THE ELUSIVE MAYAWATI
IT’S ADVANTAGE BJP AS A STRUGGLE FOR SURVIVAL LEADS THE BSP CHIEF TO SNUB THE CONGRESS IN THREE POLL-BOUND HINDI HEARTLAND STATES
The opposition grand alliance is in crisis as the BSP supremo dumps the Congress ahead of assembly elections in three states
IN THE INTEREST OF THE BSP MOVEMENT, WE HAVE DECIDED WE WILL NOT ALLY WITH THE CONGRESS IN MP AND RAJASTHAN AT ANY COST... WE WILL NOT TOLERATE THE INSULT OF OUR PEOPLE MAYAWATI
If the photo-op in Karnataka in May or the Akhilesh YadavMayawati tie-up two months earlier was anything to go by, a mahagathbandhan or grand alliance of opposition parties was almost a given for three assembly polls in November and the general election in 2019. But then the mercurial Mayawati put a spanner in the works, aligning first with Ajit Jogi’s Janta Congress Chhattisgarh (JCC) and then ruling out an alliance with the Congress in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. “In the interest of the BSP movement,” the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) president declared, “it has been decided that the party will not ally with the Congress in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan at any cost. In Karnataka, we tied up with a regional party (Janata Dal-Secular). In Chhattisgarh, we tied up with Ajit Jogi’s Janta Congress Chhattisgarh. In Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, we may go with regional parties there, but certainly not with [the] Congress.”
Mayawati’s blistering attack on All India Congress Committee general secretary Digvijaya Singh, who she accused of being a “BJP agent” and held squarely responsible for the botched alliance talks between her party and the Congress in poll-bound Madhya Pradesh, has stunned observers. The Congress, however, is clinging on to the hope that these are mere bargaining tactics by the BSP for a greater number of seats in any pre-poll alliance with the Congress in the three poll-bound states.
One indication of this came on October 9 when, celebrating BSP founder Kanshi Ram’s birth anniversary, she said, “We won’t go begging to any party for seats. We won’t tolerate the insult of our people. That’s why we have put forth only one condition, of being given a respectable number of seats to enter into an electoral alliance.”
On their part, most Congress observers firmly believe this is typical Mayawati-style hard bargaining. After all, they point out while gunning for the Congress local leadership last week, Mayawati significantly spared Congress president Rahul Gandhi and United Progressive Alliance chairperson Sonia Gandhi, even going to the extent of saying, “I feel Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi’s intentions for a Congress-BSP alliance are honest. But some Congress leaders are sabotaging it.” This strategy of sparing the Congress high command but attacking state-level leaders is with an eye to keeping her options open for any negotiations prior to the Lok Sabha polls. Acknowledging the equation, Congress leader Randeep Surjewala says: “Mayawati has expressed mutual respect and reposed her confidence in Soniaji and Rahulji. If the three top leaders—Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and BSP president Mayawati—are on the same page, no fourth person can disturb the equation between the Congress and the BSP.” The Congress’s dreams of help from the BSP, a key ally in the grand alliance, to end 15 years of BJP rule in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh collided directly with the BSP’s desire to piggyback on the Congress in the three states. Congress leaders say they would have given the BSP a maximum of 15 seats when the party wanted as many as 50 in the 230-member MP assembly. MP Congress Committee president Kamal Nath, however, came to former CM Digvijaya Singh’s defence, saying, “Someone had to be blamed for the alliance not working out, and Mayawati blamed Digvijaya Singh. The fact is the BSP wanted 50 seats and given the ground position, the BSP cannot possibly win in many of these seats. This would have directly benefitted the BJP,” says Nath. However, being the optimist and pragmatist that he is, Kamal Nath still hopes some arrangement can be worked out before the polls commence.
A desperate and combative Mayawati has her own compulsions in driving a hard bargain with the Congress. The BSP’s vote share had dipped dramatically in each of the three Hindi heartland states in the 2013 assembly polls after peaking in 2008. In MP, her party’s vote share declined from 8.8 per cent (or 7 seats) in 2008 to 6.3 per cent (4 seats) in 2013. In Chhattisgarh, the party’s vote share declined from 6.1 per cent (2 seats) in 2008 to 4.3 per cent (1 seat) in 2013. In Rajasthan, its vote share and seats halved from 7.6 per cent (6 seats) in 2008 to 3.4 per cent (3 seats) in 2013.
The slide in BSP vote share and seats has been even more dramatic in Uttar Pradesh, its greatest stronghold. The party, with 30 per cent of the popular vote in 2007, had romped to power with 206 out of the 403 seats. Mayawati became chief minister for a full five-year term. By 2012, the BSP’s popular vote had slid down to 26 per cent, bringing down its seat share to 80, and ceding the chief ministerial space to Samajwadi Party scion Akhilesh Yadav. Things turned even more disastrous in 2017, when the BSP’s popular vote slid to 22.2, earning the party a measly 19 seats and paving the way for Yogi Adityanath to become the head of the BJP government in the state. The decline of the party is reflected even in the Lok Sabha results. In both 2004 and 2009, the BSP won 19 and 20 seats respectively out of the
80 seats in UP. But by 2014, the BSP ended up with nil seats despite a 19.6 per cent vote share.
It is this dramatic slide in vote and seat share that has made Mayawati desperate. It is a now or never situation for her in both the assembly elections this year and the general election next year. She sees the battle in the Hindi heartland states as a chance to increase her vote and seat share. The rising Dalit consciousness in the face of atrocities against them in BJP-ruled states, dilution of the provisions of the Scheduled Castes/ Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and the issue of quota in jobs and promotions have come to her aid.
In April this year, MP became the epicentre of massive Dalit protests after six people were killed in mob violence in Gwalior, Bhind and Morena districts and many more injured during a Bharat bandh. The rail blockade and other incidents of violence spread all around the Hindi heartland states of Rajasthan, UP and Bihar. Mayawati, with her committed Dalit voters, wants to capitalise on this rising sentiment of the community.
Besides these, there were at least another dozen seats in which the BSP vote was substantial enough to alter the outcome of the polls should it ally with the Congress. Even MP Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan admitted that a Congress-BSP alliance could pose a serious threat for the BJP in Bundelkhand, particularly in the Gwalior-Chambal and Vindhya regions, in at least 15 seats.
How strong is the BSP in MP? The party relies mainly on a core committed vote bank comprising Scheduled Castes. Three of the four seats it won in MP in 2013 are reserved for SCs. Of these, two are located in the GwaliorChambal region that has a comparatively high population of SCs and the remaining in the Vindhya region, the original stronghold of the BSP in MP. The party notches up victories in its strongholds where the contest is three-cornered or where the Congress has become very weak and does not have substantial votes to win. The BSP usually wins when it gets the SC vote en masse along with some OBC votes. The party would win in the Vindhya region in the 1990s when OBCs like the locally dominant Kurmis began supporting it. In recent years, however, the Kurmis have largely abandoned the BSP and been appropriated by the mainstream Congress and BJP.
In the one general seat that the party won in 2013, Dimani, it had fielded an upper caste candidate. A Brahmin by caste, Balvir Singh Dhadotiya secured the combined SC and Brahmin votes to post a victory.
Both in MP and in Chhattisgarh, the crux of the BSP-Congress alliance rests on the transferability of votes. The Congress cannot yield seats beyond a point to the BSP since it feels that the upper caste vote will go to the BJP instead in such seats. The BSP feels its vote will transfer to the Congress but not vice versa. In such a scenario, the BSP feels it is at a disadvantage in an alliance with the Congress.
THE BSP WANTED 50 SEATS IN MP AND THE GROUND POSITION IS THAT THEY CANNOT POSSIBLY WIN THESE SEATS. THIS WOULD JUST BENEFIT THE BJP KAMAL NATH MPCC president
In fact, at the ground level, the Congress and BSP have often competed for the same vote. However, the prospect of a BSP rise at the expense of the Congress is remote. The BSP did appropriate the Congress’s Dalit vote bank when it allied with the Congress in UP in 1996. But between 2008 and 2013, the BSP vote base began shifting back towards the Congress and other parties, given the party’s dilution of the Bahujan ideology.
Mayawati’s current beef with state-level Congress leaders is also because the party gives shelter to BSP’s expelled leaders. Once its tallest Muslim face in UP, Nasimuddin Siddiqui was expelled by Mayawati after the UP poll disaster in 2017. Having now joined the Congress, Siddiqui is trying to expand the Muslim base of the Congress, especially in western UP. In MP, the Congress is trying to project Devashish Jarariya as the Dalit face of the party. A BSP leader in MP, he was sacked ostensibly because he had launched the BSP youth website to attract SC/ST youth, when the party did not have even an official Twitter or Facebook account. After Jarariya was expelled, Mayawati also made it clear that the party had neither a youth wing nor a website.
The BSP’s decline in the 2014 Lok Sabha and 2017 UP assembly election has led to a political vacuum in large parts of the state. Meanwhile, new Dalit leaders like Chandrashekhar Azad are gaining traction. After his release from jail in September, Chandrashekhar made an overture to Mayawati, saying, “She is my buaji (aunt) and I am her bhatija (nephew). Our blood is the same as we both come from the same community.” Actually, Chandrashekhar’s aim is to unite the BJP’s anti-Dalit vote bank in western UP. On the other hand, Mayawati, who belongs to the same Jatav subcaste as Chandrashekhar, is unhappy with the Bhim Army for dividing the BSP’s carefully nurtured Jatav vote bank. Ajit Kumar, a professor in Banaras Hindu University, says, “Mayawati doesn’t want to create any other Dalit leadership, especially from the Jatav community in western UP, since it will damage her hold over Dalit vote banks and in turn reduce her bargaining power. But any division in the Dalit vote bank will certainly help the BJP, which is appeasing Dalits with an eye to the Lok Sabha polls.”
Mayawati is also upset with the Congress for approaching the Bhim Army. The Congress’s state vice president and senior leader from Saharanpur, Imran Masood, had been continuously in touch with Chandrashekhar. It was Masood who had helped him get legal support while he was in jail. Acknowledging the debt, Chandrashekhar said, “Imran has supported us in difficult days. We will give our blood for him. Imran and his community have always tried to give security to Dalits.” Chandrashekhar and Masood are now working towards a Dalit-Muslim alliance in western UP keeping 2019 in mind. Lucknow University professor Manish Hindvi says: “With 27 Lok Sabha seats in western UP, any sort of Congress-Bhim Army alliance will affect the BSP’s chances in the region.” Says a BSP leader from western UP, “The Bhim Army is trying to damage the BSP mission by creating a dilemma among Dalit voters, and the Congress is supporting it indirectly. It is doing everything that can be called anti-grand alliance activity.” However, Kamal Waliya, a senior leader of the Bhim Army, struck a conciliatory note: “We will try our best to unite all Dalit votes against the BJP. We all re-
spect Mayawati and can unite with her in order to defeat the BJP in 2019.”
Congress leaders are also wary of the ongoing upper caste and OBC backlash against the SC/ST Act and reservations in promotions and jobs. An alliance with the BSP, it feels, could hurt its chances as non-Dalit voters might shy away from the Congress and go with the BJP.
Initially, Akhilesh exhorted the Congress to have a large heart and accommodate the BSP. “The Congress should contest elections by taking along all political parties who have similar thoughts and ideology,” he said on October 3. However, with Congress leaders ignoring his plea, Akhilesh decided to abandon the Congress alliance. On October 6, the SP chief announced in Lucknow: “We will fight elections in MP and Chhattisgarh and speak to the BSP and the Gondwana Ganatantra Party for an alliance in the two states. The Congress has made us wait for long. We can’t wait any more.”
The assembly elections in November are critical for both the BSP and the Congress. The BSP’s ascendancy in UP as well as in MP, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh had been a body blow to the Congress. However, with an ambitious Mayawati taking the Bahujan vote for granted and courting the upper-caste vote, the BSP’s expansion not only slowed down post-2012 but actually began declining. Now, both parties are vying for the same vote banks, struggling to regain their lost credibility and the vote base that has abandoned them. The Congress worries about the price of BSP support for defeating its main enemy, the BJP. But unless you ally with the lesser enemy, you never win the battle in the long run.
I AM SAYING EVEN TODAY, THE CONGRESS SHOULD CONTEST ELECTIONS BY TAKING ALONG ALL POLITICAL PARTIES THAT HAVE SIMILAR THOUGHTS AND IDEOLOGY AKHILESH YADAV Samajwadi Party president
HIGH COMMAND Sonia and Rahul with Mayawati in Bengaluru in May
ALIGNING WITH MAYA