When BSP chief Mayawati walked out of Rajya Sabha on Tuesday and despatched her resignation letter to the Vice President hours later, the moment was significant not so much in and of itself, but for the light it shone on its lead protagonist. Caught in the spotlight on Tuesday was a Dalit leader, a former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, who is presiding over the shrinking of her party’s fortunes over successive elections, and being overtaken by other, more energetic contenders for the Dalit vote.
It is not just that the BSP has performed extremely poorly in its last three electoral outings — the assembly elections in 2012 and 2017 and the Lok Sabha poll in 2014. It is, also, that the party seems reduced to a bystander amid the renewed churn in Dalit politics that is folding in the mobilisations around the suicide of Rohith Vemula, the atrocities perpetrated against a Dalit family in Una, and the anti-Dalit violence of Saharanpur. For all the anger and defiance on show on Tuesday, Mayawati is an embattled leader desperately fighting to regain her political footing.
More and more, over the last several years, it has seemed that the BSP model of Dalit politics is being challenged by other parties and forces and also by the changes within the Dalit electorate itself. For Mayawati’s party, power is the goal, but more than that, the party and its politics has been reduced to only an instrument for achieving it. Behenji is the supremo who brooks no argument or second line of leadership.
The BSP is her party kept in a state of constant mobilisation, not on Dalit-related or other issues of the marginalised and disprivileged, but for fighting the next election. Of course, Mayawati’s singular focus on power has delivered — hers is the remarkable achievement of becoming UP chief minister four times. Yet, as a younger Dalit electorate makes its impatience and restlessness felt, the BSP has increasingly seemed out of step. Sensing an opportunity, the Modi-led BJP has made successful attempts to recast its own appeal as a pro-poor and pro-Dalit party, be it through a big economic move like demonetisation, or most recently, by nominating Ram Nath Kovind for president. In the non-party space, Jignesh Mevani in Gujarat and Chandrashekhar of the Bhim Army in UP have shown the possibilities for a new, more engaged and communicative, Dalit leadership. Whether or not Mayawati stays in the Rajya Sabha, she stands at a crossroads. Her next steps will be keenly watched.