Way back in 1985, Bijnor in Uttar Pradesh witnessed a Lok Sabha by-election with three players, each of whom symbolized a different strand of north Indian politics. The winner was Meira Kumar, former Indian foreign service officer, and daughter of Jagjivan Ram, the man who served with only two breaks at the Union government- level from the provisional government of 1946 right until 1979. The other was a rising icon of politics, a former member of Bihar’s legislative assembly and celebrated Dalit leader — Ram Vilas Paswan. The latter was trounced by barely 2 per cent of the popular vote. The Congress retained the seat, but it had been given a scare. Paswan’s supporters, then as now, had a slogan — “Goonje dharti aasman, Ram Vilas Paswan” — on how the earth and the sky rumbled with their leader’s name. Yet, the spotlight belonged to a 27-year-old woman who came third with 18 per cent of the vote. A graduate of Meerut University with a BA and a BEd, she also had a law degree from Delhi University. The daughter of an MTNL supervisor, she represented a party born only two years ago, the Bahujan Samaj Party.
Today, two decades hence, Mayavati can look back on a career with several milestones. By now the words, ‘Dalit’ (the oppressed) and ‘Bahujan’ (the majority), have become part of the accepted lexicon. Yet, more than nomenclature, the key change wrought by her mentor, Kanshi Ram, was to transform Dalits from voters to king-makers, from supporters to rulers in their own right.
The party polled a million votes nationwide in the 1984 general elections, a fact that then went widely unnoticed. The major breakthrough came even before the demolition of the Babri Masjid, when an alliance of Mulayam Singh Yadav and the BSP trounced the Bharatiya Janata Party in two by-elections for the Uttar Pradesh state assembly. In December 1993, they came to power on a joint platform, beating back the BJP in UP to second place.
There have been many sea changes since then. Mayavati has thrice been chief minister, but for a total of less than two years. She was the first ever woman Dalit chief minister in India’s history. As Badri Narayan’s recent work on Dalit popular cultures shows, her rise to power was paralleled by the rise of autonomous oral histories and of Dalit heroines, who were freedom fighters, into popular icons.
Except for 1993, when the BSP allied with Mulayam Singh Yadav, and three years later, when it became the senior partner of the Congress, the party has tended to fight on its own. Aided by the fact that more than one in five voters in UP is a Dalit, Mayavati has been able to solidify the bulk of them into a cohesive bloc. What is significant is that in 2002, the BSP emerged as the chief opposition party. By then, it was assiduously cultivating non-Dalit voters. The very word, ‘Bahujan’, denotes the majority, and reaches out to other groups lower down on the social scale. As many as 14 Muslim MLAs were elected that year on the BSP ticket.
What is significant about 2007 is that there is a widespread perception of Mayavati as the front-runner in the state assembly polls now under way. This view has been given further credence by opinion polls that place her party ahead of all others. There are variations. Star News ACNielsen places the BSP tally at 135 in a house of 403; NDTV-MODE gives her party 155 seats with a five-seat margin of error.
One factor that may well explain this is anti-incumbency. Mulayam Singh Yadav has ruled for 44 months as chief minister — longer than anyone since 1960. He already holds the record for the third longest tenure in the office in UP since independence. Given the insuperable problems of the state, with per capita income less than half the all-India average, discontent is but natural.
The second party would be best placed to exploit such anger. In 2004, during the Lok Sabha polls, the BSP came first or second in as many as 224 assembly segments. This gives it a far wider geographical spread than the once-almighty BJP. The voters, eager for change, are turning away from the bicycle (the SP symbol) to the elephant of the BSP. Yet there is more to the elephant’s dance than a mere switch of voters’ allegiance. For one, there has been an assiduous attempt, over the last five years, to transcend the image of a sectional force. In 2002, Mayavati’s supporters began equating the elephant symbol with Ganesh, the Hindu deity. This year, she has more than doubled the number of Brahmins on her platform. With as many as 86 candidates on her list, she only outranks the saffron party in her courtship of this large and culturally influential community of voters.
This is significant, both electorally and socially. One of four Brahmins in India lives in UP. The state also has the largest Dalit population in India: about 23 per cent of the state’s voters are Dalit or adivasi. Since the dissolution of the Congress-led social coalition in the late Eighties, this is the first such attempt to unify these groups in the political arena. The difference this time is that the top slot is set aside for the Dalits, who are the drivers of change.
More than the candidate profile, there has been a concerted bid to identify the core issue that can unify voters cutting across caste lines. The Star News ACNielsen poll found that law and order rank high in the voters’ list of concerns. The patronage of figures like Anna Shukla, Raja Bhaiya, Amarmani Tripathi and Ateeq Ahmed by the ruling party has given the BSP a chance, which it has been quick to seize. It is not so much a spurt in crime but official patronage of those who defy the law that is at issue. Like Indira Gandhi long before her, Mayavati is seen as a woman who is not for turning. Her tough stance on law and order is a critical issue and may clinch the case even among those who earlier strongly opposed her.
It is still unclear what kind of post-poll combinations will be required to place the BSP in the seat of power. Yet its vote-base has always been underestimated by election analysts and journalists. It began by unionizing the government employees who held reserved jobs, but then reached out to the vast majority of scheduled castes who lie in the rural hinterland.
The creation of an umbrella-like structure by a party that began by mobilizing a deprived section cannot but be a moment for celebration in a democracy. It will be another matter how such a party rises to the occasion in realizing the potential of the economy and society in a state where one out of six Indians still lives. A BSP win will make it a player on the national stage that no party or force can afford to ignore. This may well be the year of the elephant.