The stage seemed set for Mayawati and the BSP to make a comeback in the 2017 Uttar Pradesh elections. Their main challenger, the SP, was in disarray following a factional feud within the Yadav family. The other opponent, the BJP, does not have a chief ministerial candidate and has still not declared candidates for all 403 seats. The BSP, on the other hand, declared its candidates in all seats in December itself. In an election where the Muslim vote is going to be critical, the party has nominated close to 100 Muslim candidates.
Also, in the first phase of 73 seats that would vote on February 11, the BSP performed better than other parties in the 2012 assembly elections. It won 29 per cent votes (four percentage point above the state average) and won one in every three seats in the region (as against one in five in the whole state). Yet, reporters and researchers in the field are asking: “Where is Mayawati?”
Is she silently working with her cadres on the ground? Or has her party lost as most pre-poll surveys seem to suggest? In our opinion, the latter is likely. The principal reason for such a conclusion is Mayawati seems to be in a time warp. She is still banking on the old formula of social engineering, when the grammar of politics in UP seems to be undergoing a sea change.
In the past, the mobilisation strategy of adding another caste or religious group to its core base of Dalit voters helped the BSP to grow in UP. Back then, Mayawati’s principal opponents like Mulayam Singh Yadav and Kalyan Singh were doing the same. Things have changed. She is facing a popular chief minister whose appeal cuts across UP’s demographic differences. Both Akhilesh Yadav and Narendra Modi, Mayawati’s main adversaries in this election, are appealing to voters on the planks of development and governance. Thus, Mayawati needs to reinvent her political message and instead of focusing solely on the Dalit-Muslim formula, she should play on her image of being an able administrator who focused on law and order and development. Her campaigners should project her as someone who could deliver things, keep the bureaucracy in check, and maintain religious harmony, even during tense times.
Or else, as the data presented in the graph indicates, the BSP faces a real danger of stagnating in UP politics. The black bars in the figure represent distinct phases of the BSP in UP’s polity: Currently, the party is in its fourth phase. In each of the first three phases, the party successfully managed to increase its vote share owing to permutations and combinations of various social groups. In the first phase — till the 1993 assembly elections — the BSP’s base was mostly among Dalit voters; thus, their vote share barely reached double digits. The BSP contested the 1993 election in alliance with the SP and formed the government under Mulayam Singh Yadav. Kanshi Ram and Mayawati slowly nurtured the OBC leadership within their rank and file and the BSP was able to make gains among the Most Backward Classes (MBCs), who resented the dominance of upper OBCs like Yadavs and Lodhs. The 2000s coincided with the decline of the BJP and the BSP was able to establish itself as the primary alternative to the SP.
After the 2004 Lok Sabha election, Mayawati played a masterstroke by transforming her party’s message from bahujan hitay, bahujan sukhay to sarvajan hitay, sarvajan sukhay. The social engineering experiment, bringing together Dalits, MBCs and upper castes, helped the BSP secure a simple majority in 2007’s assembly election. The BSP’s vote share crossed the 25 per cent threshold; its footprint expanded across UP.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the party faced its sharpest decline in vote share as it dipped below 20 per cent. This happened largely due to the desertion of a section of Dalit voters who voted for the BJP. This section seems to have returned to the party’s fold. Since then, Mayawati has been wooing Muslim voters. In the past few months,
she has made multiple appeals to the community. But this strategy of building a Dalit-Muslim alliance does not seem to be succeeding. In fact, if ground reports and pre-poll survey estimates are to be believed, Muslim voters may have further consolidated behind the SP-Congress alliance.
Simply put, the old-style electioneering through social engineering may have outlived its utility in UP. She now needs a new vocabulary to appeal to UP voters. At present, Mayawati is lagging in the popularity battle with Prime Minister Modi and Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav. The latter and Mayawati had a similar chief ministerial rating in the survey conducted by CSDS in July last year. In the latest round, Akhilesh Yadav enjoys a substantial five percentage point lead over her. In numerous surveys conducted in the state till July 2016, people had rated Mayawati’s tenure as better than Akhilesh Yadav’s. This too is changing, with more voters preferring Akhilesh Yadav’s tenure over Mayawati’s.
The BSP seems to be losing the election narrative and its campaign managers need to do something urgently to shift the discourse around BSP’s core strength. The data presented in the graph shows that voters often perceive parties to have different issue-handling capabilities. The BSP is still rated as the best party among the four main players in UP on the parameter of handling law and order. Also, less than a tenth of the voters consider it to be the most corrupt and nepotistic party in the state. Her campaign managers need to project a new image of Mayawati. She needs to build a coalition that goes beyond mere social identities. Having stayed out of power for the last five years and with negligible representation in Parliament, the UP assembly election is extremely critical for the BSP. Failure to win this election would push Mayawati and the BSP into electoral oblivion.