Almost exactly three decades after its birth, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) finds itself in its deepest crisis yet. Even a battle-scarred political veteran like party supremo Mayawati will find it difficult to swallow the crushing humiliation of being reduced to zero in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Coming as it does after a series of setbacks in assembly polls across north India ever since the BSP lost power in Uttar Pradesh two years ago, there are serious doubts about the future trajectory of a party that had not so long ago promised to refashion Indian politics.
Mayawati has in her characteristic combative manner sought to blame the enormity of the defeat on the vagaries of the first-past-the-post system that has cheated the BSP of winning even a solitary seat despite bagging nearly 20 per cent of the vote in Uttar Pradesh. She has also pointed out to her stunned Dalit cadres that with the BSP coming second in as many as 34 out of the 80 constituencies in the state and the party still third largest behind the BJP and the Congress there was no need to lose hope.
However, beneath her surface bravado, Mayawati has good reason to be alarmed at the sustained and rapid manner in which the BSP has been losing ground in Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere in the country over the past few years. Despite the startling zero-seat verdict for the BSP in this Lok Sabha it is clear that the collapse is not an overnight phenomenon. As a matter of fact the party has been steadily losing ground ever since Mayawati failed in the previous Lok Sabha polls in 2009 to catapult herself to play a major role in national politics from her launch pad as the ruler of India’s most populous state. Since then things have steadily gone from bad to worse. She has faced an unending series of electoral reverses which in rapid and chilling succession have ousted her from the Chief Minister’s saddle in Uttar Pradesh, drastically reduced her party’s already meagre presence outside the state and now banished the BSP entirely from the Lok Sabha — a historic low since the party started contesting elections on its official symbol.
While it may be incorrect to estimate the BSP’s true strength in Uttar Pradesh from its inability to win a single seat in the recent Lok Sabha polls it would be unwise to ignore the overall impact of the steady decline of the party’s vote share in recent years. For instance the party that swept to power in Lucknow with 30.43 per cent votes in 2007 went down to 27.42 per cent in 2009, slumped further to 25.91 when Mayawati lost her chief ministership in 2012 and now has slid massively to 19.6 per cent in the 2014. This is a substantial loss of almost 11 per cent vote share since the Dalit firebrand electrified the country by capturing Uttar Pradesh seven years ago. For the BSP such a double digit loss in vote share is fatal in terms of seats because the party’s core Dalit base is evenly spread across Uttar Pradesh and has to be bolstered with the support of other social segments in virtually every single constituency for a win in the first-past-the-post system.
It is, therefore, not surprising that the BSP has been the worst victim of the Modi wave in Uttar Pradesh. Ironically, BJP strategists headed by Amit Shah had at the start of the poll campaign feared Mayawati as the leader most capable of stitching together an alliance capable of posing a challenge to their plan of getting 50-60 seats from the state. That is why Shah had gone out of his way in ensuring that not only did the BJP get support from outside, but it also whittled down BSP’s core vote base by actively wooing lower backward castes and Dalits. Interestingly, the strategy to seduce a section of the Dalits away from Mayawati towards the BJP was two-pronged. On the one hand, it exploited old tensions between Dalits and Muslims particularly in western Uttar Pradesh fanned by the recent communal riots in Muzaffarnagar. At the same time Shah is believed to have cultivated Mayawati’s base on the plea that the BJP was borrowing Dalit votes in the Lok Sabha polls to make Narendra Modi the Prime Minister which they would pay back when the time came to make Behenji the Chief Minister during the assembly polls. This two pronged ploy worked with devastating effect because it also succeeded in confusing many Muslim voters who were veering towards Mayawati with word spreading that even her own voter base was abandoning her for the BJP.
The mortifying verdict in the Lok Sabha polls, however, does not necessarily signal the end of the road for Mayawati or the BSP. The Modi wave is likely to lose some of its momentum by the time Mayawati makes a bid for throne in Lucknow. The BJP may find it difficult to find a local leader to match the stature of Mayawati and with the Yadav clan in-charge of the Samajwadi Party rapidly losing popularity, the BSP may find conditions far more conducive in the next assembly polls.
Yet Mayawati needs to make some sweeping changes if she is to resurrect herself in politics. She has already done some drastic surgery in the party by sacking all zonal as well as district coordinators who supervised the polls. But a more urgent and difficult decision would be to emerge far more often from her various mansions in Delhi and Lucknow and from behind her veil of security guards to directly deal with grassroots party workers and the public at large. Behenji can reclaim her political legacy perhaps only by transforming herself from an inanimate if symbolic icon much like her stone statues dotting Uttar Pradesh back into a flesh and blood leader.
The author is a senior journalist