In a statement released by her party office in Lucknow on Saturday, BSP chief Mayawati appealed to her voters to not be swayed by the smaller Dalit organisations and parties, which she said were playing into the hands of the BJP and the Congress.
Mayawati specifically referred to “an organisation in Uttar Pradesh running in the name of Bhim” — a fairly obvious reference to Dalit youth leader Chandrashekhar Azad’s Bhim Army — and alleged that this organisation had nothing to do with the movement of Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar.
Mayawati is speaking at a time when the Bhim Army is making headlines by their protests against the gangrape of a Dalit girl in Alwar. The group held its first meeting in 2015, and the organisation and its co-founder, Azad, became well known after the Dalit-Thakur clashes in Saharanpur in April-May 2017.
The BSP was not very active in Saharanpur at that time, and the Bhim Army occupied the centre of the protests and rioting, in the course of which one Thakur lost his life while 24 Dalit homes were set on fire. Azad was named as an accused in as many as 24 FIRs that were registered. He was jailed for 15 months from June 2017.
Azad soon became a Dalit icon in western Uttar Pradesh and surrounding states with people chanting “Jai Bhim” slogans and wearing masks of his face. Later, the Bhim Army organised a massive protest rally in the heart of Lutyens’s Delhi.
But what makes Mayawati so upset with Azad that she is driven to appeal to her base to stay away from him?
The answer lies in Mayawati’s concerns over the possibility of her votebank splitting with the increasing influence of smaller Dalit organisations in Uttar Pradesh and other Hindi-belt states, which is likely to ultimately benefit either the BJP or Congress, apart from weakening her.
Also, Mayawati is a leader who likes to work on her own, and dominate the discourse that she concerns herself with. This is also true of her style within her party — which is underscored by the fact that the BSP has only one spokesperson, with all small and big decisions being taken only by her. She is, naturally, likely to perceive another Dalit power centre as a threat to her dominance over her votebank.
Smaller Dalit outfits like the Bahujan Samaj Swabhiman Sangharsh Samiti (BS4) and Bahujan Mukti Morcha have never received the kind of response from the people that Azad and the Bhim Army have. Mayawati is aware that the reach and presence of the outfit has been rapidly radiating out of districts like Saharanpur to not just the eastern and central parts of the state, but also to states other than UP.
Azad recently visited Ayodhya and announced that he would contest the Varanasi Lok Sabha seat against Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Though he did not ultimately go ahead, the announcement got significant media attention.
Azad is young and inspirational to his followers. Mayawati, on the other hand, although undisputedly the tallest leader of India’s Dalits, is getting on in age, and there is no clear line of succession in the BSP as yet.
Although Mayawati has suggested that she would run her movement for at least two more decades, the manner in which she has been projecting her nephew Akash Anand has sent out signals that she may be contemplating a reducing role for herself much sooner than that.
Mayawati understands that with her party not being able to win a single seat in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the fight for Lok Sabha 2019 and Uttar Pradesh Vidhan Sabha 2022 will decide the future of her political career.
Last year, Mayawati strongly denied any association with Chandrashekhar Azad. She was responding to a statement from Azad that she was his “bua”, and that they were of the “same blood”. What is interesting is that she has rarely attacked other Dalit leaders like Ram Vilas Paswan, Ramdas Athawale, or the young Jignesh Mevani with the same ferocity.
Reason? Mayawati’s rivalry with Azad is more in the nature of a turf war than an ideological battle. These other leaders are either not a threat to Mayawati, or have no presence on her turf.