By relinquishing her Rajya Sabha seat, Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati has sought to charm her supporters while giving political opponents notice of her intention to re-arm. To quit conjures an irresistible aura of renunciation that is hardly new to Indian politics. It signals a spirit of sacrifice mixed with defiance and commitment.
Yet, it also gives Mayawati’s political opponents a moment to savour, for it betrays the BSP’s lack of options. The BSP supremo has chosen to experiment at a time when the party is in its worst phase. BSP has been losing elections since 2009 in UP, although keeping intact a higher double-digit vote share. Since her resignation, there is talk of the end of politics of identity in the BSP’s rival camps.
“Dalits have tasted power four times in UP. Now they want to win again, and they want it desperately,” says Satish Prakash, Dalit ideologue and political commentator. “After losing in 2009, 2012, 2014 and 2017, Mayawati knows that 2019 will be the last shot that Dalit voters will give her.” Not just electoral losses, the perception that Mayawati no longer aggressively champions Dalit political and social causes is wearing her supporters out. “Psychologically, the Dalit wants a hawkish, militant leader now. He then wants that leader to form a government,” adds Prakash.
The last time Mayawati showed any visible ‘aggression’ that Praksh talks of was over a year back when she silenced BJP minister Smriti Irani during a Rajya Sabha debate on Dalit student Rohith Vemula’s suicide. After that, Mayawati seemed to have retreated into questionable calm, even when the UP Assembly elections came around. At the time, she was repeatedly criticised for having lost her way.
Other indicators of a weakening grip have since followed. The emergence of the Bhim Army in the recent Saharanpur unrest is only one sign of how Mayawati’s voters view the changing scenario. “They marched into her turf, their very existence indicating that the BSP no longer raised hopes,” says Prakash Ambedkar, grandson of Dr BR Ambedkar and national president, Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh (BBM), which is largely based out of Maharashtra. In the public exchanges that took place between Mayawati and BJP leaders over who had floated the Bhim Army, which was painted as being a violent organization by political opponents, she was quick to dissociate herself from the new outfit. It appeared that the BSP had made a political misstep, denying itself the chance to co-opt the assertive new movement of young Dalits, that too from UP.
Ambedkar points out a crucial dissimilarity between Maharashtra’s and UP’s political base, which make the two turfs dissimilar. “UP has the maximum numbers of enlightened Ambedkarites. But, while in Maharashtra leaders can become heroes for life, in UP, a leader’s utility matters more. Can a leader attain power or not is always the question in UP. One who cannot is discarded, and a new leader sought,” he says. Currently, he feels a second phase of social revolution should begin. “In the first phase we fought for our own people’s liberation. Now we should unite under one banner, all castes of SCs—that would be the second phase.”
“Mayawati is very shrewd. She knew how and when to push back the BJP, which was claiming that the Bhim Army is violent, ‘naxal’ and so on. She silenced the BJP instantly,” says Vivek Kumar, who teaches sociology at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). “While resigning from the Rajya Sabha, she also left no doubt it was because she felt insulted over not being allowed to take a stand for the Dalits. She got two birds with one stone.”
The angry approach Mayawati adopted—fighting and fleeing the House, almost forgetting her handbag—indicates she had been feeling let down for a while, most recently by the presidential election. The candidature of Bihar Governor Ramnath Kovind by the BJP seemed like an attempt to nudge the BSP towards national irrelevance. Already, BJP leaders have successfully campaigned against the BSP for “favouring” only UP’s Jatavs (who are over half the state’s Scheduled Caste population).
“Mayawati only becomes active during elections and retreats thereafter. Even Saharanpur was a compulsion for her,” feels Udit Raj, BJP MP and Dalit leader. However, he doesn’t see the resignation as a sign of admitting ‘defeat’ tacitly. “In politics, this is not called admitting defeat. It is called making an arrival—with a bang.” He says that for now Mayawati seems to realise that with Kovind’s candidature, the people’s mandate would shift away from her.
“Do not presume that identity politics has died from Mayawati’s resignation or BSP’s election performance,” says Kumar. “After all, who revealed Ramnath Kovind’s primordial identity but the BJP’s national president? Gujarat’s Kori Patels, though an OBC group there, are felicitating Kovind and thanking BJP for his candidature. So Kovind’s identity is being reaped too, just in a different way,” he adds.
Caste is being harnessed in new and unusual ways, and the BSP seems reluctant or incapable in keeping up. “In JNU, the ABVP held a programme where they placed Golwalkar and Ambedkar on the same banner. The two stood for very different things but still this is being done,” says Arun Khote, Dalit rights activist and chief executive, Peoples Media Advocacy & Resource Centre (PMARC).
In this context, the Rajya Sabha seat is less important for the BSP than a fresh strategy. Since 2014, Dalits have been outspoken against attacks, be it Una or tensions with Rajputs in UP. “This is a significant shift because earlier Dalits were only uniting on Dalit issues. But in Hyderabad Central University the issue was over the screening of the documentary Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai by the Ambedkar Students Association, not a Dalit cause per se. In times of such a crisis and resurgence, a Dalit leader like Mayawati should make youngsters come out of the shadows,” says Khote.
Mayawati has held on to her rural vote bank, but in urban areas, the Dalits are not even going for the Congress, but the BJP. This is another significant challenge for her. Besides, with all parties wooing Dalits, only caste consolidation will not swing Mayawati to power either.
“With Kovind as the president and BJP playing Dalit saviour, Mayawati will return to the BSP’s core ideology and supporters,” says Suryakant Waghmore, who teaches sociology at IIT Bombay. “She will have to return to the old form of Kanshi Ram’s politics—to mobilise resources, volunteers and intellectuals from across marginal groups.”
One opportunity to prove herself perhaps looms right ahead, with Phulpur’s forthcoming by-election in UP. This seat—held previously by former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and where BSP founder Kanshi Ram contested from—is to be vacated by BJP’s Keshav Prasad Maurya. If Mayawati contests, she may have to sidestep talks of an SP-BSP alliance because of Phulpur’s significant (20 per cent) Muslim population. If the SP and BSP combine, it will pit 40 per cent of Phulpur against 60 per cent of its non-Dalit Hindus. “This seat would be Mayawati’s last opportunity to be at the centre of attention and it will test her mettle,” says Prakash.
No doubt Mayawati would want to give the BJP a psychological defeat at Phulpur—but the test is as much for her as for the BJP.