A newly elected Dalit pradhan of a village in Meerut entered the BSP office and walked up to the photographs of Babasaheb Ambedkar and Kanshi Ram, prayed and made offerings to the party’s top two deities.
He diligently performed the ritual before starting a conversation with the BSP’s district leaders about the big battle: the 2017 assembly election in Uttar Pradesh.
It may be over a year away but the political churn in western UP has already begun. And first off the mark is the BSP, although party supremo Mayawati is away from the headlines. Party workers, like those at the Meerut office, have only one aim — making Behenji the chief minister.
Party leaders and functionaries say the core message will revolve around Mayawati’s “strong leadership”, law and order and addressing the rural agrarian distress. The strategy involves detailed and rigorous booth-level data collection and early declaration of candidates; and the party is working towards broadening its vote-base, without opening its doors for an alliance just yet.
Challenges abound and the ride back to power for Mayawati will not be easy.
Preparing the pitch The BSP’s plank, a range of party leaders told Hindustan Times, will be law and order and “strict administration” where everyone is treated equally. This will be contrasted with the ruling Samajwadi Party’s record “of riots, dacoity and loot”.
It has gained resonance already. “Under SP, there is a lot of dhilai, leniency. So the law and order crumbles. Under BSP, there is no partiality, administration is tight, and government servants work. Law and order improves,” observes Yogendra Singh, a student at Amroha’s Pathkoi village.
Observers attribute it to a difference in the political styles of the two parties. Under the SP, those with political connections can easily use proximity with leaders to pressure local officials to do their bidding. But Maywati is distinctly inaccessible and even if a BSP worker is caught by police for an offence, it is difficult for him to wriggle out.
The BSP has a more realpolitik reason in pushing for law and order as the main issue. Its leaders fear an election fought on communal lines will benefit the BJP, which will aim for “Hindu consolidation” while the SP may feed on insecurity among the minorities.
Satish Prakash, an associate professor of physics at Meerut College and a BSP sympathiser, says the only way to counter such a “divisive” campaign is to focus on law and order. “BSP will have to prepare the pitch and force others to come and play on that pitch, rather than allow others to set the tone of the campaign.”
The BSP will also take up the cause of western UP’s sugarcane farmers who haven’t been paid by mills for the past year. In Muzaffarnagar alone, an official of the district cane office says five big companies owe farmers in the district more than Rs 250 crore.
“Under Mayawati, there was timely payment. The SP government has been unable to force mills to pay us. It is a desperate situation,” says Chandar Pal Singh, a Jat leader at Pinna village.
Building the organisation
The BSP’s organisation apparatus is almost invisible, though its depth and discipline had come under the scanner. For one, candidates for most constituencies have already been announced before any other party. “Behenji announces candidates early so that there is enough time for them to get to know the people and their problems, and for people to get to know them,” the BSP president for Meerut, Aswini Jatav, says.
But not everyone thinks it works better. Professor Prakash says the pattern started when the BSP was a nascent outfit, other parties did not take it seriously, there were limited resources and the candidate needed time to build a profile. “But now, it allows other parties to select candidates keeping the BSP candidate in mind. Behenji should wait till the end too,” he argues.
There is often criticism that the BSP barters away tickets for financial benefits because it banks on its Dalit base to vote, irrespective of the candidate. Party leaders reject the allegation.
Secondly, the party is in the process of setting up constituency-level and sector-level committees, which supervise about 10 booths on an average, as well as booth-level groups. Their main task is to collect data on voters, including their caste status, at the micro level. Mayawati is convening regular monthly meetings of regional coordinators. Senior leader Nasimuddin Siddiqui has been given charge of the region.
Social base and alliances
In a vast state like UP, beyond issues and structures, the social coalition and arithmetic will matter.
Mayawati has rejected the possibility of any alliance, despite strong overtures from the Congress and Rashtriya Lok Dal. Kamal Gautam, party president for Muzaffarnagar, says: “Our votes get transferred to other parties. Their votes do not get transferred to us. So what is the point?”
There are some voices within the party which can see the logic of an alliance. An MP, on the strict condition of anonymity, says: “If we ally with Congress, the Muslim vote will strongly consolidate behind us. But Behenji will decide and knows best.”
Mayawati will rely on her core vote staying intact and Muslims shifting to BSP in western UP. “The SP is not a good option for them here because the Yadav population is limited. We are better positioned to defeat the BJP,” says the parliamentarian.
The BSP is delighted that the rival SP scored a self-goal by walking out of the Grand Alliance in Bihar. If it had stayed on, Mulayam could have announced to UP’s Muslims that he had orchestrated a BJP defeat in Bihar. “We will question if he has a secret deal with the BJP,” the MP says.
The challenge for the party is recovering the non-Yadav and non-Jat OBC votes. There are many backward castes, scattered but collectively potent. This is a segment that backed the BSP in the past but drifted almost entirely to the BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
It is early days but UP 2017 is a question of political survival for the BSP. “Iss baar Behenji ko CM banana hai (we have to make Maywati the CM this time),” says a party leader in Meerut, echoing the mood. The battle has begun.