When Mayawati, the champion of those at the bottom of India’s caste hierarchy, won the 2007 Uttar Pradesh polls by melding support from both sides of the caste divide, she had the country stunned.
Now, six years later, the Bahujan Samaj Party chief should be worried as she heads into a national election she feels could make her the prime minister.
Although she has monopolised the Dalit vote in UP and is much feared for her electoral prowess, Mayawati is far from emerging as the national option she had sought to be for the ‘low-caste’ community. Recent electoral performances have proved the limits to which she can rise.
If trends are anything to go by, the BSP more looks like a party on the decline. The party’s national vote share has been stagnating for almost two decades. And its fortunes have dipped in states Mayawati had expanded her influence to. These include Bihar, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Gujarat, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.
Mayawati’s weakening grip became noticeable in elections in these states between 2005 and 2013, where both the vote share and seats won by the BSP have shrunk. For example, in Bihar, the BSP’s vote share fell from 4.2% in 2005 to 3.2% in 2010, while its seat share dropped to zero from four. “It looks like a steady decline for the BSP,” says Rahul Verma, a research scholar with the Travers Department of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley, who focuses on Dalit politics.
Verma argues that Mayawati has demonstrated a fatal flaw of not allowing a credible second-rung leadership to take roots, while being unable to rejuvenate her party.
To be sure, Mayawati’s share of votes from Dalits – her core support base – has slipped significantly from 65% in 2004 to 52% in 2009, data from the National Election Study 2009 show.
Outside UP, the Congress still garners the largest chunk of Dailt votes. This is mainly because the Congress gets their support when it is directly in contest with the BJP.
Even within Dalit groups, there are great variations in voting patterns. While the BSP gets more votes from rural Dalits, particularly from smaller groups such as Jatavs, the Congress traditionally tends to be supported by urban as well as rural upper and middle-class Dalits.
One key reason for the BSP’s stagnation nationally is that it has not been able to replicate its social-engineering calculus of combining upper-caste and Dalits votes.
In the landmark “Behenji: A Political Biography of Mayawati”, author Ajoy Bose chronicles Mawayati as someone who changed the face of Indian politics by turning old political assumptions upside down. The Dalit icon may need to work much harder to keep her ambitions going.