How BSP pulled off the UP feat

DALIT leader Mayawati has engineered a major political shift in India. She has pulled off what most pollsters thought she would never be able to do: win an unambiguous majority in Uttar Pradesh’s 403-strong Assembly. The number of seats she won (206) greatly surpasses the 115-168 range that opinion polls forecast for her Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).

By Praful Bidwai

Published: Sat 19 May 2007, 8:26 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:27 AM

Her feat is the more impressive because she is a single woman and a Dalit in one of India’s most socially backward and conservative states. Her sole political instrument was the BSP, with its small Dalit core and without the experience, visibility, social acceptability and favourable media attention its rivals enjoy.

Mayawati has broken UP’s decades-old “impasse”, under which the state had a series of hung Assemblies, as different caste/community groups voted to achieve political self-representation, no party could obtain a clear majority, except briefly in the early 1990s.

Mayawati has emerged as the tallest leader of Indian Dalits after Dr Ambedkar. Indeed, no Dalit leader has enjoyed the spectacular electoral success that she has achieved by dint of a new form of “social engineering”, and through energetic campaigning.

The BSP has impressively increased its vote-share from 23.2 to 30.5 per cent since 2002— by garnering non-Dalit votes across the board.

It fielded as many as 139 upper-caste candidates, including 86 Brahmins. But this couldn’t have translated into votes without the relentless grassroots bhaichara (social amity) campaigns by the party’s cadres. The BSP now has the largest number of Brahmin MLAs (34). It also has the largest number of Thakurs.

However, no less important were the BSP’s gains among the OBCs (51 MLAs), compared to the quintessentially OBC Samajwadi Party’s 27. It also drew strong support for the Most Backward Classes.

The BSP has decisively breached the SP’s stronghold among Muslims, who account for 18 per cent of UP’s population. Of the 62 constituencies where Muslims form 20 per cent-plus of the population, the BSP improved its tally from 10 to 22. The SP’s tally fell from 24 to 13.

Significantly, most of the BSP’s 26 Muslim MLAs come from the poorer ajlaf communities. Most of the SP’s 16 Muslim MLAs are from upper-class ashraf groups.

This, like the MBCs’ gravitation towards the BSP, speaks of its emergence as the chosen party of subaltern groups.

It’s tempting to argue that the BSP’s new coalition is a replica of the Congress’s “winning coalition” of the 1950s and 1960s, comprising the upper castes, Muslims and Dalits. But this would be a grave error.

Many of these non-Dalit groups voted for the BSP, but on terms set by its Dalit-centred agenda.

It’s a tribute to the BSP’s stature and the acceptance of the centrality of its subaltern appeal that UP’s upper castes voted for it. The key lies in the BSP’s relentless rise over two decades, and the BJP’s erosion.

The BSP has ceaselessly added to its seat tally — from 11 seats in 1989 to 13 in 1991, to 67 in 1996 and to 98 in 2002.

The results are a major blow to the SP (down from 143 to 98 seats), the Congress (25 to 22) and the BJP (from 88 to 50). There’s a difference, though. The SP’s vote-share has marginally increased.

The Congress suffered a tiny one-half percentage point decrease in votes — despite a high-profile campaign by Rahul Gandhi. The Congress represented no specific social bloc. It emphasised an intangible “Hindustani” identity, ignoring caste self-assertion.

The election’s biggest loser is clearly the BJP. It suffered a three per cent-plus decline in its vote-share. And it forfeited advantages from the return of Kalyan Singh to its fold, and an alliance with the Kurmi-dominated Apna Dal.

In 2002, the BJP and its allies were at the Number 1 or Number spots in 238 seats. Now, figure has fallen to just 124. The BJP’s own No 1 and No 2 spots have fallen from 197 to 120.

Evidently, the BJP’s recent electoral successes in Delhi, Uttarakhand and Punjab were transient. The BJP ran a dirty, divisive campaign in UP which used inflammatory communal material and a CD roundly condemned by the Election Commission. It focused on “minority appeasement”— the Sachar Committee, the Afzal hanging case, etc.

This strategy miserably failed. The tallest of BJP leaders, including Atal Behari Vajpayee, couldn’t rescue it from humiliation.

The BJP stands reduced in UP to its pre-Ayodhya avatar — a Number 3 or 4 urban party in a predominantly rural state. Half its seats have come from large cities like Lucknow, Varanasi, Allahabad, Agra, Meerut, Kanpur, Gorakhpur and Ghaziabad.

With the UP results, the BSP has gained handsomely in national stature. Yet, it faces major challenges in UP — in delivering goods to its constituency, in particular, the Dalits. This it can only do through serious social reform, including land reform, by pursuing the redistribution agenda while concentrating on law-and-order and responsible governance.

A major source of the BSP’s success lay in popular disgust with goonda raj under the SP. It will be judged severely on law and order. The Dalits expect the BSP to catalyse their substantive empowerment through land reform, education and employment.

UP can now return to the agenda of development with distributive justice — from which it has retreated, especially thanks to the SP’s cronyism, its links with shady businessmen and its contempt for social justice issues.

The BSP’s victory will influence Indian politics—not least because it places equity and redistribtutive justice on the agenda amidst a dangerously misplaced euphoria over (unbalanced) growth.

The SP’s defeat will put the idea of a Third Front on the backburner. The CPM lost heavily because of its tacit alliance with the SP. It must learn a lesson from this.

The BSP may not be able to replicate its UP success in many other states. But it can spread its influence in some. It can best capitalise on these gains if it adopts a Left-of-Centre programme with an emphasis on radical reform.

That’s the best way of building on the Ambedkar legacy.

Praful Bidwai is a veteran Indian journalist and commentator. He can be reached at

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