The BSP leader Mayawati's stakes in the UP Assembly elections are higher than those of any other contender. A second successive defeat after having drawn a blank in the Parliamentary polls will mean that she will find the task of holding her party together all the more difficult. She may be able to retain her core support base of Jatav/Chamar voters who constitute half of the state's total Dalit population of 21.1 per cent. But the Dalit sub-castes like Pasi, Dhobi, Kori, Balmiki, and others may begin to drift away towards parties with better prospects. Not surprisingly, Mayawati has formed "bhaichara" or friendship committees to woo these groups.
It may be recalled that in 2014, one out of every four Dalits voted for the BJP. The ratio was even higher for the BJP-led NDA, which was supported by one out of every three Dalits. Evidently, Narendra Modi's assurances of a better future persuaded a large number of Dalits to flock to his banner. As a result, the BSP's vote share at the national level fell from 6.2 per cent in 2009 to 4.1 in 2014. The party's poor performance in UP was primarily responsible for this decline in its voting percentage in the state, where the BSP is said to have considerable influence, dropped from 27.4 per cent in 2009 to 19.6 in 2014.
There is little doubt that the BSP paid the price for the grave mistake committed by Mayawati as Chief Minister between 2007 and 2012 when she frittered away her single-party majority in the UP Assembly by focussing on building statues and parks commemorating Dalit icons.
This time, she has promised not to indulge in such extravaganza again. "When I come to power, I will not build memorials because that has already been done. Now I will focus only on development", she has said. But the promise may have come too late. The development plank has now been taken over by both the BJP and the Samajwadi Party (SP).
Besides, the latter appears to have also deprived the Dalit czarina of her other strong point which was behind her 2007 success – that of being tough on anti-socials – by keeping the mafia don, Mukhtar Ansari's Quami Ekta Dal out of the SP while Mayawati has inducted it in the BSP. Mayawati may have done so in the hope of wooing Muslims. But, in all likelihood, the community will prefer the SP-Congress combine because it has a better chance of giving a tough fight to the BJP. For the Dalits, Mayawati's marginalisation will mean that another of their leaders has let them down. It will also highlight the fact that both the Dalits and the Muslims have been ill-served by their leaders since 1947.
If the leadership potential of any talented person in the Muslim community has been stymied by the memory of Jinnah's role in dividing the country, the Dalits have had no one for a long period – not even BR Ambedkar – to ensure sustained electoral success. Ambedkar was not a successful politician. His Independent Labour Party may have fared well in the 1937 elections in Bombay for the Central Legislative Assembly, winning 11 of the 13 reserved seats and three of the four seats in the general category. But after Independence, he lost the two elections which he fought in 1952 and 1954.
Since the various Republican parties formed in Ambedkar's name failed to make a mark outside Maharashtra, it was left to Kanshi Ram from Punjab and his protégé, Mayawati, from Delhi to breathe life into the Dalit movement although mainly in North India. Mayawati's primary contribution was to tone down her mentor's aggressively anti-upper caste outlook which was reflected in the slogan: tilak, tarazu, aur talwar; inko maro jootey char – meaning, beat with shoes the Brahmins, Banias, and Thakurs.
Instead, she courted the upper castes with the catchphrase: Brahmin sankh bajayega, hathi Dilli jayega– meaning that the Brahmins will blow conch shells as the elephant (the BSP's poll symbol) goes to Delhi. There was also the invocation of the Hindu gods in the slogan, Hathi nahin Ganesh hai, Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh hai, from the leader of a community whose members are often not allowed to enter temples. Behind Mayawati's rejection of Kanshi Ram's combativeness was the realisation that it was not possible to secure a majority in the Assembly by the support of only the Dalits. There was a need instead for a wide-ranging, rainbow coalition. Hence, her wooing of the upper castes, which led to her becoming the Chief Minister in UP in 2007 with an absolute majority. Earlier, she had been the Chief Minister on three occasions but in partnership with either the SP or the BJP.
But, now, it is a do or die battle for her. Since the upper castes are unlikely to repose their faith in her again, switching their preference to the BJP, Mayawati will have to bring a sizeable section of the Muslims back into her fold to forge a Dalit-Muslim combine. As long as the SP was in the throes of a family feud, she had a fair chance of achieving this objective. This may be no longer the case since the Muslims are likely to see the SP-Congress alliance as a winning combination. If Mayawati falters again, the BSP will face a bleak future.
(The writer is a political analyst. Views expresse are strictly personal.)