This article attempts to explore the various caste-based electoral strategies that aided the rise (and fall) of BSP in Uttar Pradesh (UP). It also seeks to understand whether the aforementioned strategies have led to a dilution of the party’s original goals. Lastly, it attempts to delineate a possible alternate vision for the future of BSP as a representative party.
Situating BSP’s electoral strategies in the politics of Uttar Pradesh
There are to be two widely accepted narratives regarding the politics of UP (Verniers 2016). The first one is that of caste being the most fundamental ingredient in the creation of electoral strategies and determining the results. In most casual political discussions BSP is viewed as a party practising Dalit identity politics. But if one were to move beyond casual political stereotypes and delve into the rhetoric and electoral strategies it uses, then an attempt at becoming a “catch-all” party becomes apparent (Jaffrelot and Verniers 2012). Here lies the second popular narrative – that the major parties are increasingly attempting voter mobilization beyond their core base (Verniers 2016). A party with a particular caste identity – like BSP –seeking to engage electorally with other caste groups is often viewed as a political necessity.
In its formative phase, the party chose isolation from the rest of the political field; in the mid-1990s it briefly forged alliances with the OBC parties like the Samajwadi Party (SP); in the next phase BSP started entering into coalitions with the two national parties – Congress and BJP (Pai 2002). It has also been observed that facing a stagnation of vote and seat shares, the party leadership adopted a new electoral strategy after the late 1990s (Pai 1999). The consolidation of Dalit votes in its favour allowed the party to “selectively distribute tickets” in UP to individuals from important non-Dalit social groups, especially in constituencies where the party was competitive but not sure of sufficient support (Pai 1999).
A hallmark of BSP’s electoral strategy is the narrative of voter mobilization beyond the core community. It avoids pre-poll alliances and instead attempts to directly build political and electoral coalitions with different castes and communities in the period preceding the elections (Jha 2004). Only in the aftermath of the elections, when the party fails to win sufficient seats, it starts negotiating with other parties. These strategies allowed BSP to substantially increase its seat and vote shares in the late 1990s and throughout the 2000s.
In my view, these strategies became irrelevant once other parties started adopting them. Moreover, the BJP created a successful system of pan Hindu unity under the larger Hindutva framework, where caste plays an important albeit incidental role.
The evolution of caste in the political ideology
Ambedkar’s dilemma between organizing the Dalit community and forging a broad political coalition provides a context for examining BSP’s caste ideology (Robinson 2011). Kanshi Ram, who created the party, defined “Bahujan” to be including religious minorities (especially Muslims) and the other backward classes (OBCs), besides the Dalits. All the groups in question, he asserted, suffered from “Manuwadi” oppression (Jaffrelot 1998; Kumar 2007). Opposition to the Manuwadi oppression of the Brahmin, Kshatriya and Bania groups is reflected in one of his most famous slogans – “Tilak, tarazu aur talvar, isko maaro joote char” (Brahmin, Baniya and Thakur, thrash them with shoes) (Teltumbde 2012). Moreover, he often asserted that the legislatures should embody the social composition of different castes and communities – ‘Jiski Jitni Sankhya Bhari, Uski Utni Bhagedari’ (The greater the number, the greater the share) (Jaffrelot 1998; Kumar 2007). One gets a sense of his vision to build a larger subaltern support base.
But there is also a clear sense of political pragmatism in Kanshi Ram’s actions. After breaking up with the OBC centric SP, he justified frequent alliances with the upper caste dominated BJP by asserting that the “upper castes will be more amenable to social transformation than the intermediary castes” (Jaffrelot 1998). There is ample evidence that whenever BSP came to power, supported by one or the other party, it was able to implement its own policies focused on Dalit assertion and upliftment. This is sufficient evidence to believe that the party, at its core, was a primarily Dalit oriented party under his leadership.
It has been widely argued that BSP’s politics under Mayawati, Kanshi Ram’s protégé and the party leader since 1995, is not limited to the subaltern groups (Jaffrelot 2003, 2012; Kumar 2007; Verniers 2016). The upper castes have played a key role in BSP’s success, especially after the mid-2000s. The party sought to mobilize several upper castes like the Brahmins, Kshatriyas and the Kayasthas. In the run-up to the 2007 UP elections, the state saw several membership drives – ‘Brahmin jodo sammelans’ (Brahmin enrolment conferences) – aimed solely at increasing the participation of Brahmins in the party (Kumar 2007; Verma 2007). This decade also saw a clear change in terms of the rhetoric used previously against the upper castes and the tilak-tarazu-talvar analogy was replaced with a more favourable one where the party’s elephant symbol was characterized as the Hindu god “Ganesh” in a pantheon of the religion’s major deities in order to appeal to the religious emotions of the upper castes–“Haathi nahi Ganesh hai, Brahma Vishnu Mahesh hai” (It is not just an elephant, it is Lord Ganesha, Lord Brahma, and Lord Vishnu & Lord Mahesh) (Roy 2002).
Certain scholars use these facts to argue that BSP transitioned from a Bahujan to a “sarvajan” party (Verma 2007; Teltumbde 2012). However, even though the upper caste groups’ share in BSP’s tickets increased, its top leadership did not make any complacent assumptions of support from the upper castes. Mayawati, in a speech given in June 2005, cautioned her audience that the “Bahujan Samaj should not trust the upper castes joining the party” because the “upper castes will not cast their votes in the favour of Bahujan candidates” (Kumar 2007). Yet she asked the Bahujan voters to vote for upper-caste BSP candidates, asserting that even if a tiny section of the upper castes voted in their favour then BSP’s seats tally could rise significantly (Kumar 2007). At its core, BSP continued to be the Dalit-Bahujan party and the Sarvajan rhetoric was purely politically pragmatic “window dressing” in order to increase its vote share (Verma 2007).
The party’s actions have received severe criticism within the Dalit-Bahujan political discourse. To begin with, even though the party claims an Ambedkarite character, it is highly unlikely that Ambedkar himself would envisage a Dalit-Brahmin electoral coalition (Robinson 2011). Anand Teltumbde (2012) comprehensively critiques the nature of Mayawati’s rule between 2007 and 2012. While her previous stints as chief minister had been remarkable on account of schemes like the Ambedkar Village Scheme aimed at Dalit upliftment, this five-year tenure became infamous for a feudal, authoritarian power structure where “rent was sought in exchange for political favour” (Teltumbde 2012). Atrocities on Dalits were not curbed and while there was an excessive investment in the memorials of Kanshi Ram and Ambedkar (and Mayawati too), the state did not show much improvement on the parameters of basic public services like health, education and transport (Teltumbde 2012). The general perception of the period was one of lavish extravagance and extreme corruption. Teltumbde concludes that Dalits continue supporting BSP under Mayawati due to a lack of political choice.
Some scholars have indicated that Dalit support for BSP actually declined in the 2012 UP election. By surveying Dalit attitudes towards the central aspects of BSP rule – symbolic representation, patronage and clientelism, policy and governance – they conclude that several Dalit voters were not satisfied with tokenistic symbolism and would rather have received the tangible benefits of ‘development’ (Heath and Kumar 2012).
I believe that BSP under Mayawati is rapidly losing its political identity and its electoral performance has completely plateaued. The voters don’t know what the party stands for. Moreover, I believe, its attempts to become a ‘catch all’ party have alienated a significant section of its core voter base – the Dalits of Uttar Pradesh. Notable voices within the Dalit community have asserted that BSP ought to return to its older ideological and organizational apparatus with a vocal focus on Bahujan politics (Chandra 2017). However, I strongly believe that a return to Bahujan politics alone won’t be enough in the face of BJP’s attempts to forge a pan Hindu alliance that silences Dalit assertion through assimilation. The party needs fresh faces. Chandrashekhar Azad and Jignesh Mevani are young and extremely promising Dalit politicians. The revival of Dalit-Bahujan political discourse under such leaders could provide a much-needed boost for the BSP. But will Mayawati vacate her chair? Regardless of the side to which the pendulum of power swings, the coming decade promises to be an extremely consequential one for Dalit Bahujan politics.
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of NLSIU, Lokniti or its members.