Lucknow: Lohati is no regular village. The hamlet, located in the north-east corner of Uttar Pradesh in Balrampur district, represents the core vote bank of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) that was key to Mayawati’s surprising sweep to power in the state assembly elections in 2007.
Not surprisingly, it has once again figured prominently in chief minister Mayawati’s plan to return for what will be a record consecutive second term in the elections to the state assembly in 2012.
The chief minister had launched the Ambedkar Village Programme immediately after being elected; a flagship scheme, it is meant to introduce electricity, water, road, schools and hospitals in 17,000 villages, including Lohati, across the state.
In March, Lohati got a so-called surprise visit from the chief minister. It was her way of assessing the impact of the state’s development programmes addressed at socially marginalized communities such as Dalits.
Ground Report: A bridge in Lucknow flanked by hoardings of Mayawati
The problem was that it was hardly a surprise; officials moved in before the visit to make sure Mayawati saw and heard what they wanted her to see and hear.
“A day before behenji (as Mayawati is popularly known) was to come, every house had three policemen. Nobody was allowed to step out of the house, not even children. We were told not to complain about anything. She came in a helicopter and we were not allowed to go within 200m of her,” said Uday Kumar, a 40-year-old resident of the village.
Personally impoverished, Kumar was keen to get the chief minister’s ear, but failed to do so. “We don’t have water for irrigation; our ration cards are not made; we are not included in the BPL (below the poverty line) list; everybody needs a bribe…she is not interested in listening to us. Is this rajneeti (politics)?” he asked.
While Kumar and other villagers are unlikely to switch their votes from the BSP, analysts said the chief minister should be watchful, particularly after the beating the BSP administration’s image has taken following high-profile law and order disruptions as well as a face-off with farmers in western Uttar Pradesh over land acquisition for private sector projects.
A government housing project
Unchecked, such sentiments, as is apparent in the recent experience of West Bengal, have the ability to acquire a life of their own with disastrous electoral consequences for the incumbent regime.
The stakes are high as the opposition, the Congress party in particular, is seeking to corner Mayawati on the vexing issue of governance.
Two party functionaries, one of them a minister in the state cabinet, admitted to these concerns. “The state is run by a handful of officials. The party has no stake in it now,” the minister said on condition of anonymity.
Political analysts and party leaders said the aloofness of Mayawati from the rank and file of the BSP could at the least lead to an erosion in the party’s vote share. In a multi-cornered contest, this could be critical.
The BSP headquarters in Lucknow
“There is an overall dissatisfaction about governance, but in the absence of opposition parties, the vote base may not shift to others. It could bring down the enthusiasm of party cadre and core vote bank to come for voting,” said Ram Kumar, a Dalit scholar based in Lucknow, who has been a close observer of the BSP.
This could damage Mayawati electorally.
A post-poll study by the Center for the Study of Developing Societies in 2007 said the BSP got 80% of the Dalit votes, whereas a similar study after the 2009 parliamentary elections showed that it dropped to 62.2 %.
A portion of those votes went to the Congress. However, a significant number of Dalit voters did not cast their ballots, it said; something that explains why Mayawati, despite winning 27.42% of votes in the state, 4% more than the main opposition Samajwadi Party, could win only 20 of the 80 seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament.
From being a party that forfeited its security deposit in 222 parliamentary constituencies in 1989, the BSP emerged as one of the fastest growing political parties in India, winning a landslide victory—207 of 403 seats—in Uttar Pradesh in 2007. Though its support base is largely made up of the socially underprivileged, it has managed to make substantial inroads among Muslims and upper-caste voters in the last state elections.
Mayawati, who joined Kanshi Ram’s political movement in the mid-1980s and became the chief minister of the most populous state in June 1995, is considered an able administrator; her frequent visits to the villages to assess the ground situations during her previous tenure that ended in 2002 had won her praise.
However, the BSP insiders now say these so-called surprise visits have, like in the case of Lohati, become a farce due to bureaucratic intervention. Frequent meetings with party leaders, which were discontinued a little after she assumed office in 2007, have resumed after the BSP faced setbacks in the 2009 parliamentary polls. Complicating matters is the growing concern, especially in the context of the deteriorating law and order situation in the state, about a governance deficit.
Infrastructure gaps: Shankar Nagar village in Balrampur district has frequent power cuts that can last up to 6 hours
“There is no governance and no relevance for institutions. Some of us have given up the idea of meeting her. We hand over the files to panchamthal (a reference to bureaucrats close to Mayawati seated in the fifth floor of her secretariat). She does not get time to discuss the big projects,” a bureaucrat associated with the industrial development of Uttar Pradesh said, requesting anonymity. “There is no clear policy for industrialization; the state is not providing basic requirements.”
Another official, perceived to be close to Mayawati, brusquely dismissed the allegations. “It is all rumours,” he said, but declined to be named. “We are assisting in a historical process for rebuilding a backward state.”
One way of doing so is announcing more populist measures. Under a new scheme, the Mukhyamantri Mahamaya Garib Arthik Madad Yojana, poor people not getting any assistance from any other welfare schemes will receive a monthly assistance of Rs 400, said the second official.
The scheme is available to any family that attests it is eligible. At least 3.1 million families have already benefited from the scheme, the second official claimed. Power cuts, which occur for around 6 hours a day across the state, will soon be halved, he added.
Analysts said the state government will have to move quickly to fix public perception about the prevailing law and order situation. Frequent allegations of rape and murder, in some instances involving BSP leaders, as well as of police atrocities, have severely dented the government’s image. Many villagers in Gonda and Barabanki districts have complained about police high-handedness and nexus with politicians and criminals.
“Mayawati managed to rein in organized crime groups. However, the process of institutionalizing corruption has made the police and the administration unpopular,” said Sudhir Kumar, political analyst and professor at Lucknow University. “The opposition SP (Samajwadi Party) seems to be gearing up to make law and order a major issue in the state.”
Akhilesh Yadav, parliamentarian and son of SP chief Mulayam Singh, said, “Look at the law and order situation. Everyday, one BSP leader is accused of something. Has it ever happened? She (Mayawati) made all the goons into powerful politicians, so there are no goons, but only BSP leaders.”
The deteriorating law and order situation will impact Mayawati’s electoral prospects, especially since she is also in charge of the state’s home ministry, Ram Kumar said. However, he said these incidents are also a result of Dalits, who feel empowered now, resisting social attacks and fighting back in some instances. The fact that some of the key offenders have been jailed has only added to their sense of empowerment.
Lohati village is part of the Ambedkar Village Programme meant to introduce electricity, water, roads, schools and hospitals in 17,000 villages across Uttar Pradesh. Despite this scheme the village continues to face acute water shortage
It is clear that Mayawati’s electoral fortunes in the state elections due next year would to a large extent depend on how she is able to galvanize Dalit voters—one in four voters in Uttar Pradesh is a Dalit.
At present, a large chunk of them, many of whom have benefited from the various programmes launched by the government, feel disillusioned with the BSP. At the moment, they are giving her the benefit of doubt.
An additional problem, as A.K. Verma, a Kanpur-based political analyst, points out, is that a section of Dalits believe Mayawati is favouring her caste, Jatavs, over others. However, given that there is no viable alternative, they may eventually come around to voting for the BSP.
The rainbow coalition of upper castes, Muslims and Dalits weaved by Mayawati in 2007 is also under threat. The upper castes, which have been traditionally with the Congress and later aligned with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) but switched their support to the BSP in the last election, feel miffed that the government has backed Dalits openly.
“Mayawati might be able to deal with it at government or bureaucracy level. However, the actual conflict at the grass-root is between the upper castes and Dalits,” Ram Kumar said. “So the political alliance cannot continue.”
Photographs by Pradeep Gaur/Mint
This is the first of a three-part series that looks at how the three main political contestants in Uttar Pradesh—the BSP, the BJP and the Congress—are positioning themselves in what seems to be an increasingly fragmented electorate. The second part will examine the Congress’ efforts in the state.