The countdown for the next general election has begun. All the parties have started their preparations in right earnest. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) factor has emerged as a key imponderable for the main contenders for power, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party.
The BSP acted as a spoiler for the Congress party in the Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh assembly elections. Though the party secured only 2.6% and 7% of the popular vote in Gujarat and Himachal, respectively, it hurt the Congress in as many as 14 seats in Gujarat and nine seats in Himachal Pradesh.
Earlier in 2004, the BSP undermined the Congress-NCP alliance in the Vidharbha region, where the combine lost 10 of the 11 seats—four of them on account of the BSP factor.
In the New Delhi municipal polls last year, the BSP polled an impressive 10% and won 15 wards to help an emphatic BJP win.
In key states scheduled to go to polls this year, namely Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the BSP has a sizeable presence and the potential to wreck the Congress’ prospects. Even in Karnataka, due for polls in April-May this year, the BSP could wreck the Congress’ already feeble prospects.
The BSP tends to hurt the Congress more than the BJP or any other party mainly because nationwide, the Congress is the preferred party of Dalits and, thus, receives the lion’s share of the Dalit vote in all states, except in Uttar Pradesh where Mayawati has replaced the Congress as the preferred party.
Mayawati is now threatening to do to the Congress all over the country what she has done to that party in Uttar Pradesh.
Mayawati’s success in Uttar Pradesh is a result of her social engineering strategy where the BSP—with a firm and committed Dalit vote base—has won the support of the Brahmins and a section of the backwards to secure an outright majority in the assembly. Brahmins account for one-sixth of the Uttar Pradesh electorate but have not received commensurate participation in the power sharing structure.
Mayawati is trying to replicate the Uttar Pradesh formula everywhere by attracting the BSP’s natural constituency of Dalit voters and other numerically strong communities that have not received due share of political power. For Mayawati’s game plan to succeed, she will have to first cross a threshold level in vote share to be able to attract these dominant yet neglected castes.
Hence, Mayawati is making frantic attempts to wean away a large chunk of the Dalit vote nationally from the Congress. This is possible only if she projects herself as a “victim” and the Congress as the “culprit” and “oppressor”. Towards this end, Mayawati is promising reservations in private sector to the scheduled castes, tribes and other backward castes as a bait and projecting herself as the true champion of the downtrodden.
Mayawati’s victory in Uttar Pradesh that defied all odds has sent a positive message to Dalits nationally. Dalit leaders, mostly from the Congress, and Dalit officials across the country are assisting Mayawati in her all-India plans. In Mayawati, the community sees a potential first ever Dalit prime minister.
Mayawati will make a huge impact on Dalit voters nationwide when she projects herself as a prime ministerial candidate in the forthcoming Lok Sabha polls. Her party’s performance in recent assembly elections is not a true measure of the BSP’s likely support in the Lok Sabha polls as her prime ministerial projection—with its huge emotive and aspirational appeal—may help the BSP emerge as the dominant choice of the Dalit voters, particularly the young among them. Voting is habit forming in nature and if Dalits migrate to the BSP once, it will be very difficult for the Congress to win them back.
In the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, the BSP secured 5.3% of the national vote, which was marginally higher than its vote share of 4.2% in the 1999 Lok Sabha polls. According to my estimates, if the BSP secures an additional 5% of votes, i.e. if it manages to increase its vote share to 10%, it is likely to win around 50 seats nationally and could unintentionally deliver as many as 50 additional seats to the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance nationally than what this combine might win otherwise in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls. This could send the Congress’ national tally plummeting down to less than 100 seats.
For the Congress, the BSP threat is real and the party may face gradual UP-like marginalization if the BSP succeeds in making a deep dent in the Congress’ Dalit vote in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls. The stage is set for a huge battle between the Congress and the BSP for the Dalit constituency. Can the Congress ward off Mayawati’s challenge? This is a key question that will determine the Congress’ future and ironically, that of the NDA as well.
G.V.L. Narasimha Rao is a political analyst and managing director of Development & Research Services, a research consulting firm. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org