Uttar Pradesh chief minister and BSP supremo Mayawati addresses an election rally in the support of party candidates in Bareilly. PTI photo
The BSP's formidable organisational structure and the unmistakable assertiveness of its core Dalit base make Mayawati a serious contender for another term as Uttar Pradesh chief minister. The huge rallies that she addresses should restrain those who may be tempted to predict her downfall.
It is not uncommon for chief ministers to win consecutive terms in office. Narendra Modi in Gujarat, Nitish Kumar in Bihar, Raman Singh in Chhattisgarh, Sheila Dikshit in Delhi, Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh and the late YS Rajasekhara Reddy in Andhra Pradesh are examples that come to mind. Certain common attributes suggest that there is a formula for beating anti-incumbency. One way of understanding Mayawati's prospects in UP is by comparing her with persistent winners.
All of them cultivated a personality that outshines their peers and their respective parties. All were perceived as efficient (often 'brutally' so), especially in the delivery of public services. This image of efficiency helped them deflect occasional allegations of corruption. All of them used their years in power to nurture the social base that originally brought them to power. And as a final ingredient to beating anti-incumbency, they all denied tickets to a substantial number of sitting MLAs.
Mayawati's personality and her success in converting the BSP into an army of personal loyalists make her formation battle-ready. But her track record in governance is a mixed bag. While most in UP acknowledge the relative effectiveness of policing under her government, Mayawati's failure to smoothen the delivery of public services is rather stark in poverty-stricken UP. She has failed to reduce corruption at the bottom end of the government-public interface. Equally damagingly, allegations of personal corruption against the CM have stuck.
While most of the 'super CMs' mentioned used streaks of narcissism to their electoral advantage, Mayawati stretched the limits. Criticism against her on account of building her own statues has had a deeply polarising effect. While Dalit support was consolidated, others in her winning social coalition of 2007 have been bitter.
In this sense, the most suitable yardstick to assess Mayawati is Nitish Kumar, chief minister of neighbouring Bihar, a state that shares an identical political trajectory as UP. Kumar and Mayawati came to power in Bihar and UP within a span of two years, leading broadly the same social coalition — non-Yadav backwards, upper castes and Dalits. Kumar has been sensitive to the fragility of this coalition and acted accordingly, balancing with great skills the conflicting demands by them. Mayawati, far from managing these contradictions, has strained her own base with her administrative measures.
Kumar abandoned his initial efforts in land reforms following upper caste resistance. Maya liberally used the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act to empower Dalits, causing much resentment among the upper castes. When Nitish Kumar sought re-election in 2010, his social coalition was stronger than in 2005. For Mayawati in 2012, it is much weaker than it was in 2007.
So it's evident that Mayawati has few antidotes to anti-incumbency, except that she denied re-nomination to half her legislators. However, she has one big, unique advantage: there are three antagonistic parties claiming the anti-incumbency platform — the Samajwadi Party, the Congress and the BJP. Moreover, the SP has its own baggage of past misdeeds.
The anti-incumbency in UP can play out in several ways. If anti-incumbency converges on a single platform, Mayawati will take a severe beating and the SP will surprise itself. This phenomenon had contributed to Mayawati's victory in 2007. If the anti-Maya voters tactically choose among her three opponents in individual constituencies, she still loses badly, but the Congress and the BJP too will get a share of the spoils.
The best-case scenario for Mayawati is her opponents cutting into each other in individual constituencies. In such a case, her base will stay intact, while the opposition will be scattered among three parties.