Political and media pundits appear to have declared Mayawati the loser long before the electoral battle can begin in earnest. Two pre-poll surveys of the electoral mood in Uttar Pradesh doing the rounds in the capital forecast a drastic fall in the BSP tally—half or less than what it won last election. There is an assumption that with all three of her opponents, the Samajwadi Party, the Congress and the BJP, predicted to improve upon their previous performances, the only big loser can be the BSP.
This isn’t the first time that her opponents and the media have underestimated the Dalit supremo. Mayawati has always shown an uncanny ability to beat the odds, snatching success from the jaws of overwhelming challenges. She has managed to do so not merely because of her own resilience in the face of adversity, but often due to an almost fortuitous interplay of power equations between her political rivals that invariably gives her an advantage.
The same logic holds true this time even though the UP chief minister is struggling against anti-incumbency currents—unlike the last election, when she was propelled by a wave against Mulayam Singh Yadav. Indeed, in spite of this obvious vulnerability to public disenchantment with a five-year-old administration, there is still no sign so far of a sweeping anti-Mayawati wave.
There are two primary reasons for the inevitable rumblings against the government in Lucknow not to turn into a tidal wave engulfing the BSP regime. Firstly, Mayawati has managed to keep near intact her core support base of Jatavs—the largest caste group in Uttar Pradesh. More importantly, her three political foes, the Samajwadi Party, BJP and Congress, instead of making the BSP their prime target, are caught in a vicious, fractious tussle to pull each other down.
The importance of the BSP supremo retaining her stranglehold over as large a caste group as the Jatavs—nearly 14 percent of UP’s population—and dominance over other Dalit sub-castes, with the possible exception of the Pasis, can hardly be minimised. This gives Mayawati a core Dalit vote base of around 18 per cent spread quite evenly across various constituencies of UP, which, bolstered by an auxiliary support group of poor low caste Muslims and a slew of several backward caste communities, does give the BSP a fighting chance in virtually every constituency in the state.
However, to win, the BSP requires to look beyond its core and auxiliary support groups to gain additional support from sundry middle- and upper-caste groups by judicious selection of candidates who can individually pull in the missing numbers to finish first past the post. Last time, this was easy, with several middle- and upper-caste groups, led by the Brahmins, creating a buzz favouring the BSP in order to boot out Mulayam. There is no such buzz this time, with the same groups palpably annoyed with the Jatavs, although it remains to be seen whether the Brahmins would prefer a return to the despotism of moustachioed Yadav goons on motorcycles brandishing guns on their shoulders spreading panic across eastern and central Uttar Pradesh.
Yet, despite the solidity of her own support base, had the opposition in the state been more focused in ousting Mayawati, or at least not been embroiled in private wars against each other, she would have been in far serious trouble. The fact of the matter is that, belying rumours of the Congress helping the Samajwadi Party claim the Lucknow throne, the two parties are engaged in a no-holds-barred battle to cut each other’s throats. To some extent, this clash is inevitable, with both parties wooing the politicised urban middle class Muslim besides competing for the vote of a range of backward caste groups.
There are good reasons to believe that this fight isn’t just short term electoral jostling, but driven by long term strategising by Rahul Gandhi and his chief political aide in the state, Beni Prasad Verma (a Mulayam-associate-turned-bitter-enemy), to marginalise the SP at all costs, even if it means helping Mayawati stay in power. This is based on the calculation that if Mulayam fails to come back to power this time, his party will be wiped out as a political force, leaving the Muslims and backward castes presently with the SP with no option but to join the Congress, which could pay rich dividends in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
Meanwhile, the BJP, with an eye to the parliamentary polls, is obsessed with humiliating Rahul Gandhi and the Congress in UP, even if this means quietly transferring its vote to the BSP in constituencies where the BJP itself has no chance. Make no mistake, despite their strident rhetoric against Mayawati, both the Congress and the BJP could directly and indirectly prop her up in Lucknow and, in return, gratefully accept BSP numbers in Punjab and Uttarakhand where a keenly fought electoral battle is in the offing.
(The writer authored Behenji, a biography of Mayawati)