Mayawati led the BSP to spectacular success in 2007 with a deft innovation of identitarian craft. Sensing that the Samajwadi Party’s Yadavisation had become the common Other for Dalits, lower OBCs and upper castes, especially the Brahmins, she imaginatively reinvented the BSP’s electoral strategy by rhetorically shifting from ‘Bahujan’ to ‘Sarvjan’.
Of all the big players dominating the UP political scene in this election season, it is Mayawati’s story that is the most enigmatic and remarkable. To understand her significance in these elections it is necessary to examine the rise of her party, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), against broader trends in Indian politics, particularly in UP, since the 1980s.
The BSP was born, on April 14, 1984, at a time when class was being replaced by identity politics. Kanshi Ram, the founder of BSP and mentor of Mayawati, had a clear conception of the structure of what would constitute the Bahujan. It was a ‘cake model’: the base would be Dalits and the lower OBCs and Muslims the topping. He succeeded not only in consolidating the Dalit base but also in nurturing many lower OBC leaders who shared his conception of the Bahujan.
The BSP experiment succeeded in the 1990s at a time when every political party was employing social engineering strategies based on caste or religion, be it Hindutva, Mandal and Bahujan, catering to the political aspirations of different sections.
From Bahujan to Sarvjan
Mayawati led the BSP to spectacular success in 2007 with a deft innovation of identitarian craft. Sensing that the Samajwadi Party’s Yadavisation had become the common Other for Dalits, lower OBCs and upper castes, especially the Brahmins, she imaginatively reinvented the BSP’s electoral strategy by rhetorically shifting from ‘Bahujan’ to ‘Sarvjan’. The party symbol of the elephant was made to mean different things to different sections. For instance, to the Brahmins it came to represent Lord Ganesh.
Three slogans served this purpose: ‘Brahman shankh bajayega, haathi badhta jayega’ (the Brahmin blows the conch and sets the elephant on the path of victory); ‘Hathi nahin Ganesh hai, Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh hai’ (not just an elephant, it’s Ganesh and the Holy Trinity); ‘Chadh gundonki chhatipe, batan dabegi haathipe” (crushing the rowdies, the elephant will emerge victorious).
The interplay of these slogans captured the identitarian imagination of various castes and creatively stitched together an electoral alliance in which the upper castes, lower OBCs and Dalits saw a common Other in the form of the Yadavisation of the Samajwadi Party. Thus, Mayawati gave Kanshi Ram’s ‘cake model’ another layer: the Brahmins and a section of the other upper castes upon the existing base of Dalits and lower OBCs.
But this strategy had its structural limitations. While caste and religious arithmetic mattered, the exclusivity of different sections aligned with different parties was getting blurred. This phenomenon was linked to the larger shift in the outlook of political parties which started treating electorates as consumers who must be tapped. But except for the core voters of different parties, like Dalits (BSP), Yadavs (SP) Jats (RLD), Banias (BJP), etc, other sections with no long-term affinity to any political outfit became swaying voters or swinging/floating’ voters from election to election.
Limitations of identity politics
Therefore, in the post-Mandal 2000s, the electoral decline of the BJP in UP saw the upper castes in UP emerge as the balancing factor, a section of whom oscillated alternatively between the two available alternatives, BSP and SP besides the BJP. Similarly, the non-Yadav OBCs kept swinging among all the three outfits as per the incentive offered.
Mayawati won the 2007 election, not only on account of her positive efforts but equally because she was perceived as the best alternative to the SP and the lawlessness that prevailed. However, her victory in that election blurred the undercurrent of saturation of identity politics in the old mode wherein all that a party had to do was to rope in some popular caste leaders who would act as the conduit for their caste votes. Ironically, the ‘Sarvajan’ that Mayawati employed became the new trait of all parties, wherein every party was sending overtures to every caste, making the new identity politics extremely competitive.
The competitiveness of new identity politics raised the expectations of the electorate who now desired more and more visibility of the leaders, their targeted policies, their accessibility in everyday life, to feel relatively privileged over others. Voters, now pampered by all the parties, acquired a comparative vantage point, to pause, ponder and assess the alternatives and then choose the one they perceive to be the best.
Invisible in the opposition
While Mayawati succeeded in proving her credentials as an able administrator, she failed as a politician in the new context which demanded a sense of humility, accessibility and constant visibility from a leader both in power as well as in the opposition.
Her presence in UP, that too extremely inaccessible from the vantage point of new aspirational electorates, has been only when she is in power. Come electoral defeat, she retreats to Delhi, leaving the party to second-rung leaders who have no imagination among their respective constituencies. In fact, there is a complete lack of political activism by the BSP when she is out of power. Her sudden quest for a Dalit-Muslim electoral alliance on the eve of this election doesn’t capture the imagination of a significant percentage of Muslim voters as she failed to encircle the BJP and Samajwadi Party on issues like the Muzaffarnagar riots and the Dadri incident.
Seen against the backdrop of the other two parties, namely SP and BJP, who tend to hit the street when they are in the opposition, the desertion of the political field by BSP when it is in the opposition, the refusal of Mayawati to sit in the UP Assembly as the leader of the opposition to lead the popular protests against the apathy of the government of the day, end up alienating a majority of voters except the core one.
...to be continued
Sajjan Kumar is a Ph.D from Centre for Political Studies, JNU. He is associated with People’s Pulse, a Hyderabad-based research organization specializing in fieldwork-based political and electoral studies.