Is Mayawati’s decision to resign from the Rajya Sabha mere theatrics or is it the first step in her plan to reclaim a lost space? Her desperate clamour that she will have to support the NDA’s nominee Ram Nath Kovind for the presidential election unless the opposition too nominates a Dalit candidate makes it evident that the BSP is no longer the party of Dalit aspirations.
The BSP had long ago ruined its chances of emerging as a pan-India vehicle of Dalit mobilisation and is now struggling to remain relevant even in the Hindi heartland. With a negligible presence in Parliament, less than 5 per cent legislators in the newly elected Uttar Pradesh assembly, and almost zero presence in other states, the big question is: Can Mayawati and BSP make a comeback to the centre-stage of Dalit politics?
The short answer is that the chances of the BSP’s revival depend on how much Mayawati is willing to change her political style for fruits she may not be able to reap herself. Her resignation is unlikely to be of any help beyond keeping her in the news cycle for a few days. Can she do what Kanshi Ram did for Dalit politics in the 1980s and 1990s? If not, only a miracle can revive her party’s prospects.
Since the BJP’s victory in the 2014 elections, in which a large number of Dalits had voted for the party, a series of events have created multiple faultlines in Dalit politics. An interplay of three factors is likely to shape the future of Dalit politics in the country.
First, the BJP continues to make successful inroads among Dalit voters (especially among the non-Jatavs) in the Hindi heartland. Evidence from the Mood of the Nation (MOTN) survey conducted in May 2017 by Lokniti-CSDS indicates that the party’s popularity among Dalits has increased further. While PM Modi’s personal popularity seems to be the main driver of this support, the BJP continues to make aggressive moves to woo Dalit voters (‘Desperately seeking Ambedkar’, IE, April 30, 2016).
Second, new political entrepreneurs like Jignesh Mevani and Chandrashekhar have emerged at the forefront of this new churn in Dalit politics. The former is convenor of the Una Dalit Fight Against Atrocities Committee which had organised protests against the flogging of Dalits in Gujarat’s Una district. The latter is founder of the Bhim Army, which organised the protests in Saharanpur and then at Jantar Mantar in Delhi. While the emergence of Mevani and Chandrashekhar may not survive the rough and tumble of competitive politics, it is clear that Mayawati now stands at the margin of the discourse within Dalit politics.
Third, the BSP faces an existential crisis and continues to decline across the country, including in UP. The party has barely 3 per cent of the vote in any state outside UP. Though it received 22.2 per cent of the vote in the UP assembly election, data shows that the BSP is standing on thin ice in state politics. For the first time since 1996, the BSP is neither the ruling party nor the principal opposition in the UP assembly. In 2012, the party’s tally in the assembly may have dropped below the three-digit mark but it was in competition in a large number of seats. For instance, in 2007, the party had either won or stood second in 310 seats, which declined marginally to 289 seats in 2012. On the other hand, in the 2017 election, it won just 19 seats and stood second in only 119.
Where does the BSP fit in this changed battleground? At best, the BSP can now just hope to retain its Dalit base. The BSP’s dominance among Dalits, especially non-Jatavs, is being seriously challenged by the BJP. The BSP in 2007 and 2012 assembly elections had polled close to half of non-Jatav Dalit voters, which came down to 30 per cent in 2014. It is less likely that there was any improvement in this segment in 2017. Also, the party has gradually lost its support among other social groups, which was carefully built by Kanshi Ram.
The trouble for the BSP is that a much younger and energetic Dalit leadership has started shaping the discourse within Dalit politics. Moreover, Mayawati’s earlier style of political campaigning which solely focuses on building an assertive narrative around caste identity is unlikely to resonate among the electorate for two reasons. First, a new social constituency among Dalits has emerged in the past few years, which is economically more mobile and aspirational. This group identifies more with Modi’s style of politics who, while claiming pride in his backward caste identity, also talks of economic aspirations. Second, her own image as an able administrator and transformative leader has been tarnished due to corruption scandals, centralisation of authority, and substituting ideological legacy with rhetorical statements.
The BSP’s future in Indian politics depends heavily on what Mayawati chooses to do in the coming months. Will she align with opposition forces to ensure that she gets re-elected to the Rajya Sabha? Or would she contest the upcoming Lok Sabha by-election this year from either Gorakhpur (vacated by Yogi Adityanath) or Phulpur (vacated by Keshav Prasad Maurya) and try to pose a challenge in the fiefdom of top BJP leaders in the state? Or will she take the Kanshi Ram route — nominate younger and ideologically more vocal leaders for these contests, travel across the state, visit Dalit bastis, listens to their grievances (rather than merely addressing mega rallies) and rebuild the ideological prowess and infrastructural base for younger leaders to continue the fight even in her absence. The challenge for Mayawati is evident — let go of the self for the larger cause.