A crucial assembly election awaits Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader and former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati in the 2022. A political maverick, Mayawati has been struggling to adapt to the change in Indian politics, and risks being relegated to a non-entity in UP politics.
At the national level, the BSP, which once showed the potential to emerge as the voice of the Dalits, is losing sheen.
The party has fared poorly in the last three elections (the 2014 and 2019 general elections, and the 2017 assembly elections) and has witnessed a decline in its vote share. The BSP’s current tally in the lower house of the UP assembly is seven seats out of the total 403 seats. The BSP had 18 MLAs, but the tally came down to seven after Mayawati expelled 11 MLAs.
Mayawati, who is 65-years-old, has not set in place a clear second line of leadership in the party or has groomed a clear successor who can carry the BSP in her absence. This gives a bleak picture of the BSP’s future.
In 2007, Mayawati created the famous Dalit-Brahmin-Muslim alliance. However, since then, the Muslims have consolidated behind the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Brahmins behind the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Even among the Dalits, the BSP has lost the support of one of its anchor voting segments of non-Jatavs. The BJP lured away the community by propagating that they have not benefited from Mayawati being in power as she worked for the welfare of her caste, the Jatavs.
In the 2017 assembly polls, in the reserved (Schedule Caste) seats, the BJP gave maximum tickets to non-Jatavs. It also made Ramapati Shastri and Gulabo Devi, both non-Jatav leaders, ministers in the Yogi Adityanath cabinet.
About 45 percent of the non-Jatavs, which account for 9 percent of UP’s population, backed the BJP in 2017. This increased to 60 percent in 2019, impacting the BSP’s vote share which declined from 25 percent to 20 percent.
In the state polls, the Jatavs have been supporting the BSP to the core. However, at the national level they have moved to the BJP because of the work done over the years by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) on the social and educational front.
Voters, involuntarily and yet en masse, do not support weak candidates during an election, and the same is the case of the Jatavs towards the BSP. The Jatavs have been unable to gain political representation and power by backing the BSP over the years, and, thus, could not be strongly backing the BSP.
In the 2019 general elections, Mayawati formed an alliance with SP leader Akhilesh Yadav to take on the BJP. Despite winning 10 seats, double the tally of the SP from a total of 80 seats, the BSP broke the alliance. Her unpredictability makes her a difficult political leader to read, and this, in turn, makes her a temperamental ally.
Both the SP and the BSP were largely able to seamlessly transfer their votes to each other with a leakage of 10 percent (in relative terms), which is normal. However, they lost as the BJP further consolidated its core support and the BSP-SP alliance failed to make a dent in its non-Yadav OBC vote bank.
Since then Mayawati has lost her touch and political aggression. She reads out her speeches and fails to connect with the masses. She is a pale political shadow of her towering past. Dalit leaders such as Chandrasekhar Azad are increasingly capturing the imagination of the youth, though he is yet to take the electoral plunge.
The political atmosphere in UP has charged up. Yadav has upped the ante against the BJP government alleging its mishandling of the pandemic. The SP has also come on the top in the recently-held local body elections. These developments pose a big risk for the BSP which is losing its space in state politics where the contest could be a bipolar one between the BJP and the SP in 2022. The BSP risks being an also-ran.
A certain section of the BSP’s non-Scheduled Caste support base could move to the SP as they see it in a better position to take on the BJP. The Jatavs could move to the BJP. Around half of the BSP's vote share comes from support of non-Dalits.
There are also strong rumours that the BSP has a secret pact with the BJP. It is alleged that the BSP puts up candidates to divide the opposition vote and help the BJP in quid pro quo of leniency in the corruption cases faced by Mayawati.
The BSP has remained silent on the farmers' protests, it has backed the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu & Kashmir, and has abstained from voting during the Triple Talaq Bill. It has also decided not to contest the Zila Panchayat chief elections raising eyebrows.
To remain a relevant and potent political force in Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati needs to increase her visibility and communication, revive her social coalition, and adapt to digital and aspirational politics.