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Back in 2019, before the Lok Sabha polls, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader Mayawati was being spoken about as a potential Prime Minister of India, at least in Uttar Pradesh (UP), where I live. “Desh ka agla pradhan mantri gathbandhan dega, aur hum toh chaahenge ki koi agar aadhi aabadi se ban jaaye, toh uss se achchhi koi baat nahin hogi (The SP-BSP alliance will give the country its next Prime Minister and I would be very happy if the PM comes from the other half of the population)," said Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party (SP), gently backing Mayawati’s candidacy for the post in 2019, when the SP and BSP fought that year’s general election together. Failing to get the desired result, however, Mayawati had blamed Akhilesh Yadav for the BSP’s poll drubbing, even though her party’s seats in Parliament jumped from 0 to 10, an apparent benefit of their alliance. Yadav kept up his show of respect for the four-term UP chief minister, perhaps in an attempt to win over the party’s traditional base of voters, the state’s Dalits.

Today, the road ahead for Mayawati’s BSP seems to be uneven and laden with concrete baked by a hot summer sun on which the party is compelled to walk barefoot. The party managed to win just one seat of the 403 seats it contested in the UP assembly polls earlier this year. This is a tally worse than it has in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Uttarakhand, where it has 2 seats each, and equals its Punjab count. What’s worrisome is not just that its presence in the UP legislative assembly was reduced to just 1 seat, but also the fact that a party which had survived three earlier elections without a significant loss of vote share has for the first time seen it almost halved this year.

Multiple reasons can be ascribed to this BSP debacle, but the principal reason is surely a change in the dynamics of elections held in UP. Polling in India’s most populous state has turned sharply bipolar and the SP managed to get the first-mover’s advantage in opposition to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) by staying relevant and active as the political theme changed, which made it the principal challenger to the BJP. Another reason behind the decimation of the BSP is that many of its leaders deserted the party and moved to the SP; a few shifted to the BJP too. “Hum toh Baabu Ram Achal ka hi jaanit hai, jab wu haathi mein rahen toh hum haathi ki button dabayen, ab wu cycle mein hain toh hum cycle dabaibe (We only know Ram Achal Rajbhar. When he was in BSP, we pressed BSP’s button. Now that he is in SP, we will vote for cycle)," said a voter in the Akbarpur assembly constituency, a seat that Rajbhar has lost only once (in 2012) since 1993. This year, he contested on an SP ticket for the first time and the BSP stood third in what was once a safe seat for the party.

So, is this the end of the road for the BSP and the most electorally successful Dalit leader the country has seen so far?

While the BSP faced its worst defeat in the recent elections, Mayawati clearly remains a popular Dalit leader in India’s politically most significant state. Yet, the scale of her party’s rout is starkly visible in the fact that apart from the one seat it won (Rasara), it couldn’t even stand second in 385 of the other 402 assembly constituencies. The party suffered a complete washout even in its former bastions. In 2017, of the 19 seats it won, three were in Ambedkar Nagar. This time, however, the party failed to achieve runner-up status in four of the five contests in that district. The SP swept the district instead, and interestingly, four of its five candidates had either switched over from the BSP or been expelled by the latter just before the polls. Even the likes of Shyam Sundar Sharma, who had been winning the Mant seat of Mathura district since 1989 (though he lost once to the Rashtriya Lok Dal’s Jayant Chaudhary in 2012 only to win it back in a 2014 by-poll) couldn’t draw sufficient votes to attain victory.

The vote-share data is what must worry the BSP most. This year, it polled just under 12.9% of all votes cast in UP, which is sharply lower than its 2017 share of a little above 22.2%. A large number of BSP voters have moved to either the BJP or SP. At a time when both these parties have put in strong performances in the state, getting its voters back from them would be no easy task for Mayawati’s party. Perhaps the best it can hope for would be to hold onto its remaining vote share.

Another thing that might worry the BSP is that except Mayawati, it has no other Dalit face who it can project as the party’s future leadership. Its revival in UP will thus be an arduous task, at least for the foreseeable future. In the short-term, the party is left with just two options: either ally with one of UP’s two principal players, or make a bold move to merge the party with one of them.

The BJP’s history of relations with most of its allies across the country might act as a hurdle in any BSP effort to get close to the saffron party, but the SP might be a viable choice in the current context. Joint victories would earn the BSP some credit and their losses in alliance could perhaps be blamed on the SP, which has a rich history of failed alliances, including in 2017 with the Congress party, in 2019 with the BSP, and most recently this year with the RLD.

Syed Kamran is a Lucknow-based journalist.

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