When the elephant disappears

One party which could benefit the most from the decline of the BSP is the BJP, whose vote share among Dalits in the Lok Sabha election doubled from 12 per cent to 24 per cent

Updated - January 05, 2015 09:30 am IST

Published - January 05, 2015 12:30 am IST

The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) should be worried that it did not win even a single seat in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, but what should be even more worrying for the party is the possibility of its losing out the status of being a national party in the near future. The party has faced a decline in its vote share in not only the 2014 Lok Sabha election but also in the various State Assembly elections held last year. This is not only due to reduced support among the upper castes but also because the party is losing appeal among its core constituency — Dalit voters. At this moment it is not clear if this is a short-term trend or if this indicates a long-term decline of the BSP in Indian politics. But as of now, there seems to be a clear shift of Dalit voters away from the BSP.

The question is: are Dalits inclined to return to mainstream national parties — the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress — or is there a possibility of the emergence of alternate regional forces that could mobilise Dalit voters? Either way, a decline of the BSP marks the beginning of a new stage in Dalit mobilisation in Indian politics.

The gainer The BSP lost a sizeable per cent of votes in Uttar Pradesh (nearly 7 per cent compared to 2009) during the 2014 Lok Sabha election. The decline in vote share of the party in 2014 as compared to 2009 was evident in other States such as Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab and Delhi. This decline had begun long before the Lok Sabha election; the party’s vote share declined in every Assembly election after its 2012 Uttar Pradesh debacle (Chibber and Verma 2014). The trend has continued even after the 2014 Lok Sabha election as seen in the Assembly elections held in Haryana, Maharashtra and Jharkhand.

The BJP seems to have realised that Dalit support is extremely important for its electoral arithmetic

One party which could benefit most from the decline of the BSP is the ruling BJP. In the Lok Sabha election, the BJP’s national vote share among Dalits had doubled — from 12 per cent to 24 per cent — compared to 2009. The downfall of the BSP opens possibilities for a shift of a large number of Dalit voters who used to vote for the party earlier. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the BJP had gained Dalit votes both in States that witnessed multipolar contests such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and in those that witnessed bipolar contests such as Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Gujarat. But the evidence for a shift towards the BJP is not universal as some regional alternatives like the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Punjab and Delhi have also gained votes among Dalits. In Punjab, the AAP stood third, with 21 per cent votes, among Dalits and in Delhi it led with a vote share of more than 40 per cent. The BJP seems to have realised that Dalit support is extremely important for its electoral arithmetic. High support among the community will not only allow it to continue its domination over the Congress in bipolar States but also help it in countering regional forces in States like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The party seems to be running a well-designed electoral strategy to draw support among the Dalit community. Its alliance with Ram Vilas Paswan in Bihar and Ramdas Athawale in Maharashtra, and the induction of Dalit leader Udit Raj, were just glimpses of this strategy. Dalits form a significant proportion of the electorate in the two States going to polls in 2015 — Delhi and Bihar. In Delhi, Dalits are 16.8 per cent of the total population, while in Bihar they constitute 15.9 per cent. Support among the community is also crucial for the party in its long-term expansion plans for States like Tamil Nadu and Punjab. The party’s limited criticism of statements made by Bihar Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi, a Mahadalit by caste, and the appointment of Vijay Sampla, a Dalit face from Punjab, as the Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment could be small steps in the party’s larger programme of expanding its social base.

Where is Mayawati? The year 2014 was full of political activities with the Lok Sabha election as well as elections in several States. In the entire year, the focus of discussion was largely on the rise of the BJP, the charisma of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the decline of the Congress and Rahul Gandhi. Sometime in between, the focus shifted to some regional leaders like Mamata Banerjee, Jayalalithaa and Naveen Patnaik and, of late, to the leaders of the Janata Parivar.

Someone who has been missing from these discussions is Mayawati and her party, the BSP. Till 2012, when her party was in power in Uttar Pradesh, she was also being considered as one of the contenders for the Prime Minister’s position if a non-BJP, non-Congress government emerged victorious. Circa 2015, we could ask, what is happening to the BSP and where is Mayawati in mainstream politics?

(Sanjay Kumar is director, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies and Pranav Gupta is a researcher at Lokniti, CSDS.)

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