Bahujan Samajwadi Party (BSP) leader Mayawati’s resignation from the Rajya Sabha on July 14, in reaction to the Chair’s refusal to allow her to speak on the recent atrocities on Dalits in Uttar Pradesh, raises pertinent questions about her political future. Was it a sudden, angry decision, or a calculated step by an astute politician recognizing the need to devote time to rebuilding her eroding Dalit support base?
As her term in the Rajya Sabha ends in April 2018 with little possibility of re-election, she perhaps decided to leave in the public glare of TV channels, while speaking on Dalit atrocities. Her resignation comes at a juncture when the Dalit movement has reached a crisis rendering her marginal in UP politics. Since her defeat in the 2012 assembly elections, the fortunes of the BSP have gone downhill as witnessed in its poor performance in the 2014 and 2017 elections.
Following three consecutive electoral defeats, can Mayawati revive her party and regain her position as the foremost Dalit leader in UP and the country?
Shifting Contours of Dalit Politics
The 1990s were a decade when UP experienced a strong wave of Dalit assertion leading to the politics of identity. The decline of the Congress and the BJP provided space to lower caste parties such as the BSP. Mayawati’s success lay in harnessing the desire for self-respect and social justice among Dalits into a strong party.
By the second half of the decade she was able to consolidate the various Dalit sub-castes, at least insofar as voting was concerned, behind the BSP and emerge as a notable Dalit leader. These developments enabled Mayawati to move beyond Dalits and form the Sarvajan, or rainbow alliance in 2007, which helped her gain a majority.
The 2000s have witnessed significant changes both within the Dalit community and in the larger politics of UP that have impacted upon lower caste parties. The decade experienced weakening of identity politics and a desire for development among disadvantaged sections.
By the late 1990s, a small but influential, upwardly mobile, educated middle/lower middle-class had emerged among Dalits, just as liberalization and the desire to catch-up with the better-off states assumed importance in the backward Hindi heartland.
Today, this shift is also visible among the smaller and poorer sub-castes who feel marginalized, neglected and left behind. Having achieved self-respect, Dalits today are in search of a party that can offer economic betterment.
New Context of UP Politics
The BJP under the leadership of Narendra Modi has been quick to fashion new strategies to take full advantage of these shifts. It has moved beyond its upper-caste base to create a subaltern or ‘non-Brahminical Hindutva’ inclusive of Dalits, particularly targeting the poorer, non-Jatav Dalits, who it was felt were neglected by the BSP.
This inclusive approach was used in the 2014 and 2017 electoral campaign to attract Dalits using the strategies of development and communal mobilization. UP is a backward state and Narendra Modi packaged development for the lower castes as something the social justice parties had failed to deliver.
Also, communal remarks such as Kabristan (graveyards) and Shamshan (cremation grounds) being built in Muslim and Hindu villages respectively, were used to consolidate not only the upper caste, but more particularly, the new, lower caste, Hindutva vote bank. This twin approach appealed as sections of the Dalits experiencing modernization are also vulnerable to the idea of becoming a part of the larger ‘Maha’ Hindu identity.
Consequently, today as a result of sustained grassroots mobilization among Dalits by the BJP, the Dalit discourse is divided — as the Saharanpur protests revealed — into three groups: pro-BSP, pro-BJP and an autonomous, aggressive section critical of both these parties, witnessed in the formation of the Bhim Army.
The BJP has also followed a two-track strategy of publicly accommodating popular leaders like Ram Vilas Paswan, Ramdas Athavale and Udit Raj who were earlier part of Ambedkarite politics and senior leaders from the BSP.
Secondly, it has silently investing in its ‘own’ Dalit leaders like Ram Nath Kovind and Vijay Sonkar Shashtri who share the outlook of the RSS and BJP, to fetch non-Jatav Dalit votes into the BJP’s fold. The election of Ram Nath Kovind, a Koli Dalit as the President, will also contribute to the further marginalization of Mayawati’s popular image.
Changes within the BSP have also contributed to the erosion of its Dalit base. The BSP from the mid-1990s progressively became a party interested in capturing political power; its earlier attempts to democratize the Dalit movement by moving downwards and mobilizing the poorer sub-castes in backward regions such as eastern UP disappeared. This allowed BJP leaders such as Yogi Adityanath from the early 2000s to quietly obtain the support of the non-Chamar sub-castes in the region.
Moreover, the accusations against Mayawati of corruption and amassing wealth, has lowered her standing among Dalits. This has led to the defection of important BSP leaders to the BJP, leading to Mayawati bringing in members of her own family into the party to strengthen her control over it.
Many political leaders have hailed Mayawati’s resignation as the first step towards her political rejuvenation. However, in the fundamentally altered socio-economic and political context in UP of a divided Dalit discourse, the emergence of subaltern Hindutva and the BJP’s successful Dalit outreach has led to a decline in the BSP.
Will Mayawati’s return to grassroots mobilization lead to her further being marginalized? Is this the end of an illustrious career of the first Chamar woman to become Chief Minister of UP four times?
The success of the BSP in the past has lain in the ability of its leadership to constantly reinvent its strategies in keeping with the rapid social change in UP. It remains to be seen if Mayawati can script a new ideology and strategy to bring Dalits back from the Hindutva to the Ambedkarite fold, rebuild her social base by uniting Dalits and regain her position as a formidable Dalit leader prior to the 2019 elections.