he BSP’s shift in political strategy gives the BJP an opportunity in UP.
During the 2000s, the major electoral divide in Uttar Pradesh was between the BSP and SP as both the major national parties, the Congress and BJP, were in decline. But with the BJP’s declaration of Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate and its attempts to revive its Hindutva agenda under Amit Shah, and with the recent Muzaffarnagar riots, the nature of the contest has changed.
The BJP is now a major contestant in the state. Fourteen seats in central UP and Bundelkhand went to polls on April 30. The BJP, which managed one seat in this region in 2009, is depending on Modi’s popular image and promises of development to win votes here. The BSP, which got three of the seats, counts on uniting the Dalits and mobilising Muslim support by promising to keep the BJP at bay. Although the SP won four seats, the voters are disillusioned with it. The Congress, with six seats from 2009, is not poised to do well. In this leg of the electoral contest, at least, the competition seemed to be between the BSP and the BJP.
The BSP faces some significant challenges in this electoral contest. Mayawati forged the strategy of “sarvjan” in the mid-2000s, based on Kanshi Ram’s notion of “bhagidari”, or representation to social groups supporting the BSP in accordance with their strength. While the strategy brought the party to power in 2007, it encountered serious problems once the BSP was in office: unhappiness among Dalits over benefits given to the upper castes, the inability to fulfil the aspirations of all sections of Dalits and the dilution of Dalit identity.
Once in power in 2007, the BSP attempted to implement an inclusive agenda of development for all backward social groups and regions instead of Dalit-oriented policies, as in the past. But as the party had come to power on its own after many years of struggle, Dalits expected that their needs would be given priority, instead of those of the upper castes. Consequently, Mayawati found that balancing aspirations and ensuring equal distribution of resources between upper and lower castes, and between Dalit sub-castes, was very difficult.
Powerful sub-castes, such as the Jatavs, who formed the core of the party felt that they had not gained, as Mayawati attempted to fulfil the desires of the upper castes that had helped vote her into power. Simultaneously, smaller groups like the Valmikis, Basors Dhanuks, Doms and Gonds felt that out of 62 sub-castes, a few, such as the Jatavs, Pasis and Koris, had benefited greatly while they were marginalised. Both groups noticed that a cabinet of 52 ministers had only eight Dalits, five Jatavs and one each from the smaller sub-castes. Of the 206 BSP MLAs in the assembly, only 100 were Dalits.
The shift from “bahujan” to “sarvjan” also weakened bahujan identity as it went against the original goal of the BSP-led movement, that of ending social hierarchies and discrimination against Dalits. From its inception, the BSP has constructed symbols and ideas that created a meaning for the term bahujan, which arose from historical oppression and present-day problems. But this could not be done for the term sarvjan, a heterogeneous grouping. Hence, the attempt to create a broad-based party with a Dalit core became problematic as both sides did not enjoy the same economic and social status. The upper castes do not accept Dalits as their social equals even if they occupy high office, and there is a vast economic and cultural gap between them. Equally significant, Mayawati’s strategy of sarvjan politics kept the process of democratisation from moving downwards, bringing the smaller subaltern Dalit groups into the BSP fold and then into mainstream politics. Also, the strategy of using caste as a double-edged sword to break the hold of the upper castes and mobilise the lower castes has faded.
These political shifts could have an impact on the intense competition between the BJP and BSP in some parts of UP. For the BJP, they have offered an opportunity to incorporate Dalit identity into the larger Hindutva project and thereby gain the electoral support of sections of the Dalits. While the BJP has earlier attempted social engineering to widen its base, in this electoral campaign, smaller individual Dalit groups are being approached and mobilised rather than the community as a whole. Since her defeat in 2012, Mayawati has quietly been working to bring all sub-castes, particularly the non-Jatavs and the lower backwards, back into the BSP fold and to reach out to the minorities.
There were media reports of a large community meeting, organised by the party in Lucknow in 2013, to unite all Dalit groups. She has tried to convey to her followers that the BSP, under her leadership, is still committed to its original path of social transformation. However, the BSP is confronting fragmentation in the Dalit community over the sarvjan issue, creating divisions on the ground. Also, among the backwards, the MBCs, who usually voted for the BSP, felt that the Kurmis and other OBCs have benefited more under the Mayawati government and seemed to be alienated in the run up to the 2012 election.
Beyond these elections, there are longer-term implications for the BSP and UP politics. The BJP’s attempt at co-option, if successful, could communalise Dalit identity, weakening the fight against the upper castes. Can Mayawati unite all Dalit sub-castes? The BSP’s strength has been the leadership provided by the Jatavs, but for the rising poorer sections, unifying under them is no longer acceptable. Consequently, the party is facing two paradoxical situations in this election. Winning seems to necessitate bringing more and more castes into its fold and getting their votes rather than making promises of development. But, simultaneously, the aspiration for development among subaltern Dalits seems to have overtaken identity politics, creating an anti-BSP sentiment. In sum, the stakes in this election are very high for the BSP.
The writer is professor at the Centre for Political Studies and rector, Jawaharlal Nehru University