Mayawati’s grand rally in Lucknow on Monday to mark Kanshi Ram’s 76th birth anniversary may well signal a return of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) to its core Dalit agenda.
The large-scale use of the sarva samaj (all castes) rhetoric that has, for the last few years, been part of the party’s political lexicon, was missing. On show — unambiguously — was the Dalit iconography and rhetoric that had first catapulted the BSP and Mayawati to political relevance in India’s most populous state.
Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi’s aggressive wooing of Dalits, the return of a large section of upper castes and the Congress’s impressive showing in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections are forcing the BSP to secure its flanks.
“Dalit icons — from Sri Narayan Guru to Kanshi Ram — were depicted prominently at the rally. Mayawati, Kanshi Ram and Ambedkar lockets were being sold, alongside rare Dalit literature,” says Birendra Nath Prasad, who teaches Dalit history at Lucknow’s B.B. Ambedkar University. “There was a perceptible movement back to the core, with the Sarva Samaj rhetoric employed more sparingly.”
This is not to say that the BSP is junking its outreach to the upper castes; it is focusing more aggressively on its core.
The reason is not hard to find.
The broader social coalition — of Dalits, Brahmins and non-Yadav OBCs — that won Mayawati a majority in the 2007 UP assembly elections is threatening to unravel, thus, forcing the BSP to fall back on its core constituency.
There is a very real fear in the BSP that a resurgent Congress may wean away its upper caste support base.
“In 2007, the Congress and the BJP were not seen as viable options. The upper castes, thus, had to choose between the BSP and Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party,” says a BSP leader. Result: many upper castes voted for Mayawati.
The ground realities in the state have changed since then and the Congress has, after a gap of two decades, again emerged as a powerful pole in state politics. Large sections of the upper castes are, therefore, gravitating back to it.
“There is certainly a toning down of the sarva samaj rhetoric and a return to core Dalit politics because of the Congress’s revival,” says Badri Narayan, associate professor at the Allahabad-based G.B. Pant Social Science Institute and author of several books on Dalit politics in UP.
But what really has the BSP leadership worried is the traction that Gandhi is getting among its almost captive Dalit votebank — which makes up 21 per cent of UP’s 166 million population. The Congress is already dreaming of recreating the formidable Brahmin-Thakur-Dalit-Muslim umbrella coalition that had made it UP’s natural party of government till 1989. This can happen only at the cost of the BSP (and SP and BJP).
The landslide victory of Mayawati’s aide-turned-foe P.L. Punia, himself a Dalit, on a Congress ticket from Barabanki in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls raised concerns in the BSP that even Dalits could not be taken for granted any more. Hence, the urgency to stem the tide.
Party workers complain that half the ministers in Mayawati’s council of ministers are Brahmins and Thakurs.
Sudha Pai, professor of political science, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), and an expert on Dalit politics, says: “Many Dalit activists are dissatisfied over the dilution of the party’s core ideology.”
Gandhi’s high profile night-stays at Dalit homes and the positive response he has been receiving from them have clearly rattled the BSP leadership.
Mayawati spent a considerable part of her speech attacking him and his party — an indication, perhaps, that she sees the Congress as her main rival in the assembly elections due in 2012.
Another indication of BSP’s back-to-basics thinking was the relatively low profile of the party’s Brahmin face, Satish Chandra Mishra.
“His presence alongside Behenji (Mayawati) had been a feature of BSP rallies over the last few years, but this time, he was not seen next to her,” says a prominent BSP activist, rather gleefully.
Mishra has been made head of the legal cell. What it really means is that Mishra, a crack lawyer, will, henceforth, primarily fight Mayawati’s cases.
Monday’s rally quite clearly indicates that the UP chief minister has begun preparing for the battle that lies ahead in 2012. The contours of her strategy are also becoming clear.
“Monday’s rally suggests that the party’s core language will be one of Dalit empowerment, though Sarva Samaj will remain part of the political discourse,” says sociologist Vivek Kumar, JNU.
Shorn of politicalese, this means she realizes the limitations of sectarian politics and so, will not do anything to antagonise other castes even as she woos Dalits.
Battle 2012 is becoming interesting already.