With the approach of the 2019 general elections, attention is closely riveted on Dalits, who constitute a formidable vote bank in many key states, particularly Uttar Pradesh. Also, on the part that Mayawati, long considered the tallest Dalit leader, will play in the endeavour by Opposition parties to build an anti-BJP federal front. But paradoxically, today when Dalit anger is growing against the BJP, acquiring strength and an all-India character, Mayawati seems to be struggling to revive the BSP and remain relevant in Uttar Pradesh and on the national stage.
In recent years, Dalit politics has witnessed increasing fragmentation and acquired a more complex character. During the 1990s, the BSP under Mayawati occupied a dominant position in Uttar Pradesh and in 2007 gained a majority in the state assembly. But in the 2014 general and 2017 Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, a substantial section of non-Jatav Dalits shifted towards the BJP, eroding the position of the BSP and Mayawati. Two significant developments in the 2000s are responsible: waning of identity politics and desire for development among Dalits, leading to a shift from politics of social justice to aspiration, particularly among the poorer sections, no longer happy with the BSP. Second, the attempt by the BJP under Narendra Modi to create a more socially inclusive party based on the promise of rapid economic development and a reinvented ideology of ‘subaltern Hindutva’. Having achieved a modicum of political empowerment and self-respect under Mayawati’s rule, Dalits are in search of a party that can offer economic betterment, rendering them vulnerable to mobilisation by the BJP.
Having gained a majority, the Modi Government attempted to consolidate its support among Dalits and undermine the position of Mayawati. Significant strategies used were efforts at appropriating Dalit icon Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, celebrating his 125th birthday, inducting Dalit leaders into the BJP, and installing Ram Nath Kovind, a Dalit from Uttar Pradesh as the President.
Despite this, a number of incidents beginning in 2015, point to rising antagonism against the BJP evident in the suicide of Rohith Vemula, the Una incident when seven Dalits were assaulted by cow vigilantes, the violent confrontation in Saharanpur in 2016 when Dalits were attacked by middle and upper caste villagers, the violence during the Bhima-Koregaon commemoration in 2018, and finally the Supreme Court ruling in March 2018, perceived as diluting the SC/ST Act.
These developments fuelled a new all-India Dalit consciousness and mass movements by young leaders Jignesh Mevani and Prakash Ambedkar; the ideas and forms of mobilisation used by older leaders such as Mayawati, no longer seemed to appeal.
Despite mounting resentment among Dalits, the BSP performed poorly in the 2017 elections, gaining just 19 seats and 22.2% of the votes. Successive electoral defeats, despite assertion on the ground, indicate an existential struggle by Mayawati to unite the Dalits behind the BSP
Dalits today are divided into three groups: pro-BSP, pro-BJP and supporters of the Bhim Army, apart from numerous, small organisations; with the basic divide between the Ambedkarite and the Hindutva Dalits, widening. Yet, when attacked by upper castes in Saharanpur and elsewhere, Dalits have closed ranks and gathered in large numbers to their support at rallies in Delhi.
Changes within the BSP have also contributed to erosion of its Dalit base. The BSP from the mid-1990s became a party interested in capturing political power; its earlier attempts to democratise the Dalit movement by moving downwards and mobilising the poorer sub-castes in backward regions disappeared. This provided space for BJP leaders such as Yogi Adityanath from the early 2000s to quietly obtain the support of the non-Chamar sub-castes in the region. Second is the accusations of corruption and amassing of wealth against Mayawati, which has lowered her standing among Dalits. These developments contributed to the defection of important BSP leaders to the BJP, which led Mayawati to bring in members of her own family into the party to strengthen her control over it.
Mayawati has attempted to harness rising Dalit resentment to strengthen her position after the debacle of the 2017 elections, witnessed in her dramatic resignation from the Rajya Sabha in July 2017, claiming to return to grassroots mobilisation. Most important has been the spectacular defeat of the BJP by the Samajwadi Party-BSP alliance in the Lok Sabha by-polls in Gorakhpur and Phulpur in March, to seats vacated by the Chief Minister and Deputy Chief Minister. The decision by Mayawati to join hands with the SP, an old rival, was astute, possible as class rivalry between Backwards and Dalits is no longer important on the ground as in the 1990s, as large sections have moved to non-agricultural jobs, making it easier to join hands. More important, the victory revealed that Behenji retains her popular base as she was able to activate her cadre and convince Dalit voters to shift their support to the SP candidate.
The formation of the alliance with the Samajwadi Party can be viewed as the beginning of the reversal of the fortunes of Mayawati and the BSP, and the first step in building a federal anti-BJP alliance in the 2019 elections
However, the success of the SP-BSP alliance does not mean that Mayawati will play a central role in the building of a larger pan-Indian, Opposition alliance prior to 2019. In the essentially altered, socio-economic and political context of a divided Dalit discourse, emergence of subaltern Hindutva and successful Dalit outreach by the BJP, the hope that the BSP will emerge as a key player, and Mayawati a possible candidate for PM, as mooted in 2009, seems rather far-fetched.
Dalits do not constitute a monolith, and the possibility of the BJP obtaining the support of some sections, using their strategy of Hinduisation in the 2019 elections, remains a distinct possibility. What however does look possible, is a UP-level alliance between the SP, BSP, Congress and smaller parties to limit the seats obtained by the BJP in the state, which is also a difficult, though perhaps not an impossible task. Even this would require Mayawati to script a new ideology and strategy to bring Dalits back from the Hindutva to the Ambedkarite fold, rebuild her social base and regain her position as a formidable Dalit leader. The lesson from the victory in the UP bypolls is that formation of similar, smaller alliances at the level of individual states/regions might be more possible, and a far more effective method to keep the BJP in check.
The author is a Professor at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU