Mayawati holds edge, despite cracks in vote base

Mayawati holds edge, despite cracks in vote base

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.

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.

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.

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.

The disconnect

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.

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 %.

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.

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."

Populist measures

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 400, said the second official.

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."

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

The dilemma

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.