By: Pradeep Chhibber and Rahul Verma
Recent elections have shown that the party has come down a long way from its high in 2007.
In the brouhaha over the Aam Aadmi Party’s electoral success in the recent assembly elections — and the subsequent takeover of the news agenda by the AAP government in Delhi — the Indian media and political commentators have neglected other consequences of the election results. The Bahujan Samaj Party was a big loser in the 2013 elections.
The BSP has been a riddle wrapped up in an enigma for political observers. It has survived amidst all predictions of doomsday in the past, and even bounced back with greater vigour. However, if the elections in various states since 2009 are any indicator, the BSP is in terminal decline. The probability that the party will return to the glory of 2007, when it singlehandedly won the assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh and announced its national ambitions, is low. The BSP may continue to be a major player in UP, but its ambition of becoming a pan-India party seems to be rather far-fetched on current evidence.
The data presented in Table 1 show that the BSP has suffered a setback in all assembly elections held in major states in the last few years. Its vote share and the number of seats it won in the legislative assemblies has declined in Bihar, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, UP, Gujarat, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. The party could only partially improve upon its previous performance in the state of Uttarakhand. During the 2012 assembly elections in Uttarakhand, though the BSP added 1 percentage point to its vote share in 2007, the number of seats it won were reduced from eight to three.
The BSP’s debacle in the recently concluded assembly elections could be predicted after its premature calculations of acquiring power in Delhi during the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. As Table 2 suggests, the BSP has not seen any significant increase in its national vote share for almost two decades. The marginal increase of 2 percentage points between 1999 and 2009 is merely a result of the party contesting twice the number of seats in 2009 when compared to 1999. Since the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the BSP’s ambition of expanding outside UP has only seen setbacks. The upcoming Lok Sabha elections and subsequent assembly elections in the states of Haryana, Maharashtra and Jharkhand later this year will probably put a final seal on the BSP’s prospect of becoming a truly national party with a significant electoral presence in multiple states.
The previous electoral performance of the BSP in states does not provide any real hope for it to be able to turn things around quickly. During the 2009 Lok Sabha elections in Haryana, the BSP won 16 per cent of the vote. However, the promise of gaining a foothold in the state was shortlived. The party’s vote share declined by more than half in the state during the assembly elections held five months after the Lok Sabha polls. Likewise, the BSP’s vote share was almost halved in Maharashtra and Jharkhand between the Lok Sabha and assembly elections.
In our view, two factors mar the BSP’s prospects of becoming a pan-India party. First, the party welcomed into its fold politicians who had little adherence to its ideology. This was understandable given the need to build a large cross-caste coalition to win a significant share of the seats in any state assembly. Dalits by themselves are too few in number and spread out among too many constituencies to support a winning Dalit-only party. The BSP in the first decade of the 21st century did have a solid base and a unique “Bahujan” ideology. Unfortunately, the party organisation soon became a collection of individuals who had defected from other parties into the BSP’s safe haven. Second and perhaps more damaging was Mayawati’s reluctance to promote other leaders within the party organisation because of a fear of creating alternate power centres.
Devolving power and developing a credible layer of secondary and tertiary leadership within the party helps an organisation expand in the long run. The BSP’s decline holds a lesson for new parties like the AAP. Yogendra Yadav, the AAP’s national executive member, often quoted BSP founder Kanshi Ram to describe the possiblities for his party before the Delhi assembly election results were announced: pehla chunav harne ke liye, doosra harane ke liye, aur teesra jeetne ke liye (contest the first election to lose, the second election to play a spoiler and the third to win). The success of the BSP in the electoral arena came after two decades of movement politics and another decade in electoral politics. The AAP, on the other hand, has managed to form a government in Delhi in less than two years. But it should not lose sight of the fact that political parties need to continuously reinvent their organisational machinery, social coalition and political message to remain relevant.
As far as the BSP is concerned, the party leadership has failed to re-energise the organisation. Since Mayawati’s government in UP could not deliver on its promises, a substantial portion of Dalit voters deserted her during the 2012 assembly election. Even now, the BSP is relying on its old formula of social engineering for revival. The party has already announced its first list of 36 Lok Sabha candidates in UP and has given almost 50 per cent tickets to Brahmins. It has shown no signs of a new political message, and not a single leader in Mayawati’s coterie is Dalit. Given this situation, Dalit politics is likely to enter into a new era bypassing the BSP.
The writers are with the Travers Department of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley, US