In the array of Opposition leaders at the swearing-in of the H D Kumaraswamy government in Bengaluru on Wednesday, one stood out. Ever since the BJP’s overwhelming victory in the 2014 general elections and its subsquent defeat at the hands of the RJD-JD(U) “mahagathbandhan” in the Bihar polls, attempts have been made to stitch alliances in the Opposition camp to counter the BJP’s growing electoral dominance.
Till recently, however, BSP supremo Mayawati had little or no role to play in such exertions. In fact, Mayawati has rarely shared the spotlight with other leaders, or forged a pre-poll alliance. The images of her alongside other leaders, especially Sonia Gandhi, in Bengaluru could be a sign of a rethink of the BSP’s patented isolationism.
Since the early 1990s, the BSP has projected itself as the sole national party that speaks for Dalits. Mayawati’s political clout peaked in 2007, when the BSP emerged with 206 seats and over 30 per cent of the vote in the UP Assembly elections, and she subsequently completed her only full term as chief minister. In 2009, the BSP won 21 seats in the Lok Sabha, its highest tally thus far.
The BSP forged a formidable social coalition: In addition to expanding its Dalit base, it wooed Brahmins in UP. Since that high point, however, the party has been in decline. In 2014, it won no seats in the Lok Sabha. In UP in 2017, in addition to being out of office for a second straight term, it has been reduced to the number three position. Mayawati’s electoral misfortunes have been matched by an ideological ceding of space: On a series of issues that have galvanised Dalits — Rohith Vemula’s death, the flogging in Una or face-off in Saharanpur — a younger leadership and organisations like the Bhim Army have emerged. In the politics of the street, of articulation and protest, the BSP has been found wanting.
The BSP is now clearly in a battle for survival. From the rainbow social coalition it had built in UP for a short while in the last decade, it is now at the risk of shrinking to a party of the Jatavs. Mayawati seems to see the danger. Her decision to ally with the SP in the recent by-elections in Gorakhpur and Phulpur, and her support to the RLD in the upcoming bypolls in UP show that the BSP is willing to let go of the old arrogance, and certainties. But whether or not the warmth in Bengaluru will lead to a coalition that can help revive the party and its leader’s national footprint remains to be seen.