How the BSP ceased to be the force it once was in UP - Hindustan Times
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How the BSP ceased to be the force it once was in UP

Apr 12, 2024 10:53 PM IST

Can the BSP revive after another loss? The short answer is “unlikely”.

Recently, when I visited the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) office on Mall Avenue Road in Lucknow, the Uttar Pradesh (UP) capital, it did not seem like the headquarters of a party that had been in power in the state four times, the last between 2007 and 2012. I first visited the party office in the summer of 2008, when I was writing my Masters’ dissertation at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, on the rise of the BSP. In the 15 years since, the office had never once looked deserted, as it did this time.

Why does it seem like the BSP is not in contention in the battle for UP’s 80 Lok Sabha seats? (HT file) PREMIUM
Why does it seem like the BSP is not in contention in the battle for UP’s 80 Lok Sabha seats? (HT file)

For all the rhetoric and outward appearances, conversations with the volunteers who were hanging around made it clear that the party, at its very best, was hoping to win a couple of seats in the upcoming general elections and to keep its vote share from falling to a single-digit number. In the 2022 UP assembly elections, which the BSP contested alone as it is doing this time, the party got a mere 13% of the votes and won just one seat.

Why does it seem like the BSP is not in contention in the battle for UP’s 80 Lok Sabha seats? There is a talk among both the supporters and detractors of BSP president Mayawati that the fear of the Enforcement Directorate (ED) and other central government agencies probing charges of alleged corruption has influenced her decisions. It is being argued that Mayawati is under tremendous pressure to not engage politically if she wants to avoid going to jail. The arrest of several leaders from the Opposition ranks such as Hemant Soren, K Kavitha, Manish Sisodia, and Arvind Kejriwal among others, are cited as examples.

When asked if leaders with a genuine mass base should fear such threats since their arrest may actually generate sympathy, and, in the case of Mayawati, this might actually help the BSP revive its fortunes, the response was, “Behenji koi apne liye thodi na shant ho gayi hai, unka jeevan to sanghroshon ka hi raha hai. Kai baar aadmi sabse lad leta hai, par naate rishtedaron ki vajah se chup reh jaata hai.” (Mayawati is not quiet because she fears jail. Her life has been full of such struggles. Sometimes, people can fight everything, but they have to give up if their actions can harm their loved ones). According to this logic, Mayawati has decided to not actively campaign as she fears that the agencies would target her brother Anand Kumar, and her nephew and political heir, Akash Anand.

Kumar has served as the vice-president of the party on many occasions. Mayawati appointed Akash Anand as her successor last year. To many BSP supporters, the brother and nephew are Mayawati’s fatal flaw. The proponents of this “fatal flaw” hypothesis cite many examples of past and present leaders, and how their blind love proved to be their tragic undoing. And they go one step further, arguing that the BSP has been selectively putting up candidates to prevent any consolidation of the anti-BJP vote in this election. This is also being cited as a reason why Mayawati did not make any effort to be included in the Opposition INDIA bloc.

This, however, doesn’t explain the BSP’s crashing decline in the past decade. In the 2019 general elections, the party was very much in the fray, in alliance with the Samajwadi Party (SP). The fear of ED acting against her family members and other such threats existed then as well. So, what changed after the 2019 elections? The sharply increased tendency of the central agencies to book Opposition leaders since then may be a factor, but what matters more from an electoral analysis perspective is the BSP’s perceived strength on the ground.

The party became more vulnerable after the 2019 election results. Before this, it had received more than 20% of the votes in the state — both in the 2014 Lok Sabha and the 2017 assembly elections. Though the BSP received 19% of the votes and won 10 seats during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections from the state, it became amply clear that the party’s ability to transfer its votes to allies is now limited. The BSP had merely piggy-backed on the SP’s base. And this is why SP chief Akhilesh Yadav has vetoed any efforts to make the BSP a part of the Opposition alliance in UP.

There are also historical reasons for the BSP’s decline. After winning the majority all by itself in the 2007 UP assembly elections, the BSP’s premature ambition to launch itself as an all-India player in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls laid bare the limits of its potential. The peak of 2007 had hidden growing cracks within its rank-and-file, and it was soon clear that the party had become supremo-centred with no second line of leadership. It also seemed ideologically incoherent in its pursuit of power. While it is true that Mayawati’s leadership helped the party expand its footprint, the BSP imagined and created by Kanshi Ram met its end in the process: The BSP had transformed itself from a social movement-turned-political party to a run-of-the-mill election machine. The relationship between the party workers and the voters became increasingly transactional.

After the loss of power in the state in 2012, and the rise of Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014, the BSP started shrinking. Many leaders who had been with the BSP for decades were either shown the doors by Mayawati or left the party in search of greener pastures. In UP, Dalit voters make up ~22% of the total. Within this, more than two-thirds belong to the Jatavs, and this community has been the party’s mainstay. The BJP first made inroads into the BSP’s voter base in 2014 and 2017 and walked away with a substantial segment of non-Jatav Dalits. The post-poll surveys in 2019 and 2022 indicate that the BJP has succeeded in attracting a significant chunk of Jatav votes as well.

The BSP has now been completely marginalised in UP’s increasingly bipolar polity. Its decline has lessons for all political parties, especially those organised around a single issue or are family-controlled and rely on a limited social base. Once the polity is polarised, the third and fourth parties in the system get squeezed further. This is what essentially happened with the BSP and Congress in 2022. The BSP got restricted with less than 13% votes and the Congress under 5%. The Congress is contesting in alliance with the SP for the 2024 general polls, and the BSP is going solo. In such a situation, it is likely the BSP may end up with a shrunken vote share.

Can the BSP revive after another loss? The short answer is “unlikely”. The systemic feature of Indian politics, more often than not, fails to provide space to political parties for revival, especially when they keep getting pushed lower down the ladder. They mostly fragment, with some joining existing political formations, and others getting pushed into oblivion.

Rahul Verma is fellow, Centre for Policy Research (CPR), New Delhi. The views expressed are personal

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