.
Some of the disparate seats outside UP in which the BSP did well ( though it did not win) include Darjeeling in West Bengal (10,572 votes), Barmer in Rajasthan (19,616 votes), Balaghat in Orissa (72,391 votes) or Gulbarga in Karnataka (26,735 votes)
In the 2004 general elections, the vote difference between the UPA and NDA was just over 4 per cent. "The Dalit vote of 16 per cent was more or less like a fixed deposit for the Congress on which it used to earn interest, without doing anything," said Prasad."But now, Mayawati is withdrawing from this fixed deposit. If Mayawati could wean away even half of the Dalit votes, she could make all the difference for the Congress in the next general election, he added.
Mayawati's strategy may not work in every state. She has faced setbacks during her initial forays too in some states such as Andhra Pradesh and attracted lukewarm response in Tamil Nadu where the Dalits may not accept a northern leader. But there is no doubt that her national importance will only grow in days to come. "It will be like a political tsunami," said Prasad. The damage will be only visible after she has struck.
But Mayawati has to watch out in her home state where fissures between Dalits and Brahmins are growing. The defeat of the BSP candidate in Ballia bye-election by a huge margin of 1.31 lakh came as a rude shock her social engineering efforts. Political observers credit her victory in Uttar Pradesh assembly polls more to the anti-incumbency anger against Mulayam Singh Yadav that got channelised in her favour.
The key question is can she hang on to UP and pick up seats outside the state?. "If she manages to win between 70 to 80 seats and the Congress falls below the 100 mark, then who knows anything can happen." By anything, he meant Mayawati being made prime minister and head of the UPA alliance.
With inputs from BR Srikanth in Bangalore, Ashok Das in Hyderabad, GC Shekhar in Chennai, KS Tomar in Jaipur, Rathin Das in Ahmedabad, Rajesh Kumar Singh in Lucknow and Rakesh Dixit in Bhopal