In 1989, five years after its launch, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) won three parliamentary and 13 Assembly seats. By then, unlike other caste-based parties, the BSP was active across north India. Three decades later, it has regressed in most states and is facing an existential crisis even in Uttar Pradesh, its stronghold. It failed to win a single seat in the 2014 elections in spite of being the country’s third largest party and won merely 19 seats in the 2017 UP elections even though it was the second-largest party. The BSP’s present crisis can be better understood by looking at the evolution of its support base.
The party’s first-generation supporters sought access to public resources, physical security, and symbolic recognition. The party tried to address these demands through aggressive campaign rhetoric and by forming governments with the help of “opportunistic” alliances, first with Mulayam Singh and then the BJP. The party, however, realised that it cannot depend upon fickle alliances to fulfill its social commitments and gradually extended its appeal to other communities, which helped it come to power in UP on its own in 2007.
The Dalits of UP emerged as a political force largely because of the BSP, which gave India its first Dalit woman chief minister. A tough administrator, Mayawati tried to redistribute land to Dalits and check atrocities against Dalits. She built monuments in Lucknow that were perhaps the first large-scale architectural intervention celebrating Dalits.
Why did the BSP flounder after accomplishing so much? The BSP’s Brahmin outreach is often held responsible for its decline. However, the outreach (and even the earlier short-lived alliance with the upper caste-dominated BJP) was driven by structural factors. While the rhetorical debate on caste is still framed in polar terms—Brahmin vs Dalit—at the grassroots OBCs and Dalits are often direct competitors. (I am reminded of a few short stories of Om Prakash Valmiki in which Brahmins are the only non-Dalit friends/allies of Dalit protagonists.)
The BSP stumbled after 2007 due to its inability to hold together its increasingly diverse supporters. It failed to retain the support of non-Jatav Dalits, non-Yadav OBCs, and upper castes. It also struggled to connect with the second-generation of its traditional Dalit supporters, who share “secular” aspirations with the rest of the electorate.
Instead of blaming EVMs and certain communities, the party needs to reimagine its agenda, rework its campaign strategy, and groom young leaders. Otherwise it cannot bridge the (generational) divide between its worldview and the aspirations of the Dalit youth, and other potential voters, who were born after a Dalit woman had already twice served as the chief minister of India’s largest state. The BSP has to realise that by contributing to Dalit empowerment, it has outlived its initial utility and lost its original appeal.
The need for a reorientation is highlighted, among others, by Youngistaan, a 2014 Hindi film, whose song Sunona Sangmarmar was shot in one of the Mayawati-era parks. The elephant-studded park, which was initially treated as untouchable and as a monument of (Dalit) corruption, has become a part of Lucknow, just like the fabled imambaras. The BSP has to adapt to this new world it has helped create in which Dalits have been able to overcome some of the earlier disabilities as well as claim some space in the society.
Assistant Professor, School of Development, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru