Ten years after she stormed to power with an outright majority in India’s biggest state, Uttar Pradesh, where is Mayawati?
That is the big question of 2017. Opinion polls show her as third in a triangular contest. As Akhilesh Yadav has been in the news for the Samajwadi Party’s internal feud or the tie up with Congress, or BJP has been the subject of scrutiny for demonetisation or ticket distribution or communal campaign, the BSP has been conspicuously absent from the discourse.
Does this mean that the BSP does not matter in UP elections?
Not at all. Anyone who jumps to that conclusion is ignoring both recent political history and the electoral record of India’s tallest Dalit leader. At the peak of the Narendra Modi wave in UP, the BSP still got close to 20% of the vote.
Mayawati is a contender in UP 2017. People remember the good law and order under her with nostalgia. She is also strongest in west UP - which is where the elections begin, and a wave this side could extend into the rest of the state. Her biggest asset is the headway she has got in terms of time, for she narrowed down on tickets almost two years ago in many seats and in a centralised party, there was little space for rebels to disrupt it. Her candidates have been on the ground, even as others squabble. And she has the arithmetic, based on careful social and demographic calculations.
But what is also true is that this is Mayawati’s toughest election. For the BJP, in this election, the big challenge is that it has no agenda, and no local leaders. For the SP-Congress combine, the big challenge is it has no time, and its campaigning has barely started. But for the BSP, the challenge is even bigger, for Mayawati is now a mass leader without any mass contact. She is also the first preference of only her core vote, and has done little to build a base among other communities. All that the BSP has going for it is arithmetic.
This is also an election she cannot afford to lose.
Battle for survival
If Akhilesh loses, he still has time and can return to power. If BJP loses, there will be internal convulsions, questions over Modi’s demonetisation and Amit Shah’s electoral management, but the party will still remain India’s dominant political force.
But if Mayawati loses, it may mark the beginning of the end of her political career - for it will be extraordinarily difficult for her to keep both the BSP organisation and her voters intact. By the time next elections come around, she would have been out of power for over 10 years in the state; depleted strength in the assembly would also mean depleted strength in the Rajya Sabha - remember she has no Lok Sabha seats left. Indian politics is ruthless. Unless a political leader is in power, and is in a position to deliver goods to supporters through patronage, sustaining an organisation is tough.
Most importantly, it will open up her loyal vote base to penetration by others. The Dalit vote is no longer as static and fixed as it used to be. In 2014, there is enough evidence to conclude that a section of even her Jatav vote moved to BJP; Modi himself is making a strong push for the Dalit constituency; other leaders may well emerge if the base feels Mayawati’s time is up. The fact that Mayawati has not allowed a second generation of Dalit leaders to emerge in her own party may come back to haunt her, for they will seek opportunities elsewhere or become political entrepreneurs themselves.
Yet, given the stakes, the sense of urgency in the BSP campaign is somewhat missing.
Mass leader, no mass contact
Can one be a mass leader without being in touch with masses at all?
In that answer lies the future of Mayawati’s fortunes.
It is perhaps a somewhat unfair question, since there is no doubt that Mayawati is one of India’s most remarkable politicians who has risen from the ground. There is also no doubt that she has, slowly and systematically, helped build the BSP organisation - brick by brick, aiding her mentor Kanshi Ram. On cycles in towns in west UP, in rural areas which were not connected by roads, sleeping nights in uncomfortable, even unsafe settings, Mayawati’s past work among the masses - and the most deprived and oppressed of them - cannot be questioned. From 1984, ever since BSP was formed, Mayawati has been a part of what was once a transformative social movement. For close to three decades, she has been in electoral politics. The mass credentials of such a leader must be respected.
But it is also true that this avatar of Mayawati is now the past.
Today’s Mayawati prefers Delhi and Lucknow, and barely visits districts when she is in opposition. Today’s Mayawati does not believe in street agitations or social movements, happy at best to take a formalistic position in Parliament if an issue concerning her constituency crops up.
But most intriguingly for a politician, today’s Mayawati does not talk to too many people. She keeps in touch with a very limited set, brought to her through select intermediaries. Her communication is confined to those within her party organisation - and this makes her dependent on a very limited information pool. This also makes her prone to poor judgment. For obvious reasons, the only group that can gain access to her are businessmen willing to contribute to the party’s funds.
Mayawati also seems to believe that political communication is overrated. The BSP has deeply legitimate grievances about how the media ignores them; it is also correct in pointing to the skewed nature of ownership, representation and coverage of channels and the flaws in opinion polls. But there is a way to correct this - by relentlessly engaging with the media and feeding it news and its narrative. This is missing. This means that on core issues, the floating constituency has no clue what she thinks. Even her core voter - who did not consume media when BSP started out - is now an avid consumer of the media and misses seeing its party and leader in action. One avenue of mass contact is severely constrained.
And that is why UP’s voters - many of them overwhelmingly young - do not quite know Mayawati. They have not heard her speeches in rallies which are few and far between; she is not a presence in their daily lives through television appearances; she is not a familiar, intimate presence as they move around town or the state except through the parks and statues she has built. At a time when elections are turning presidential, and the voter wants to know leaders and see and understand every facet of their lives, this invisibility and this lack of contact with the larger public sphere is a big handicap for BSP.
First preference of only the base
This also perhaps explains why Mayawati is the first preference only for her core voters of Jatavs - and not for any other social constituency in the state. In travels across west and east UP, even those who were willing to consider Mayawati, saw her as their ‘back up option’.
This is most clear in the case of Muslims. The BSP is trying to carve out a coalition of Dalits and Muslims. But while this may be exciting for those interested in subaltern politics, it is important to remember that this coalition is not being built on a common political platform; it is not based on a social movement or any ideological groundwork. Mayawati has rarely spoken on issues that matter to minorities. Except some engagement with self proclaimed community representatives, through her close aide Naseemuddin Siddiqui, she has not even spent time in Muslim quarters of UP’s cities and villages in the run up to this election.
Instead, the only way in which she hopes to build this coalition is by distributing tickets to 100 Muslim candidates. Representation is important - and perhaps the most crucial signifier of a party’s commitment to that group. And for Muslims, BSP is an option today because of these tickets. But this still pales in comparison to the SP, which is their first choice - because Akhilesh is seen to speak for them, perceived to be committed to their security (despite Muzaffarnagar), and as the real ‘secular’ challenger to BJP. Mayawati, they remember, has been with the BJP in the past.
The Muslim outreach gives us a clue to Mayawati’s style. For her, politics is now distilled to arithmetic - and that is it. Have your base vote, give a ticket to a candidate from another caste or religion, expect him to bring the votes of his community, expect your loyalists to vote for the party symbol, and there you have an electoral winner. Politics, in this imagination, requires little else.
Whether this is enough or whether the UP voter seeks politics beyond this narrow calculus will determine the future of Mayawati and Dalit politics in India.