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Mainstream, VOL LV No 42 New Delhi October 7, 2017

BSP in Uttar Pradesh: Analysing Its Failure

Monday 9 October 2017

by Nirmal Singh

The 2017 UP Assembly election results upset the perceptions that dominated the election scene throughout its prolonged process. How-ever, this was in contrast to the doubts over the results expressed rather angrily by the BSP’s supreme leader, Mayawati, who said the electronic voting machines had been tampered with and that contributed to the BJP’s huge success. Mayawati, meanwhile, could not relish the unprecedented reversals of her party and even before the final outcome of the elections, she alleged that the BJP had manipulated and rigged the polls and dishonestly obtained the mandate in the State thereby “killing democracy”.

However, the reasons for the BSP’s failure are not difficult to find out. In these elections, the Dalit-oriented BSP actually increased its vote- share from what it had in 2014, but still ended up losing big. Its vote-share rose to 22.2 per cent from 19.6 per cent in 2014. Still, the party could win only 19 seats, its second-lowest tally in Uttar Pradesh. Its lowest tally was in 1991 when it won 12 seats, at a time when the party was still considered to be building up its mass base.

The results can, in the medium term, pose challenges to the BSP’s ability to hold on to its core Dalit vote-base. Although it boosted its overall vote-share, the party could win only two out of the 84 seats reserved for the Dalits. It was also trounced in most of its traditional seats. It could not win even a single seat of the nine in Agra, considered to be the Dalit capital of Uttar Pradesh. Dalit-dominated districts such as Sitapur, Sonbhadra, Auraiya, Jalaun, Barabanki, Chitrakoot and Kaushambi also signalled a move away from the BSP. More importantly, only five of its 100 Muslim candidates won, raising questions about the Dalit-Muslim brotherhood that the party was actively promoting during the election campaign.

Strategy of Lack of Caste Combination 

In fact, Kanshi Ram chose the name “Bahujan”, or “Majority”, for his new party not only because of its association with the non-Brahmin social movements but also because the name signalled that this party had the numbers to be a viable winner. The arithmetic was backed by an ideological and organisational infrastructure. Over the years, the BSP stopped investing in this infrastructure, relying on the promise of power to compensate. But a party that depends only on winning cannot withstand repeated losses and that is why the party is now in such dire straits. It was not magic but just micro- planning of caste combinations that allowed the BJP to repeat its 2014 performance. The BJP bitterly trampled down the showcase of the hollow development model displayed by the Congress-Samajwadi alliance and the slogan of ‘Sarvajan Hitaye, Sarvajan Sukhaye’ of the BSP. This long-standing project, which sought to forge a social and political alliance against the the Jatav Dalits, the core support-base of the BSP, and Muslims, attained concrete and massive dimensions in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. It was with those elections that the BJP was able to do away with the image of being an upper-caste Brahmin-Bania-Rajput party.

The BJP built up this OBC-MBC-Dalit coalition as a sort of Hindutva force opposed to the Yadav, Jatav and Muslim communities. The strategy of reverse social engineering that the BJP scripted was clearly aimed at mobilising the most backward castes, notably non-Yadav and non-Jatav Dalits, to capture the heartland State. The most ambitious, but less known, is the BJP’s division of the caste strategy. It was designed to fragment the non-Jatav Dalit voters from the fold of the BSP. In a shrewd political exercise to dismantle Dalit consolidation under the BSP fold, the BJP gave 65 tickets to members of the non-Jatav Dalit community in 87 reserved constituencies. This worked and the BJP won 68 seats from the reserved constituencies. Out of around 25 per cent Dalit votes in UP, non-Jatavs make around 14 per cent vote-share. Jatavs among Dalits continue to be firmly behind the BSP. Hence the BJP had formulated a clear strategy to target the remaining Dalits and Backward Castes. The target area for the BJP among Dalits was the Pasi, Dhobi and Khatik castes. These three castes together were given 39 tickets. The party had also given represen-tation to around 11 other non-Jatav Dalit castes in ticket distribution.

The communities included OBC castes such as Kurmis, Lodhs and Pals, MBC castes such as Mauryas, Nishads and Rajbhars, and Dalit communities such as Sansiyas and Valmikis. Informal estimates show that these communities account for nearly 25 per cent of the total UP population across 38 caste blocks, with over 200 sub-castes and groups. Economically, these communities are classified as the landless labour class. The landowning OBC Yadav community accounts for approximately nine per cent and the economically upwardly mobile Dalit Jatav community for approximately 10 per cent of the population. The BSP has conventionally sought to supplement its core vote-base with the Muslims.

In an India where BSP chief Mayawati is the contemporary Dalit icon, this method of “integrating” Dalits into the Sangh Parivar is not just out of sync with the times; there are several tangible factors that led to the BJP’s compre-hensive victory, the key factors among these being the ability to retain a Hindutva communal narrative throughout the campaign, the supple-mentation of this through the advancement of post-truth pronouncements and exercises from the party machinery, including the top leaders, and finally, the deployment of a superior organi-sational machinery. For the BSP, the winning of elections has always depended on what its workers call the “plus” factor. In every consti-tuency, it counted on the votes of Dalits plus some section of others (backwards castes and Muslims initially and upper castes eventually). For the BJP, it has depended on what could be called the “minus” factor. The BJP aimed to build a winning vote by cobbling together the support of Hindu upper castes, backward castes and Dalits—everyone but the Muslims. This is an old strategy of the BJP, taken to a new, more systematic level in 2017. Electoral arithmetic— alliances and tickets—was always an important part of this effort.

The BSP’s survival crisis is not about something more than the party: it is about the nature of identity-based politics that the BSP represents. To understand why, consider the way in which the two main alternatives, the Congress and BJP, appeal to the Dalits. The Congress appeals to the Dalits by promising their assimilation into the national mainstream. The BJP appeals to the Dalits by promising their immersion in a Hindu mainstream. The BSP’S form of identity-based assertion, by contrast, is based on pride in the Dalit-identity as it exists at present, not on the promise of assimilation or transformation in the future. It believes that the Dalits did not have to become someone else in order to take pride in them. So why did the BSP lose, especially when its healthy vote-share suggests that it retained much of its core, predominantly Dalit, vote-base? The answer lies in its failure and the BJP’s success in crafting the right caste-based combinations.

The BJP and Sangh Parivar, by contrast, back their appeal to the Dalits and backward castes by a strong ideological and organisational infrastructure. The Sangh Parivar has also begun to redefine the model Hindu in a way that incorporates the Dalit and backward caste cultural symbols. In 1983, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chose April 14, B.R. Ambedkar’s birth anniversary, to establish the Samajik Samrasta Manch, or social harmony platform, that would celebrate Ambedkar Jayanti every year. It created the Samajik Samrasta Manch (Social Assimilation Platform) with the goal of harmonising “the Phule-Ambedkar thought with the Hindutva Philosophy” in 1983. In 1989, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad ensured that it was a Dalit who laid the first brick for the Ram temple at Ayodhya. PM Modi claims his backward caste identity proudly. “The next decade,’’ he has said repeatedly, “will belong to the Dalits and the backwards.” This is a remarkable statement for the leader of India’s largest upper-caste party to make. The objective was aimed at ending untouchability and “integrating” the Dalits into the Hindu society, a necessary precondition for Hindu consolidation. For the BJP, in particular, “Hindu unity” was of paramount importance to enlarge its support-base. But the unstated part of the RSS agenda was that Dalits should be integrated into the Hindu society without upsetting the caste system’s hierarchy, a far cry from Ambedkar’s call for annihilation of caste.

Ideology and Support-base

The BSP is still a one-person-centric party and terribly short of star campaigners. The BSP’s first step in politics was the establishment of an “independent Dalit political leadership” instead of a “dependent Dalit political leader-ship”. Kanshi Ram produced an independent Dalit political leadership in a party that was led and dominated by the Dalits with an indepen-dent agenda. The BSP has been suffering decline in its political fortune with the local leadership having no autonomy in the decision-making process and all power lying with BSP superemo Mayawati. Further, the BSP suffers from lack of intra-party democracy.

Strangely, despite the BSP’s aggressive agenda representing the cause of the deprived and oppressed Dalits, lower castes and minorities against the upper-caste establishment, party leaders and activists have stayed away from protests and demonstrations. They have, instead, devoted all their organisational energies towards promotional activities projecting the party and its leaders mostly in preparation for the next elections. During election campaigns, these publicity exercises are turned into poll campaigns conducted with elaborate strategy and meticulous planning.

The BSP has neither an organised political cadre in Uttar Pradesh nor a solid social base. The BSP has neither an organisational network nor a sufficiently large mass base. It is worthwhile to examine how the BSP, which fought an election yesterday under different agenda, could bury the differences to produce a floor majority. In fact, the BSP has entered into electoral alliance with almost all political parties or groups in the State from one election to another. But it has neither chosen any pers-pective or path of fighting for justice for the Dalits nor given any weightage to the consid-eration of ideology or like-mindedness before aligning with various political parties. The danger would always be hanging overhead of one of the partners withdrawing its support. Over the past few years the BSP dramatically altered its traditional and trenchant anti-Brahmin, anti-upper caste political position. Mayawati said that the BSP was now a party of all castes, all religions, and announced: “Haathi nahi Ganesh hai, Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh hai”. The party also coined such slogans as “Jiski jitni sankhya bhaari, uski utni bhagidari” and “Jiski jitni hai taiyari, uski utni hissedari”, which meant that representation in ticket distribution will be as per the participation by various castes in the party’s growth.

The inability of the BSP to gain electorally/politically can be attributed to the failure of the party in terms of its organisation and strategy. The absence of co-ordination among the various organisations of the party, the failure of the party leadership to focus on regional and specific socio-cultural issues, widespread factionalism and the absence of dedicated party workers who could genuinely identify with the poor sections of the society, the BSP’s refusal of ideology, refusal of alliances, refusal to place itself in the political spectrum, its assessment of all parties by the single criterion of their orientation to break the caste system establish it as an anti-party entity. The BSP’s only emphasis is on the Dalit being a political category. In the ultimate, all questions of identities tend to be political questions, and the BSP is therefore not to be blamed for this short-cut method. The BSP’s loss is an indication of the declining identity-based politics in the country. It proves that the people are no longer interested in just caste or religion-based politics. The prospect of real development is more important and attractive than dry words like ‘ethnic identity’ and ‘assertion of caste identity or Dalit identity’. If Mayawati and her leaders do not re-think their strategy, they are looking at a complete wipeout, leaving the BSP with its limited appeal and caste calculations wanting. The BSP’s defeat is its failure to unite the socially-ostracised with the upper castes. The disenchantment was growing and the BSP failed to read the undercurrent. The BSP had emerged as a new political entity. The most worrisome issues of social and economic discrimination in egalitarianism continue to haunt the Dalits. It might be a hollow victory of the BSP if these problems, which form the backbone of the BSP’s ideology, remain unsolved.

The BSP chose to ignore the fact that it was skating on thin ice for some years; its inability to widen the social base would eventually lead to the party’s decimation. The BSP’s base seems destined to slowly wither away unless something dramatic happens. The party could not evolve a structure which can sustain political attacks at different levels. The party has only one leader and she responds to everything coming before the party. “The SP-Congress combine has 28 per cent of the vote-share, the BSP 22.2 per cent. Put together, it is a massive 50.2 per cent. In the first-past-the-post electoral system, a mahagathbandhan could result in the mother of all electoral sweeps.”

The BJP leadership is of the view that such a grand alliance will never happen in Uttar Pradesh, essentially because of Mayawati’s inability to fit into coalition politics. The simple arithmetic shows that the BSP and SP could have made a winning combination. Their coming together on a broader alliance would have made the smaller castes vote for such an alliance. The BSP superemo should accept the ‘electoral-decision’ of the electorate with a healthy political mindset.


1. Chandra, Kanchan (2000): “The Transformation of Ethnic Politics in India: The Decline of Congress and the Rise of BSP in Hoshiarpur”,The Journal of Asian Study, 59 (1): 26-61.

2. Chandra, Kanchan (2004): Why Ethnic Parties Succeed? (Cambridge: University of Cambridge).

3. Gupta, Smita (2016), ‘The Dalit-Hindutva Paradox’, The Hindu, Feburary 9.

4. Hasan, Zoya. (2017), ‘Saffron Storm in Uttar Pradesh’, The Hindu: March 16.

5. Ram, Ronki (2017), ‘Internal Caste Cleavages among Dalits in Punjab’, Economic and Political Weekly, LII (3): 54-57.

6. Ramakrishnan, Venkitesh (2017), ‘Arithmetic of Success’, Frontline: 9-13.

Dr Nirmal Singh is an Assistant Professor, University Institute of Legal Studies (UILS) and Department of Evening Studies-Multi Disciplinary Research Centre (MDRC), Panjab University, Chandigarh.

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