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The Political Eye | Why did Mayawati lose the political plot?

The BSP heads into the 2022 elections with the baggage of four consecutive electoral setbacks. Where did its political script go wrong? There are four inter-related explanations.
PREMIUM
BSP chief Mayawati has said her party will not open its doors to defectors. (FILE PHOTO)
Updated on Jan 17, 2022 10:38 PM IST

15 years ago, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) pulled off one of the most audacious experiments in contemporary Indian politics – opening up the possibility of India having its first Dalit prime minister (PM). Two years later, it lost the political plot and hasn’t recovered since – with India’s foremost, pioneering Dalit political formation now facing questions about its very political survival.

Under the leadership of Mayawati, the BSP, for the first time, in 2007 won a majority in Uttar Pradesh (UP), with 206 seats in an assembly of 403 and a 30.43% vote-share. The victory was impressive, but what was more impressive was that she had altered the architecture of coalition in a state where political hierarchies had traditionally reflected social hierarchies. Upper-castes, particularly Brahmins, Muslims and Dalits had been the Congress’s social base for decades – but this alliance was under the clear leadership of Brahmins. For various reasons, this coalition collapsed in the 1980s and 1990s. The BSP had carved out a wide social coalition, which included Brahmins, segments of backward communities and some Muslims, and, of course, Dalits – but under the leadership of Dalits in general, and Jatavs in particular.

RELATED STORIES

Mayawati’s political confidence grew. She projected herself as a tough administrator, improving law and order in a state that can be anarchic and hard to govern. Two years later, bolstered by control over the state which sends 80 parliamentarians to the Lok Sabha, Mayawati projected herself as a serious PM contender in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, betting on a non-Congress, non-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alliance. She failed in the quest, with the Congress, instead, pulling off a surprisingly good performance not just nationally but also in her home base – it won 21 seats while the BSP could get only 20 seats in UP, with 27.42% of the vote. Her social coalition had cracked. Both Brahmins and Dalits were unhappy for diametrically opposite reasons; the former saw BSP rule as marked by excessive Dalit assertion, the latter felt BSP rule was marked by excessive upper-caste appeasement.

In 2012, the BSP lost power in the state to the Samajwadi Party (SP), with Mulayam Singh’s astute grasp over grassroots caste equations and Akhilesh Yadav’s energetic campaign and promise of a fresh start leading to a change in power equations. Brahmins had, by now, deserted the BSP; Muslims and to a large extent, backwards, had consolidated substantially behind the SP. The BSP won 25.95% of the vote – it faced a dip of less than 5 percentage points, but this translated into a loss of over 120 seats. It now had 80 seats in the assembly.

Mayawati’s party failed to win a single seat in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, even with 19.77% of the vote-share in the state. In 2017, the BSP won 19 seats in the UP assembly – its worst performance since 1991 – though it still had a 22.24% of the vote share in the state. In 2019, the political crisis led to the BSP collaborating with the SP – coming together with its arch-rival for the first time since the mid-1990s. It won 10 seats, with a 19.43% vote share in the state.

And so it heads into the 2022 elections with the baggage of four consecutive electoral setbacks.

What happened? Where did the BSP’s political script go wrong?

There are four inter-related explanations.

The first is in the domain of political communication. Technology has become extraordinarily important, serving both as medium and message. The need for leaders to be visible has increased sharply. Political theatrics has a crucial role in connecting with one’s base. Being a charismatic orator in a media environment obsessed with image construction is an even bigger asset than it used to be. All of this has opened up pathways for digitally-savvy political parties and social movements to find greater space in public imagination. But all of this also makes it particularly challenging for political formations which do not have influence over established media outlets, or a political infrastructure which cannot adapt quickly and easily to changing forms of media, or a political base which is not empowered enough to determine political messaging from the ground to communicate effectively.

The BSP lacks all these ingredients. Its influence over established media platforms is limited to when it is in power and can use State resources to tilt narratives. It neither has a sympathetic media ecosystem of journalists belonging to similar social backgrounds as the party’s leadership or a base in newsrooms in Lucknow or district headquarters (an advantage the BJP possesses in abundance), nor has Mayawati invested her considerable financial capital in creating an alternative media universe. The BSP was among the last political formations to embrace digital media. And its district-level political machinery does not have the authority to beam messages, pick issues, sharpen contractions, consolidate constituencies on an everyday basis without sanction from the top in what is arguably India’s most centralised party.

All of this is also because the BSP, right from Kanshi Ram’s time, has seen the media with suspicion, as an instrument of upper-castes to maintain their hegemony. Irrespective of the merit of this position, this deliberate distance from the media, coupled with the nature of BSP’s structure and the absence of social and professional capital of its relatively marginalised base, has left it at an acute disadvantage in today’s public sphere.

The second explanation for the BSP’s failure is in the domain of organisational practice. There are ways to offset some of the disadvantages documented above. The BSP did so in the past by creating an incredibly disciplined political organisation, with the ability to quietly engage with voters between elections and mobilise them on polling day in large numbers, and convert numbers into strength. It also did so due to a leadership which built this organisation by extensively travelling on the ground, creating a core of Jatav supporters, but also embracing other Dalit sub-castes and backward communities as the secondary ring of support in the party, by raising issues most salient to them.

But this changed. The leadership stopped travelling. No Indian political leader is as confined to one’s home, and as closed and insular, as Mayawati. She appears to believe that meetings with select party functionaries at her imposing palatial residences in Lucknow or Delhi, keeping close track of party’s organisational affairs on the phone, and outsourcing the party’s outreach to a caste she wants to cultivate in a particular election to one leader of that caste is enough to sustain the energy and morale of her cadres and strength the party.

This has not just left her disconnected from her own internal feedback mechanisms, but interrupted the party’s expansion among younger constituents, left it without the ability to raise issues in a timely manner or respond to political developments on the ground, or even send direct messages of solidarity that resonate to her own constituents. The BSP is, thus, not just the most centralised party in India; it is also the party with the most absent central leadership.

If you don’t work hard, you don’t win. And if you represent India’s most marginalised social groups, then, unfortunately given entrenched social hierarchies, you have to work doubly hard – to attain even half the success that comes naturally to others more privileged. Many suggest that the reason for this inertia is the fact that the BSP’s leadership does not want to risk the economic and financial assets it has accrued – it is hard to know this with any certainty, but if it is the case, it is a tragic tale of how instead of resources being seen as means to achieve political power, politics has ended up becoming seen as the route to preserve resources.

The third explanation is in social matrix. The BSP shrunk from being a Jatav-led party of a wider subaltern constituency to a Jatav-led party of Jatavs. The exodus of leaders belonging to other social groups from the party, after Kanshi Ram’s death, as Mayawati concentrated power, has had a long-term impact on its social base.

It is not a surprise that many of the leaders belonging to Other Backward Classes (OBC) sub-groups, who are currently defecting from the BJP to the SP and are in the news, actually started out or spent a fair duration of their political careers in the BSP. In addition, as each social segment within Dalits sought space and power, the BSP failed to turn more inclusive – creating the space for other parties, especially the BJP, to play on the Jatav-non Jatav contradiction and coopt the latter. And as non-Jatav Dalits began deserting the BSP, other privileged social groups, which anyway did not like the idea of strong Dalit leadership, began assuming that if the BSP did not even have Dalit support, then a vote for the party would be a “wasted” vote – further reducing incentives for swing voters, which spanned from upper castes to Muslims, to gravitate towards Mayawati.

And finally, the BSP’s decline can be viewed within the larger framework of electoral politics. In assembly elections, ever since 1993, the BSP’s vote share has vacillated between 20% and 30% (which was its best ever performance in 2007). In a multi-cornered contest, in a fragmented polity, winning one-fourth of the votes used to be enough to win a fair share of assembly seats – and then be an important player in coalition governments in the state. But in what has become a political field marked by greater consolidation of votes, a 20% vote-share just does not cut it -- for a party such as the BJP ends up winning over 40% or even closer to 50% of the votes.

This has meant that as the BSP’s social constituency got confined to only its loyal vote-base, it left the party as a powerful contender in the fray, but gave it just about enough votes to be second or third. In an electoral system with proportional representation, the loyalty and strength of BSP’s social base would have got more accurately reflected in its legislative numbers – a 20% vote share would have given the party 80 seats in the 2017 polls rather than just 19 seats. But that is not how India’s elections are fought. The BSP once leveraged the opportunities provided by the first-past-the-post system; it is now a victim of it.

The BSP’s rise marked a significant chapter in India’s democratic evolution. Its decline, over the last decade, offers sobering lessons to both political parties and social movements which speak for the marginalised. 2022 will show whether the party can revive in any form, or whether its retreat is irreversible.

The views expressed are personal

15 years ago, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) pulled off one of the most audacious experiments in contemporary Indian politics – opening up the possibility of India having its first Dalit prime minister (PM). Two years later, it lost the political plot and hasn’t recovered since – with India’s foremost, pioneering Dalit political formation now facing questions about its very political survival.

Under the leadership of Mayawati, the BSP, for the first time, in 2007 won a majority in Uttar Pradesh (UP), with 206 seats in an assembly of 403 and a 30.43% vote-share. The victory was impressive, but what was more impressive was that she had altered the architecture of coalition in a state where political hierarchies had traditionally reflected social hierarchies. Upper-castes, particularly Brahmins, Muslims and Dalits had been the Congress’s social base for decades – but this alliance was under the clear leadership of Brahmins. For various reasons, this coalition collapsed in the 1980s and 1990s. The BSP had carved out a wide social coalition, which included Brahmins, segments of backward communities and some Muslims, and, of course, Dalits – but under the leadership of Dalits in general, and Jatavs in particular.

RELATED STORIES

Mayawati’s political confidence grew. She projected herself as a tough administrator, improving law and order in a state that can be anarchic and hard to govern. Two years later, bolstered by control over the state which sends 80 parliamentarians to the Lok Sabha, Mayawati projected herself as a serious PM contender in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, betting on a non-Congress, non-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alliance. She failed in the quest, with the Congress, instead, pulling off a surprisingly good performance not just nationally but also in her home base – it won 21 seats while the BSP could get only 20 seats in UP, with 27.42% of the vote. Her social coalition had cracked. Both Brahmins and Dalits were unhappy for diametrically opposite reasons; the former saw BSP rule as marked by excessive Dalit assertion, the latter felt BSP rule was marked by excessive upper-caste appeasement.

In 2012, the BSP lost power in the state to the Samajwadi Party (SP), with Mulayam Singh’s astute grasp over grassroots caste equations and Akhilesh Yadav’s energetic campaign and promise of a fresh start leading to a change in power equations. Brahmins had, by now, deserted the BSP; Muslims and to a large extent, backwards, had consolidated substantially behind the SP. The BSP won 25.95% of the vote – it faced a dip of less than 5 percentage points, but this translated into a loss of over 120 seats. It now had 80 seats in the assembly.

Mayawati’s party failed to win a single seat in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, even with 19.77% of the vote-share in the state. In 2017, the BSP won 19 seats in the UP assembly – its worst performance since 1991 – though it still had a 22.24% of the vote share in the state. In 2019, the political crisis led to the BSP collaborating with the SP – coming together with its arch-rival for the first time since the mid-1990s. It won 10 seats, with a 19.43% vote share in the state.

And so it heads into the 2022 elections with the baggage of four consecutive electoral setbacks.

What happened? Where did the BSP’s political script go wrong?

There are four inter-related explanations.

The first is in the domain of political communication. Technology has become extraordinarily important, serving both as medium and message. The need for leaders to be visible has increased sharply. Political theatrics has a crucial role in connecting with one’s base. Being a charismatic orator in a media environment obsessed with image construction is an even bigger asset than it used to be. All of this has opened up pathways for digitally-savvy political parties and social movements to find greater space in public imagination. But all of this also makes it particularly challenging for political formations which do not have influence over established media outlets, or a political infrastructure which cannot adapt quickly and easily to changing forms of media, or a political base which is not empowered enough to determine political messaging from the ground to communicate effectively.

The BSP lacks all these ingredients. Its influence over established media platforms is limited to when it is in power and can use State resources to tilt narratives. It neither has a sympathetic media ecosystem of journalists belonging to similar social backgrounds as the party’s leadership or a base in newsrooms in Lucknow or district headquarters (an advantage the BJP possesses in abundance), nor has Mayawati invested her considerable financial capital in creating an alternative media universe. The BSP was among the last political formations to embrace digital media. And its district-level political machinery does not have the authority to beam messages, pick issues, sharpen contractions, consolidate constituencies on an everyday basis without sanction from the top in what is arguably India’s most centralised party.

All of this is also because the BSP, right from Kanshi Ram’s time, has seen the media with suspicion, as an instrument of upper-castes to maintain their hegemony. Irrespective of the merit of this position, this deliberate distance from the media, coupled with the nature of BSP’s structure and the absence of social and professional capital of its relatively marginalised base, has left it at an acute disadvantage in today’s public sphere.

The second explanation for the BSP’s failure is in the domain of organisational practice. There are ways to offset some of the disadvantages documented above. The BSP did so in the past by creating an incredibly disciplined political organisation, with the ability to quietly engage with voters between elections and mobilise them on polling day in large numbers, and convert numbers into strength. It also did so due to a leadership which built this organisation by extensively travelling on the ground, creating a core of Jatav supporters, but also embracing other Dalit sub-castes and backward communities as the secondary ring of support in the party, by raising issues most salient to them.

But this changed. The leadership stopped travelling. No Indian political leader is as confined to one’s home, and as closed and insular, as Mayawati. She appears to believe that meetings with select party functionaries at her imposing palatial residences in Lucknow or Delhi, keeping close track of party’s organisational affairs on the phone, and outsourcing the party’s outreach to a caste she wants to cultivate in a particular election to one leader of that caste is enough to sustain the energy and morale of her cadres and strength the party.

This has not just left her disconnected from her own internal feedback mechanisms, but interrupted the party’s expansion among younger constituents, left it without the ability to raise issues in a timely manner or respond to political developments on the ground, or even send direct messages of solidarity that resonate to her own constituents. The BSP is, thus, not just the most centralised party in India; it is also the party with the most absent central leadership.

If you don’t work hard, you don’t win. And if you represent India’s most marginalised social groups, then, unfortunately given entrenched social hierarchies, you have to work doubly hard – to attain even half the success that comes naturally to others more privileged. Many suggest that the reason for this inertia is the fact that the BSP’s leadership does not want to risk the economic and financial assets it has accrued – it is hard to know this with any certainty, but if it is the case, it is a tragic tale of how instead of resources being seen as means to achieve political power, politics has ended up becoming seen as the route to preserve resources.

The third explanation is in social matrix. The BSP shrunk from being a Jatav-led party of a wider subaltern constituency to a Jatav-led party of Jatavs. The exodus of leaders belonging to other social groups from the party, after Kanshi Ram’s death, as Mayawati concentrated power, has had a long-term impact on its social base.

It is not a surprise that many of the leaders belonging to Other Backward Classes (OBC) sub-groups, who are currently defecting from the BJP to the SP and are in the news, actually started out or spent a fair duration of their political careers in the BSP. In addition, as each social segment within Dalits sought space and power, the BSP failed to turn more inclusive – creating the space for other parties, especially the BJP, to play on the Jatav-non Jatav contradiction and coopt the latter. And as non-Jatav Dalits began deserting the BSP, other privileged social groups, which anyway did not like the idea of strong Dalit leadership, began assuming that if the BSP did not even have Dalit support, then a vote for the party would be a “wasted” vote – further reducing incentives for swing voters, which spanned from upper castes to Muslims, to gravitate towards Mayawati.

And finally, the BSP’s decline can be viewed within the larger framework of electoral politics. In assembly elections, ever since 1993, the BSP’s vote share has vacillated between 20% and 30% (which was its best ever performance in 2007). In a multi-cornered contest, in a fragmented polity, winning one-fourth of the votes used to be enough to win a fair share of assembly seats – and then be an important player in coalition governments in the state. But in what has become a political field marked by greater consolidation of votes, a 20% vote-share just does not cut it -- for a party such as the BJP ends up winning over 40% or even closer to 50% of the votes.

This has meant that as the BSP’s social constituency got confined to only its loyal vote-base, it left the party as a powerful contender in the fray, but gave it just about enough votes to be second or third. In an electoral system with proportional representation, the loyalty and strength of BSP’s social base would have got more accurately reflected in its legislative numbers – a 20% vote share would have given the party 80 seats in the 2017 polls rather than just 19 seats. But that is not how India’s elections are fought. The BSP once leveraged the opportunities provided by the first-past-the-post system; it is now a victim of it.

The BSP’s rise marked a significant chapter in India’s democratic evolution. Its decline, over the last decade, offers sobering lessons to both political parties and social movements which speak for the marginalised. 2022 will show whether the party can revive in any form, or whether its retreat is irreversible.

The views expressed are personal

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