File photo: Reuters
File photo: Reuters

Opinion | The pure politics of the mercurial Mayawati

Mayawati's politics mainly centres around the rights of dalits and the creation of coalitions

Discerning readers of my previous column would have realized that by deploying Yogi Adityanath as its star flag-bearer of Hindutva, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rendered an enormous public service to the people of Uttar Pradesh. Were the yogi to make the mistake of donning an ideological hat even in the discharge of administrative responsibilities, he would be exposed on account of his inability to act against cow vigilantes in the wake of his heightened rhetoric on the electoral stump.

The BJP seems to have rendered a similar favour to the leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Mayawati, through the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) cases it has apparently heaped upon her. The story goes that by doing so they have made it more difficult for Mayawati to join the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). But would it be in Mayawati’s interest to join the UPA even if she did not face any such threat?

Mayawati’s politics mainly centres around the struggle for the rights of dalits and the creation of coalitions that would enable the acquisition of power. This makes her strategies relatively easy to read, notwithstanding her reputation of being mercurial. She has one of the most loyal vote banks in Indian politics. However, this is under threat from two different kinds of forces. First, the consolidation of the Hindu vote by the BJP, as happened in the 2014 general election and the 2017 state election, could result in a replacement of the politics of the assertion of dalit rights by the politics of assimilation of the scheduled castes within the overarching umbrella of the Hindutva ideology. Hence, the BJP poses an existential threat to her politics. However, the Hindutva approach is by and large engineered by political expediency and ultimately boils down to a cynical continuation of an age-old exploitation.

It is this reality that has created the second risk for Mayawati—the Bhim Army led by Chandrashekhar Azad, which highlights the hypocrisy of the process of assimilation and takes on a militant hue in the face of assimilative Hindu politics. Over the years, administrative and political compulsions have forced Mayawati to take on a more nuanced position with regard to dalit rights. She has focused on creating a bahujan samaj, a rainbow coalition of castes and communities, which fundamentally differs from the BJP’s “sabka saath sabka vikas" by virtue of being led by a dalit. However, in the face of assimilative hypocrisy, her stance is not seen as assertive enough. Under the circumstances, allying with either of the two mainstream parties could jeopardize Mayawati’s position in her own community, though in this respect, the Congress is slightly more palatable than the BJP.

The next factor to consider is that of vote transference. Mayawati’s votes are easily transferred to her allies, but the reverse is not true. In Uttar Pradesh, the catchment area of the Congress is the upper caste votes in urban and rural areas. When the Congress allies with the BSP, this vote, instead of going to the BSP candidate, gets transferred to the BJP. This was observed in 1996 when the Congress and the BSP fought the state election together, only to lose to the Samajwadi Party (SP). This problem of the Congress extends to its alliances with the SP as well. In the 2018 by-election to Gorakhpur and Phulpur, not only did Akhilesh Yadav refuse to take the help of the Congress, but is reported to have actively helped the contesting Congress candidates to divert the upper caste votes from the BJP.

However, for the BSP, allying with the SP is not straightforward either. In the Gorakhpur and Phulpur by-elections, the winning candidates were fighting on SP tickets and BSP was merely providing support. In neither seat was there a BSP candidate. Hence, the doubts about the transference of the SP vote bank to the BSP, doubts which owe their origin to the rancour between the SP and the BSP since the latter walked out of an SP-BSP government in 2005 and remain very much alive.

That said, neither the SP nor the BSP can afford not to ally with each other in Uttar Pradesh. The victory of Tabassum Hasan as a Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) candidate in the Kairana by-election offers a solution to the problem of vote transference. Hasan is a former MP from the BSP and the wife of the late Chaudhary Munawwar Hasan, who was part of both the SP and the BSP. However, she fought on the ticket of RLD, which is traditionally strong in the Kairana belt. In the same manner, to maximize vote transference, in a large number of seats, the SP should give tickets to members of the BSP. To accommodate the SP candidates, some of their members will then have to be given BSP tickets. The Congress is weak enough to be ignored by the SP-BSP combine in Uttar Pradesh.

Finally, one must remember that Mayawati like any successful state leader aspires for power at the centre. In the event of a hung Parliament, her bargaining power is maximized by staying neutral till the results of the polls are declared. Allying with the winning side at that stage will also automatically lessen the pressure of the CBI cases. Hence, the sword of the CBI hanging over her head offers her a useful opportunity to exercise her most advantageous political stance without appearing to be ideologically agnostic between the Congress and the BJP—she cannot be expected to join the BJP on account of her victimization at its hands, and cannot join the Congress for fear of prosecution. All in all, not a bad situation to be in.

Rohit Prasad is a professor at MDI, Gurgaon. Game Sutra is a fortnightly column based on game theory.

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