New Delhi: The party that fields the most candidates in the coming general election may not be the Congress party or the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), but the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which sees this as a long-term strategy to build a national presence—a move dismissed by the party’s political opponents.
BSP plans to contest in 500 of the 543 Lok Sabha constituencies in the five-phase general election that starts on 16 April.
To be sure, a similar approach in 2004 didn’t help the party much in terms of the number of representatives it sent to Parliament. That year, it won 19 of the 435 seats it contested, all in Uttar Pradesh, the same state where the party was elected to power three years later, in 2007.
Numbers game: A file photo of BSP chief Mayawati addressing an election rally in Ahmedabad. PTI
“In the beginning, there was a similar situation in Uttar Pradesh, wherein many people taunted the party saying that it could not win a single seat despite fielding so many candidates. But then through the years, the party gained and now has a sizeable vote share,” said Chander Bhan Prasad, a Dalit activist.
The BJP plans to field candidates in 430 constituencies. The Congress didn’t comment specifically on whether it would field more than 500 candidates. “As of now, we are fielding around 400 candidates. But the final lists are yet to be released,” said Tom Vadakkan, secretary, All India Congress Committee (AICC).
A BJP spokesperson said that in a democracy, “every party has a right to field as many number of candidates that they want to. While our allies and friends will be contesting on around 100 seats, BJP will be fielding candidates on the remaining seats”.
BSP’s numbers game would seem to be working if recent state elections are any indication.
According to a study by Marketing and Development Associates (MDRA), a New Delhi-based research consultancy, the party’s vote share rose from 4.5% to 6.5% in Chhattisgarh; 4.8% to 11% in Madhya Pradesh; 2.5% to 14% in Delhi; and from 3.2% to 7.6% in Rajasthan. While the later figures are based on the November 2008 assembly elections in these states, the earlier ones are based on the 2004 general election.
Praveen Rai, a psephologist with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, said the BSP could be a significant player in these states. “They may be able to influence 10-15 seats in all, from constituencies based in these states.”
According to Prasad, the BSP spent most of the past decade focusing on its growth within Uttar Pradesh. “Now this really is the time for the party to spread its wings.”
“The idea is to make our presence felt and make an impact in as many constituencies as possible,” said a senior leader of BSP, who did not want to be identified.
That will start happening now, but the real difference will be in the next election, said a psephologist.
According to Mahesh Rangarajan, BSP’s aim is to take its vote share to around 10%. “It is very likely that they will substantially raise their vote share and there is a good chance that BSP will emerge as the third largest party in the coming elections.” The real election for the party, however, “would be the next one”, he added.
However, political opponents do not think BSP’s strategy will work.
“They will not be able to make any significant impact in any state outside Uttar Pradesh. Fielding a large number of candidates is something that any party can do,” said B.K. Hariprasad, a general secretary with AICC, and Congress spokesperson Manish Tiwari added that the number of candidates fielded by a political party is no measure of its prospects.
A BSP leader from Kerala, A. Neela Lohithadasan Nadar, said that the main message the party plans to take to the people is the projection of Mayawati, the party’s chief and the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, as India’s prime minister. “We are also telling the people that both the Congress as well as the Left have failed to bring development to the state. We hope to win more than one seat,” added Nadar.
However, the party’s expansion drive has also raised questions about how it is able to fund election campaigns across the country.
“There is absolutely no transparency on how the political parties, including BSP, are funding the elections. When you ask the parties as to how they are able to support their campaigns with just voluntary contributions, they say that the candidates also share the burden. But it is impossible to trace the expenditure on the field to the money raised by the parties,” said Jagdish Chokker of activist group Association for Democratic Reforms.
Utpal Bhaskar contributed to this story.