BSP’s long tryst with defections continues. Is the crisis different this time?

Of the seven top leaders of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) who were given major responsibilities in the 2017 assembly elections, four have been shown the door
BSP chief Mayawati. (HT file) PREMIUM
BSP chief Mayawati. (HT file)
Updated on Jun 22, 2021 04:43 PM IST
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By Sunita Aron

Of the seven top leaders of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) who were given major responsibilities in the 2017 assembly elections, four have been shown the door.

Soon after the 2017 elections, Naseemuddin Siddiqui, who was given charge of carving out Muslim-Dalit unity, was expelled from the party.

Two other leaders — Ram Achal Rajbhar, the then national general secretary tasked with the consolidation of extremely backward castes, and Lalji Verma, the leader of the BSP legislature party in the state assembly and a key backward face of the party — often described themselves as the soldiers of the BSP founder-president Kanshi Ram. Just a few months ahead of the 2022 assembly polls, they have now been expelled and both stand at the crossroads — will they form a new party or join Samajwadi Party (SP)?

The fourth leader to face expulsion is Ramveer Upadhaya, an old loyalist since the Kanshi Ram days.

Two other leaders who played a key role in 2017 continue to be in the BSP — former assembly speaker Sukhdeo Rajbhar and Uma Shankar Singh. And of course, the last of the towering figures who remains in the BSP is Mayawati’s chief lieutenant Satish Chandra Mishra.

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Expulsions and exodus have been normal in the party that was founded in 1984, but have increased dramatically after it shared power for the first time in 1993 with SP. While BSP’s political strength has often not got diluted despite defections, coming in the wake of successive electoral defeats, could 2021 be different?

The years of power

Notwithstanding the rampant exodus over the years, the BSP has played a key role in both state, and to a lesser extent, national politics. Barring short spells outside power, BSP was a key party in government — on its own, or as an ally — in multiple governments in UP between 1993 and 2012.

Mayawati also created history by breaking a 14-year-long coalition pattern in 2007 by forming a government with a clear majority. She, in fact, proved to be a trend-setter as thereafter, majority governments were formed by SP in 2012 and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2017.

The party’s core vote share has also remained broadly stable, even if the vote-to-seat conversion has been inconsistent. BSP polled 11.12% votes in 1993, 19.64% in 1996, 23.06% in 2002, 30.43% in 2007, 25.95% in 2012 and 22.24% in 2017. Even in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, it had polled 19.3% votes.

So, the party’s health actually did not necessarily deteriorate because of desertions. Analysts attribute the party’s electoral setbacks to the dilution of its pro-Dalit politics, of which the leadership’s aggression against the hegemony of the upper caste was an integral ingredient, allegations of corruption, an overly centralised method of functioning, the inability to expand its core base even within other Dalit sub-castes, and the collapse of Ram’s Bahujan model that depended on a wider subaltern alliance.

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But because there have been leaders who have quit, while the party has remained intact, there is a degree of confidence in BSP that it can deal with defections. This also explains the recent statement of Akash Anand, 26, Mayawati’s young nephew who was appointed as the party’s national coordinator in 2019. In a tweet on June 17, Anand said that the BSP was not a plant that had grown in a pot and will dry up if water was not given for a while. “In fact, BSP is a banyan tree, if one branch of which is cut, thousands of other branches grow on their own.”

Mayawati herself has been tweeting primarily to target the SP for entertaining her expelled legislators. This is in line with her message to the cadre over the years — to “teach a lesson to those who for personal gains betray or barter the interest of the Bahujan Samaj.”

But whether BSP, after successive electoral defeats, can absorb the exit of leaders without a political cost remains to be seen. This will also hinge on what those who have left do in the pursuit of power and relevance.

The fate of those who left

Ram Achal Rajbhar, Ramveer Upadhaya and Lalji Verma are now on the lookout for safer constituencies to return to the state assembly.

Rajbhar and Verma were elected from Akbarpur and Katehri assembly segments of Ambedkar Nagar Lok Sabha constituency, which thrice elected Mayawati and even in 2019 did not disappoint her, and elected her party nominee Ritesh Pandey. Ambedkar Nagar is a Dalit-backward dominated constituency with a sizeable Muslim population. After delimitation in 2008, it came into the general category. Earlier, it was known as Akbarpur Lok Sabha constituency.

The BSP dictum — “hold core vote and chase plus vote”, in a reference to consolidating the core Jatav vote base of the party and supplementing it with other social groups, often drawn from the caste of the candidate — helped both Rajbhar and Verma win comfortably even during the 2017 BJP wave.

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But, in the region, the party won only eight gram panchayat seats earlier this year, instead of the 25 it had won in the 2016 panchayat elections. Both Rajbhar and Verma were sacked for poor performance.

Verma, describing himself as a victim of internal conspiracy, said, “I have been a BSP loyalist who did not desert the party when MLAs moved on for greener pastures – 19 legislators in 1997, 39 in 2003 and again about 25 before 2017 elections. As many as 50 of the 325 BJP MLAs are originally from the BSP. I have never uttered a word against Mayawati who even enquired about my health when I was admitted in hospital for acute Covid infection during the panchayat elections. I couldn’t have sabotaged party’s prospects in Ambedkar Nagar from hospital.”

However, while admitting he will consult his party workers before deciding on his constituency, Verma disagreed with the contention that MLAs lose election after quitting the party.

The impact on electoral prospects

The common perception is that BSP MLAs, who win election because of solid support of the BSP workers and Jatav votes, face defeat after quitting the party as the cadre implement Mayawati’s message: “Defeat the deserters.” The fact is many leaders have gone into oblivion after quitting BSP.

Political analyst Badri Narayan, also the author of a book on Kanshi Ram, says, “Behenji (as Mayawati is often addressed) has a direct connection with her voters. Such desertions do not fracture her vote base and thus she is not worried.”

RK Chaudhary remained a powerful leader in the BSP from the days of Kanshi Ram till he quit the party in 2016. Now with SP, he says that it is unfortunate that Mayawati expelled senior leaders, former state presidents, many of whom were closely associated with Kanshi Ram — Jang Bahadur Patel, Bhagwat Pal, Raja Ram Pal, Barkhu Ram Verma, Ram Achal Rajbhar, Babu Singh Kushwaha, Ram Samajh, Dr Masood, Inderjeet Saroj, Ramesh Gautam, Naseemuddin Siddiqui, Angad Yadav et al.

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“There is no such documentation but over 100 top level functionaries, including MLAs, have either been expelled or they quit the party,” said former BSP leader and one-time Mayawati confidante, Naseemuddin Siddiqui. In fact, as noted above, the only survivor at the top of the party hierarchy is SC Mishra who served as advocate general during earlier BSP regime and manages the legal matters of the party.

Till he was with the BSP, Siddiqui had never interacted with the media. He is now in the Congress and says he is loving his freedom. Someone who was hailed as the architect of the Dalit-Muslim formula was thrown out after party’s poor performance in the 2017 polls. He said, “I quit my job to join Kanshi Ram’s movement in 1983, a year before the party was formed. Will I ever betray the party I myself formed?” he asked.

Comparing the politics of Kanshi Ram with that of his successor Mayawati, Chaudhary said, “He was a leader with vision and an organiser who consolidated both the co-workers and cadre while Mayawati lacks vision, though she may have consolidated her vote bank. For Kanshi Ram, it was a mission, for Mayawati, the BSP became a property.”

The forthcoming election is going to be crucial for the entire Opposition, especially the BSP, as the party has by and large remained inactive all through five years. Its soft posturing towards the BJP has once again created doubts about the political route it may take.

Observers suggest Mayawati may not be completely averse to joining government, even with the ideologically incompatible BJP, as she knows her political growth will restart from the seat of power and not her party’s numerical strength in the Vidhan Sabha. But for that, she will have to reopen the chapter of coalition government that she herself had closed in 2007.

How the stream of defections, Mayawati’s current political strength, her rumoured understanding — or the absence of it — with the BJP, and the strength of her social base intersect will play a key role in shaping her decision.

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Tuesday, October 19, 2021