Not long ago, the Bahujan Samaj Party grew even as the Bharatiya Janata Party declined. Election-2014 is a comprehensive reversal of the trend

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s performance in Uttar Pradesh has been beyond belief. But equally incredible, if in reverse, is the Bahujan Samaj Party’s devastation in the State.

The BJP’s conquest is as epic as the BSP’s fall. The BJP has bettered the best predictions with a humongous 71 seats — 14 more than its 1998 high of 57. With a zero score, the BSP has done worse than the worst forecast, regressing 30 years to the time it was born. Perhaps even this does not fully capture the BSP’s ignominy because, in contrast to today, 1984 was a year of hope and optimism: it marked the start of a remarkable political journey for which there are few parallels.

The BSP made its electoral debut in U.P. in 1989 with 2 seats in the Lok Sabha and 13 seats in the State Assembly. Over the next two decades, the party grew exponentially, taking on many avatars, from aggressively calling out to Dalits to championing the inclusion of the higher castes. The BSP was ever ready to seize power, and did so thrice with the help of the BJP, a party it attacked as “manuwadi” and whose interests it worked against even when in alliance with it. Later, it would reinvent itself and win accolades for forming the first majority government in 17 years — a feat magnified for being achieved under the leadership of Mayawati, a feisty woman from India’s most disadvantaged Dalit community.

Early warnings of downfall

In retrospect, it would appear that there were early enough warnings of the BSP’s impending downfall. In the 2009 general election, the party finished third behind the Samajwadi Party and the Congress, belying the soaring expectations raised by its 2007 Assembly election victory. In 2012, the BSP lost the Assembly election to the SP, winning only 80 seats to the SP’s blockbuster 224.

Of course, as is often the case with Indian elections, there was a disproportionate translation of votes to seats in both these elections. In 2009, the BSP won 20 seats to the SP’s 23 and the Congress’s 21. But it was the BSP that topped the vote chart — polling 27.42 per cent compared to the SP’s 23.26 per cent and the Congress’s 18.25 per cent. In 2012, the BSP won 144 seats fewer than the SP. Though measured by vote share, it was behind the SP by only 3 percentage points, polling 25.91 per cent to the SP’s 29.13 per cent. The distortion was more glaring viewed against the BSP’s 2007 winning performance of 206 seats for 30.43 per cent.

Yet, even with all the contradictions, one thing was apparent: the BSP was falling below the standard it had set for itself. The BSP’s vote graph, which was on an unbroken upward spiral from the time it debuted in 1989, had begun to dip starting 2009. From a high of 30.43 per cent in 2007 through 27.42 per cent in 2009 to 25.91 per cent in 2012, it was an unmistakable downward trend for a party that had earned its place in history books as the most unlikely trailblazer ever. The erosion continued, resulting in the BSP scoring a duck for a vote share of 19.6 per cent in 2014.

Reversing balance of power

The irony of the 2014 verdict is that it comprehensively reverses the balance of power in the BSP-BJP equation. Indeed, each time the BSP aligned with the BJP, it grew at the latter’s expense. The two parties aligned thrice — in 1995, in 1997 and in 2002-2003. In the State assembly, the BJP’s strength decreased from 174 seats for 32.52 per cent in 1996 to 88 seats for 20.08 per cent in 2002. In the Lok Sabha, the BJP declined from 52 seats for 33.44 per cent in 1996 to 10 seats for 22.17 per cent in 2004.

The BSP, on the other hand, went from strength to strength. In the Assembly it grew from 67 seats for 19.64 per cent in 1996 to 98 seats for 23.06 per cent in 2002. In the Lok Sabha, it went up from 6 seats for 20.61 per cent in 1996 to 19 seats for 24.67 per cent in 2004. Though the parties broke up, the effect spilled over into the 2007 Assembly election: the BSP crossed 30 per cent and won a majority; the BJP crashed to 51 seats for 16.97 per cent.

All this may seem like a lot of statistics, but in actuality the statistics are a reflection of the deep and persisting socio-political imbalances in the Hindi heartland. The BJP declined in association with the BSP because its core upper caste, upper OBC constituency was unable to accept the reversal of social equations between the higher castes and the Dalits. The BSP grew and prospered in the same period because its voters perceived Mayawati to be the leader of the alliance and therefore also of the higher castes. This was an untenable situation given the entrenched caste structures of U.P, which is why the BSP-BJP experiments proved to be short-lived.

The caste incompatibility was, in fact, the reason why the BSP shunned pre-poll alliances. As Mayawati would often say, while her Dalit vote was almost fully transferable, the higher castes resisted a transfer of their own votes to the BSP. The BSP chief and her strategists attempted to change this rigid status quo through their innovative “Brahmin jodo (add the Brahmins)” and “sarvajan (all castes)” campaigns. The experiment rose from two realisations: one, the BSP’s identity as a Dalit-Bahujan party was preventing its expansion. Second, pre-poll alliances would make the BSP dependent on other parties without fetching the required higher caste votes.

The paradox here was striking. If the upper caste disenchantment with the BJP was at least in part due to its alliances with the Dalit party, how would the same voter segment directly vote the BSP? But the climate was such that the BSP succeeded in its audacious project. The BJP’s decline had left the upper castes without the clout and influence they were long used to. On the other hand, the upper castes felt harassed under the 2003-2007 Mulayam Singh regime which they equated with the rise of Muslim muscle and power.

Mayawati’s conciliatory appeal and the promise of power and positions in her future regime finally brought the upper castes around. The cascading effect of this brought slices of other voter segments, leading to the BSP achieving power on the back of a rainbow caste coalition. The addition of other castes to Dalits came to be known locally as the “plus vote.” And true to her promise, Chief Minister Mayawati found official placements for the same “manuwadi” class that she railed against for much of her career.

Five years on, she would be betrayed by the upper castes, but incredibly the deserters would head for the SP which they had previously rejected. What changed things for them? The Mayawati government placated the upper castes with plum posts. But it also went some distance to implement legal measures enacted for the protection of Dalits. The implementation of the anti-atrocities legislation, and minimal attempts to secure land rights for Dalits, brought a severe upper caste backlash, resulting in the collapse of the artificial caste alliance achieved by Mayawati.

Significant verdict

The 2014 verdict is significant because the “plus vote” that benefited the BSP and the SP by turn would seem to have shifted en masse to the BJP. The verdict also signals the end of what had seemed like a natural progression — the shift of power down the caste ladder in U.P. If Mayawati was innovative in her time, Narendra Modi would outdo her by assembling a jumbo pack of all castes and communities barring Muslims and the BSP’s core Jatav vote.

The BSP won no seats even with a 19.6 per cent vote share. In a State with a Scheduled Caste population of 21 per cent, it is a fair conclusion that the BSP retained its core Jatav vote of around 12 per cent and a slice of vote of other Dalits and perhaps Muslims.

Election 2014 is a victory as much of Mr. Modi’s individual appeal as of his giant PR machine. For the BSP, which has so far shunned the media, it is a long battle made more difficult by the recent spate of attacks on Dalits and lower OBCs. The party has to demonstrate firm leadership of its own core voters even as it creatively reconnects with the alienated upper and middle castes.

vidya.s@thehindu.co.in

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