Kasganj district, 26 December 2016.
Hordes of people are being bused in, there's blue everywhere. It is said the BSP's colour is blue because Babasaheb Ambedkar used to wear a blue coat. A portrait of Ambedkar in a corner is given a floral tribute like a presiding deity. Large cut-outs of Mayawati in a brown overcoat adorn the ends of the stage.
The event is called Bhaichara Sammelan, Brotherhood Conference. The chief guest is the BSP's 'Mandal Co-ordinator' of the region.
There's no doubt that the real chief guest is someone else. It is Ajay Chaturvedi, a rich local Brahmin businessman who has been told he'll be given the BSP ticket for the Kasganj seat. It's clear he's the one pouring in the money to impress the party, which could still decide to give the ticket to someone else.
BSP's uniformed volunteers, wearing badges of the Bahujan Volunteer Force, direct the crowds to sit on the ground and be ready to hear the people on the stage. Office bearers of the party name the communities who have been invited.
Baghel Samaj ko BSP ka samman!
Kashyap Samaj ko BSP ka samman!
Lodh Samaj ko BSP ka samman!
A bunch of backward communities get their hat tip. The BSP sees a constituency election as a chemistry lab experiment. If various caste communities can be united, for the short election period, with the party's Dalit vote bank, it will win the election. Other parties care about such mixing, too. Everyone has the S-word on their lips, samikaran, meaning equation, but for the BSP this is an art form at the heart of their election strategy.
Trouble is, samikaran is all that the BSP is reduced to. Other than the samikaran, Mayawati and her party are not in the conversation in UP. Except for Dalit voters, and some non-Dalits who are looking at micro-samikaran, nobody is really talking about the BSP.
People talk about the BJP, thanks to the persona of Modi and the issue of demonetisation, and not to say the very recent memory of the Modi wave that swept away almost all the state's seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha election.
People talk about Akhilesh Yadav: they talk about the development work he has delivered on, and the family feud he is engaged in. But they don't talk about the BSP.
No State-Wide Narrative
This is unlike 2007 and 2012 assembly elections when Mayawati was very much in the conversation. What changed? And does it matter, if the BSP has the right samikaran?
For voters at large, Mayawati's USP against the Samajwadis used to be law and order. Even today there's probably more lawlessness than there was in Mayawati's regime from 2007 to 2012. But law and order is not an issue this election. It has been displaced by Akhilesh Yadav's visible development and the campaign to make sure people talk about it, by Akhilesh Yadav's family feud, and perhaps even demonetisation.
The BSP slogan "Charh gundon ki chhaati pe, button dabein ga haathi pe," has few non-Dalit takers this time. This song for 2017 for instance, sounds like it could have been part of the 2007 campaign 10 years ago.
Public resentment over law and order is nowhere near the 2007 levels, when rampant lawlessness made voters so desperate to get rid of Mulayam Singh's government, that they voted for Mayawati with a full majority. It was the first time any party had won a clear majority in the state since 1989.
Whatever resentment there may be about law and order today, Akhilesh is owning that agenda. It is ironic that he should get the benefit of poor law and order in his own government. He is seen as the one man trying to clean up the SP — and UP politics — of criminal elements.
In the absence of law and order as the central election issue, Maaywati is left with no state-wide narrative to offer, only seat-by-seat samikaran. Realising that her governance record is ridiculed by opponents as being limited to the building of mammoth memorials in Lucknow, Mayawati has announced she would build no more memorials. That is a very big announcement for Mayawati to make, and clearly an admission that she had an image problem when it came to governance.
Dumped By Manuwadis
There's another reason why Mayawati is not in the conversation: upper castes don't want her to be. Vocal and visible as they are, upper castes have a disproportionately high share in shaping the conversation. On BSP, they are not even silent. "This election is SP versus BJP," you will often hear if you travel in UP these days.
If you travelled in the state in 2007, you'd hear upper castes, especially Brahmins, talk about the BSP like it had always been their party. The anti-upper caste slogans of the BSP had given way to "Sarvjan hitaye" – In the interest of all. The BSP was changing its image from a "Dalit party" to a catch-all party, and what better way of doing so than making a song and dance of wooing Brahmins? (In a similar way, Akhilesh Yadav is attempting an image makeover from "Yadav party with Muslim agenda" to a catch-all party.)
In 2007, Brahmin voters were open and honest about why they were supporting BSP: since Vajpayee's exit from politics, the BJP had not given UP any senior Brahmin face. Tired of being out of power, the influential Brahmin lobby needed access to power again, so they put their weight behind the BSP. Even the RSS supported the BSP's Brahmin alliance.
Winning UP's first simple majority in 18 years went to Mayawati's head, and she immediately started dreaming of becoming prime minister of India, a bug that often hits chief ministers after winning state elections. So serious she was about becoming PM that she even held a rally in Kohima, Nagaland!
In making sure her precarious Dalit-Brahmin coalition of extremes didn't fall apart, she decided to appease Brahmins, not just by giving them contracts and land but also by limiting the SC/ST Atrocities Act. In the villages, upper castes could now say it was their government too, as Mayawati issued a circular asking the UP police to invoke the Atrocities Act only in cases of rape and murder. Delhi-based Dalit politician Udit Raj, then running his own party, went to the Allahbad High Court and had the circular quashed.
Dalit disenchantment with the regime was seen in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. In the assessment of the BSP's poor performance in the election she hoped she would become prime minister in, her cadres reported Dalit voters refusing to vote in many places. Travelling in UP in 2009, this writer met Dalit voters who said as much: we can't vote for any other party so we'll not vote this time. Meanwhile, upper caste voters were clear they had to prevent a Dalit woman from becoming prime minister.
In just two years, Mayawati's sarvajan coalition had come crashing. Realising she would become history if she didn't appease her Dalit core vote-bank, she changed tack after 2009, and Dalits started getting more patient hearing in police stations. Some Dalits even got their land back from upper castes who had illegally occupied it. There were other benefits too, like jobs and small business contracts.
This is what turned the upper castes completely away from Mayawati. In the 2012 elections, given that Congress and BJP weren't winnable, Brahmins lent support to Akhilesh. In 2012, the sentiment was clear: Mayawati is using the Harijan Act against us, as some call it, and she has to be voted out.
That sentiment has still not gone away. Even today, upper castes will cite this as a reason in rural areas for not wanting Mayawati to return to power.
For her party's poor performance in assembly and parliamentary elections in 2009, 2012 and 2014, Mayawati has blamed Muslims, as if Muslim voters owe her their votes.
But Muslim voters don't owe her their votes: they see the Samajwadi Party as their first party of choice. Mayawati has allied with the BJP in the past, even campaigned for Modi in Gujarat after 2002, but even that is only one reason for Muslim distrust of Mayawati. Muslims feel the SP is their own party, whereas the BSP belongs only to Dalits, the rest it combines on a need basis, election to election, depending upon what samikaran it is trying to achieve.
This election, having completely given up on upper castes, Mayawati has gone all out to woo Muslims in a way she has never done before. She is giving an unprecedented 24% tickets to Muslim candidates, their population is around 19.5%. Like Yadavs or Brahmins or Kurmis, Muslims want to see more Muslims in the assembly, to gain access to power.
It's not just the number of tickets. Mayawati is giving tickets to Muslims in riot-affected constituencies, even in Ayodhya. Mayawati wants Muslim voters to know she means business. If Mayawati at all has a narrative to offer this election, it is a Dalit-Muslim alliance.
Trouble is, like other communities, Muslims too are largely impressed with Akhilesh. There is a debate within the Muslim community whether they should go with the BSP or SP, and Akhilesh's development work is a factor here as well.
The collapse of the Akhilesh campaign because of the family feud is making many voters ask if Mayawati would be a safer bet. But if Akhilesh announces a Congress alliance, Muslim voters will largely side with the alliance. As two of three claimants of Muslim votes will come together, they will look more winnable.
But Mayawati's Muslim gamble will still deliver good dividends. Muslim voters in UP seem to be largely sticking to the 2012 voting formula, "Pehlay bhai, phir SaPai, phir koi aur." The first preference is a winnable fellow Muslim, the second is the Samajwadi Party (Akhilesh) and then anyone else.
Mayawati will still do well this election, thanks to her Dalit core vote-bank standing solidly with her, the party's smart samikaran politics and the large number of Muslim tickets she is giving. The lack of a central narrative and the complete disenchantment of upper castes, though, makes it tough for her to reach the finish line.
Realising as much, the BSP has suddenly started an advertising campaign to emphasise it is a party of governance, reminding voters of her achievements between 2007 and 2012, and promising good days ahead. It looks a lot like the BJP's campaign. It's too little too late.
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