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BSP at the Crossroads

A cautionary tale lies behind the Bahujan Samaj Party's less than expected performance in the recent Lok Sabha elections in Uttar Pradesh. The party frittered away its sarvajan support gained in the 2007 assembly elections because of the manner in which this social coalition was stitched, subsuming caste contradictions for mere arithmetic addition of support to the party. Also playing a role in the defeat were the negative perceptions among the electorate of Mayawati's rule as chief minister.


BSP at the Crossroads

Smita Gupta

shatter the sarvajan bond it had so meticulously forged. Its spokespersons point to the fact that it is the runner-up in as many as 46 seats, of which it lost three by a margin of less than 10,000 votes, and another

A cautionary tale lies behind the Bahujan Samaj Party’s less than expected performance in the recent Lok Sabha elections in Uttar Pradesh. The party frittered away its sarvajan support gained in the 2007 assembly elections because of the manner in which this social coalition was stitched, subsuming caste contradictions for mere arithmetic addition of support to the party. Also playing a role in the defeat were the negative perceptions among the electorate of Mayawati’s rule as chief minister.

Smita Gupta ( is p olitical editor with the weekly news m agazine, Outlook.

n 2007, when the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP)’s remarkable political journey climaxed in a landslide victory in the assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh (UP), it was, to all appearances, the ultimate t riumph of inclusive politics. UP would now not only be ruled by a rainbow coalition of upper castes, most backward castes (MBCs), dalits and Muslims, it was also on the cusp of a dramatic change – the r eversal of centuries of discrimination. A dalit would head not a bahujan but a sarvajan government, fulfilling BSP founder Kanshi Ram’s dream of turning the s ocial pyramid on its head. For party supremo Mayawati, who took charge of the state for the fourth time1 – and her legion of staunchest dalit supporters – the possibility of a dalit prime minister did not seem that unreal any longer.

In 1989, the BSP was a fringe player, with just 13 MLAs and 9.41% of the votes. By 2007, it had arrived on the political centre stage in UP, securing an absolute majority, its vote share soaring to 30%, and its seats rising to 206. Mayawati and her mentor, Kanshi Ram (who died in O ctober 2006) had achieved this through a carefully crafted strategy. In the party’s formative years, a strident, exclusive bahujan agenda helped consolidate the dalit vote; once the BSP acquired a critical mass, its leaders sought to give the party a wider appeal through the gentler rhythms of an inclusive sarvajan message and it worked. And after 2007, it looked as though Mayawati might just replicate that feat in UP in the Parliament elections due in 2009.

Two short years have passed: instead of the 45-odd Parliament seats it had set its sights on in UP (a rough approximation of its achievement in the assembly polls of 2007), the BSP is down to 20, just one more than it secured in 2004, slipping three percentage points from 2007.2 In vote share, the BSP remains ahead of the competition, but in seat share, it is behind the Samajwadi Party (SP) (23), and even the Congress (21).

What is one to make of this verdict? The BSP’s own public version is that its political rivals embarked on a joint “conspiracy” to

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three by less than 20,000. Advocates of the good governance formula say Mayawati’s amazing slum-to-secretariat story, marked by years of struggle and a neversay-die spirit, finally came a cropper b ecause of corruption, an inefficient administration, the failure to maintain law and order – and megalomania.

Loosening of the Sarvajan Knot

The BSP’s poor governance record certainly influenced the results. But, equally worrying for Mayawati, the fabric of sarvajan concord she so methodically knitted together is already fraying at the edges. In the recent elections, brahmins voted willingly for the BSP’s brahmin candidates but were still reluctant to return the favour by backing the party’s other nominees: worse, they were no longer motivated enough to mobilise public opinion for the BSP as they did in 2007. The Banias, upset that their leaders had been slighted by Mayawati, had taken their support elsewhere. Most significantly, the potent symbolism of a dalit chief minister had lost some of its magic for the dalits, as Mayawati’s ascendancy had not been accompanied by a visible improvement in their lives. Upper caste atrocities on dalits continued unchecked in the last two years, because Mayawati wanted to keep the upper castes in good humour and, simultaneously, ensure that the crime figures were “under control”; the Ambedkar villages were neglected; and the promised land pattas have yet to be handed out. Schemes earlier meant exclusively for dalits were given a sarvajan spin: in the process, the dalits found themselves cast on the margins again.

Nothing illustrates the weakness of Mayawati’s meticulously constructed s ocial engineering blueprint as her attempt to throw open the jobs of government sweepers or safai karamcharis, once the exclusive domain of dalits, to all castes. During these elections, it was a subject that came up repeatedly as I travelled through UP – brahmins described the move as equivalent to “spitting on a brahmin’s face”, even though it brings in a monthly salary of


Rs 8,500 plus; the dalits did not see it as a social equaliser. Rather, they saw it as a devious upper caste way of blocking the few avenues of employment they have: adding insult to injury, upper castes who secured such jobs, in most cases, they said, simply outsourced them to dalits at a fraction of the real salary. In short, dalits had become doubly disadvantaged: the jobs had shrunk, and yet the social stigma a ttached to being a safai karamchari r emained intact. Clearly, the electoral verdict in UP hides a more important story – perhaps, another chapter in the complex narrative of identity politics.

Political Preferences

In 2005, Mayawati embarked on her celebrated brahmin rallies: accompanied by the creator of her brahmin project, Satish Chandra Mishra, she crisscrossed UP, touching 26 districts. That year, I travelled across central and eastern UP – Lucknow, Kanpur, Allahabad, Bhadohi, Varanasi, Jaunpur, Azamgarh, Gorakhpur, Basti, Faizabad and back to the state capital – a journey I have undertaken annually since (barring 2008) to study the impact of her efforts. “We’ve given upper castes tickets from 1995”, Ambeth Rajan, a close aide of the late Kanshi Ram, and now a Rajya Sabha MP, told me at that time, adding, “This is the second stage. Currently, we command 24% of the vote in UP while the SP is ahead at 26%. If we can bridge this gap and forge a few points ahead with the help of the brahmins, we will be number one in UP.” Those words were prescient.

Indeed, that year, it was already apparent that the relentless wooing of the brahmins was beginning to evoke a response. A three-time MP from the rival SP even acknowledged as much in a conversation on the subject. “Earlier, when Mayawati gave brahmins tickets”, he said, “the candidate, knowing he was assured of the BSP’s t raditional vote, would have to work to persuade his own community with the s logan ‘Pathar lagao chhaati pe, mohar l agao haathi pe’ (harden your heart and vote BSP).” Thanks to the brahmin sammelans, he said, that allergy for Mayawati, among members of the community, had vanished. They were now willing to vote BSP, without a murmur – but only if the c andidate was a brahmin.

This change in the brahmin attitude to the BSP had, of course, a great deal to do with the decline in the community’s influence. UP’s brahmins, though less than eight per cent of the population (9.2% b efore the division of the state), had been accustomed to wielding authority far in excess of their numbers till the emergence of backward and dalit power in the 1990s swept them aside. Till 1989, the brahmins worked through the Congress, voting for the party and getting its members elected; the Ayodhya movement saw them shift a llegiance to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). But 2004 marked a watershed. Disenchanted with the BJP – even with Atal Behari Vajpayee, a brahmin – the community was at its most vulnerable when the BSP stepped in, intoning the seductive “Yeh haathi nahin, Ganesh hain, Brahma, V ishnu, Mahesh hain” (the BSP’s election symbol is what brahmins worship), jettisoning the belligerent “Tilak, tarazu aur talwar, inko maaro joote chaar” (thrash the brahmin, Baniya and kshatriya), a s logan that had helped create the party’s solid dalit base in earlier years.

By 2006, when I returned to UP, everyone – barring the then chief minister M ulayam Singh Yadav’s caste supporters – seemed to be rooting for the BSP. The a ssembly elections were still a year away, but the verdict in the villages and towns was already out: Mayawati would be the next chief minister. And it was not just her enduringly loyal dalit supporters who were making this prediction; the upper castes, whether brahmin or Bania, and even, in many cases, Thakurs, had joined the chorus.3 The tide had apparently turned, signalling the birth of what was to be named sarvajan politics.

Mayawati had now also begun to assiduously court the Banias who, though just three per cent of the population, wield the financial muscle in UP “Under the u mbrella of the Banias”, the BSP’s national spokesman Sudhir Goel at that time – now out in the cold – had told me, “Mayawati hopes to unite other OBC trading castes, like the Telis, Sahus, Halwais, Sonars, etc. They make up another 10%”. That year, the BSP held Bania sammelans in Agra, A llahabad, Meerut, Muzaffarnagar, Kanpur, Farukkhabad, Sant Kabir Nagar and J hansi. The trading castes, Goel had pointed out, were the first victims of extortion and kidnapping, and so security was of paramount importance to them.

Indeed, the abysmal law and order situation in the state had become the top campaign issue for everyone, not just the B anias. With the Yadavs – associated with the ruling party in the state then – now being viewed as the main patrons, perpetrators and beneficiaries of crimes, big and small, a “coalition of victims” emerged. Mayawati realised that if she could consolidate the votes of this temporary – not necessarily cohesive – non-Yadav coalition, she could be the victor at the hustings. In every speech, she recalled that she had kept all major crimes in check during her earlier tenures as chief minister. Even her critics admitted at the time that there was a general impression that when she was in power, the m afiosi were either in jail or had been driven out of the state.

On that trip, Ambarish Gupta, a wealthy businessman in Varanasi – born into a t raditional Congress family which had shifted its allegiance in the 1990s to the BJP like many other Banias – told me that shortly after bombs shattered the serenity of his city on 7 March that year, even he had changed his mind: “The Congress and the BJP are finished in UP. Mayawati is our only hope to restore law and order”, he said. And it was a sentiment that was e choed, curiously, even by Thakurs, traditional SP supporters. “Anti-social elements in my p arty, the SP”, Swayamprakash Singh, the Thakur ex-pradhan of Banbirpur near Barabanki, said, “are increasing. The common man is the victim of the growing gun culture. In neighbouring Sultanpur, Gonda and F aizabad, the BSP’s influence is growing.”

Beyond the desire for the rule of law, other social complexities were at work. Even though all criminals were not Y adavs, the brahmins, Banias – and dalits

– decided to make common cause against this OBC community. The upper castes and the dalits, a senior civil service officer explained, felt that the Muslim and Thakur mafiosi were “more easily taken care of, the first because of a general mood against the community and the second, because they are divided”. That was why Mayawati was on the rise, he said. In short, a common interest rather than the crumbling of the caste order had wrought this new unity.

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By 2007, there was a full-blown brahmin revolution in UP: As I once again travelled across the state, at virtually every paan shop and street corner, members of the community were drumming up support for Mayawati. “The Brahmin publicity machine is far more effective than even the internet”, a bemused Pradip Singh, who ran a non-governmental organisation (NGO) in Allahabad, explained that their presence at every village function, from weddings to funerals, provided them with occasions to “spread the word”. The community, he stressed, was “the most v ocal and influential”. Reflecting the new reality was a new slogan: “Brahmin shankh b ajayega, hathi badta jayega”.


Mayawati, on her part, was meticulously channelling this new enthusiasm by forming the Bhaichara Banao Samitis (loosely translated as “brotherhood building committees”) in all the 403 assembly constituencies. Each samiti, structured down to the booth level, had 300 brahmins and 100 dalits, with a brahmin chairman and a dalit general secretary. Each assembly area was divided into 25-30 sectors, with each sector responsible for eight to 10 booths. Bhaichara Samitis were also c reated for other communities.

Miraculously, the “bhaichara” was working: in the Mughalsarai assembly area, Ratnakar Pande, who ran a coaching centre in Ramnagar, sounded even more e nthusiastic than Satyanarain Kushwaha, a party colleague, who had been in the BSP for over a decade. To make Mayawati chief minister, Pande said, Brahman prakosht dwara bari jaati hawa bana rahi hain; choti jaati jurte ja rahn hain (Through the BSP’s brahman wing, the upper castes are creating a wave, favouring the party; the lower castes are rapidly attaching themselves).

In Auraiyan, Brajesh Dixit, a new convert, explained how brahmin support was being integrated into the organisation. “When l ocal body elections were held in 2006, B ehenji covertly backed candidates”, he said, “to see whether Brahmins would vote for the BSP. Here in Dibyapur, she supported Vibha Tiwari and she b ecame nagar panchayat chairperson. So, her husband, S hekhar,4 has been given the Auraiyan a ssembly ticket.” A seat he subsequently won.

The dalit-brahmin combination had worked in the past, too, but through a proxy, the BJP, when the two parties formed governments in 1995, 1997 and then in 2002. But those experiments failed. “Now in 2007, Mayawati won’t have to take a begging bowl around after the elections”, Mahesh Tripathi, a lawyer in Allahabad told me “because she has a lready made a pact with the Brahmins”. For the brahmins, the 86 tickets, the largest given by any party in that election, was temptation enough. The community, which matters in 120 of the 403 assembly constituencies of the state, and which once had nothing but utter contempt for the bahujan samaj, had evidently decided to convert adversity into opportunity. “The Brahmins aren’t compromising with their ideology; it is M ayawati who is making the sacrifice. Brahmins are just being practical”, T ripathi continued, adding, “They have not had a stalwart to lead them since N D Tiwari. Now this is an opportunity to return to power and simultaneously tame and control a reactionary force. It is a l ethal combination – it will sweep UP.” He was right on both counts: the brahmins “returned to power” in 2007; two years later, they ensured that she could not make the transition to Delhi – they had “tamed and controlled” what they felt was “a reactionary force”.

In 2007, the brahmin project had not changed the core of the party, or the loyalties of its original constituents. They did not seem to resent the entry of wealthy brahmins who were buying their way into the party. “Workers like me are not wealthy enough to contest”, Dhani Ram Gautam, a dalit, who had been with the party since 1984 in Auraiyan, said, stressing, “Rich candidates bring money for the party. Of course, money is not enough to secure a ticket – the party has to be convinced that the candidate has votes of his own.” For Gautam, the greatest attraction was the respect he got by being part of the ‘movement’: “Hamara lalak”, he said, “ek hai – samman”. He then added, wistfully, “If Behenji’s attempt to promote bhaichara becomes a reality, life will improve dramatically for us.” The two years since he said that have demonstrated how fragile that bhaichara is – upper caste atrocities against dalits in UP continue unabated.

In 2007, the MBCs, too, were rapidly entering the BSP fold: in Ramnagar, Satyanarain Kushwaha, who had been with the party for 12 years, asked me: “Do you know who is one of Behenji’s closest advisers?” And then answered the question, “It is Baburam Kushwaha”, he said with pride. Baburam, one of Mayawati’s closest aides in Lucknow, is now the state panchayati raj minister.

Dealing with Crime

So great was the determination – across the board – to bring in an administration that would check the spiralling crime graph that even Muslims, unhappy at b eing described as hardliners (kattarpanthis) by Mayawati, said they were not averse to voting BSP to defeat the BJP, e specially as she had explained that her remark was provoked by Yakub Quereshi’s offering a reward for the death of the D anish cartoonist who had caricatured the Prophet Mohammad. “M uslims have forgiven Mayawati. As long as she doesn’t make any new anti-Muslim statements and does not hold a brief for the BJP”, l awyer and Babri Masjid Action Committee activist Zafaryab Jilani said, “she’ll be ok. Muslims don’t have an agenda to d efeat Mayawati.”

And so, the BSP won a stunning victory, returning to UP to single party rule and stability after 18 years. (In 2002, 5 per cent of brahmins voted BSP; in 2007, it was 17%, according to CSDS.) At her first postvictory press conference, she introduced her closest colleagues, Mishra, the executor of her brahmin project, Nasimuddin Siddiqui, whom she credited with having pulled in a sizeable section of the Muslims, and the low-key Babulal Kushwaha, a key aide in Lucknow. She spoke in measured tones: it was a victory, she said, for the BSP’s anti-manuwadi ideology – a system that had kept her people at the bottom of the pile. But she also clarified that she i ntended to run a fair and equitable a dministration in which people from all sections of society would be given their due.

BSP in Rule

Twenty-four hours after being sworn in as UP chief minister, Mayawati told me r estoring law and order would be her first priority. “Fortunately, that doesn’t require much money – it only requires firm

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r esolve”, she said, “Law and order is a prerequisite for good governance. Development, my next priority, will be a bigger challenge.” How would she balance the conflicting interests of the upper castes and members of her core constituency?

I had no problem in transferring dalit votes to the upper castes and vice versa. Why should I then face any problem in taking care of the interests of all sections of society? Though I will pay attention to the interests of the sarvasamaj, the weaker sections and the poor among the upper castes will receive my first attention, she said confidently.

Two years later, in 2009, when I returned to UP, Satish Mishra was still the second-most powerful person in the state. And the brahmins now seemed to be controlling a majority of the top jobs in the administration right down to the police stations. Mayawati had even given 20 tickets to the community, double their strength in the state. (Compare that with just 17 tickets to dalits for the 17 reserved constituencies, even though they are much larger in number.) But oddly enough, the brahmins had fallen silent, even though they were back in power. The mood had imperceptibly changed. “Two factors are at work here”, CPI(M) central committee member and a former MP from Kanpur Subhashini Ali said, elaborating, “last time, everyone united to make Mayawati CM to get rid of Mulayam Singh. This time, the upper castes are very clear – they don’t want to see her as prime minister. There is also a perception that most top jobs have gone not to brahmins as a whole but to Mishra’s friends and relatives.”

The dalits, on their part, were still turning out in large numbers for Mayawati’s rallies where she was being showcased as PM-in-waiting. The slogans underscored the theme of her impending takeover of Delhi, ranging from “UP hui hamari hai, ab dilli ki baari hai” (we have taken Uttar Pradesh, we will take Delhi next) to “Bharat ki majboori hai; Behen Mayawati zaroori hai” (India needs Mayawati). But the buzz at the BSP offices and the feverish excitement among her key supporters was missing. Did the waning enthusiasm have something to do with the fact that though the majority of those who showed up were dalits, the promises being made by Mayawati were for others – reservation for the poor among the upper castes, and including the most backward castes in the SC quota? In Allahabad, BSP district president Deep Chandra Gautam, a serious young man, told me,

The biggest challenge for Mayawati is to bring everyone on one platform, while keeping crime and atrocities in check. To come to power and stay on in power while bringing about a social transformation is not easy. But only through political power, we can bring change – that is the paradox.

This time, everyone was talking about the unbridled corruption, the tyranny of the thanedars, the poor governance, the musclemen that the BSP had fielded – and above all, about Mayawati’s “megalomania”. The last was visible in plain sight: t oday, the once-nawabi landscape of L ucknow is dominated by gigantic statues of herself and her mentor, Kanshi Ram, and memorials to other dalit heroes. The stories are also legion – in one case, the state government demolished a Mayawati figurine under cover of darkness as it was considered too small, and replaced it with a larger one. As I drove through L ucknow, there were more ready for unveiling, for now ghostly figures shrouded in blue t arpaulin.

If in her earlier stints as chief minister, her attempt to create a new subaltern history in pink dholpur stone was viewed with satisfaction by her followers, in her fourth term, her memorial building spree

– even razing and rebuilding memorials she had earlier built – began to be seen as a waste of badly needed resources. Especially as the zeal she demonstrated in this pursuit was missing from her pursuit of her real task – building an equitable society in UP. The positive symbolism of the memorials was negated.

Post-elections, Mayawati appears to have grasped what went wrong with her administration. She is now laying greater emphasis on her dalit agenda – setting up special mechanisms to monitor atrocities against dalits, transfer of village lands to the community, paying greater attention to the problems her MLAs (assembly elections are due in 2012). Party functionaries have been directed to hold district-wise review meetings to analyse the poll verdict and to examine where the bhaichara c ommittees went wrong. Satish Mishra r emains at her side – both to convey to the brahmins that she has not given up on them as well as to ensure that she has the best legal advice she needs to face the range of corruption cases pending against her. The party would have to concentrate on the dalits and the MBCs, a senior BSP leader said recently, to rebuild a more enduring social equation, while focusing on good governance to bring back upper caste voters. The phrase “sarvajan hitay” is also going out of fashion in BSP circles.

Clearly, in the BSP’s failure to replicate 2007 in 2009 lies a cautionary tale. To be sustainable, political power must be used for the larger purpose of a social transformation that can create a more equitable society. But if attaining and retaining political power becomes an end in itself, subordinating that grand purpose, then that project is doomed to failure. The sarvajan hitaya can only work after the dalit revolution is completed.


1 Mayawati became chief minister for the first time in 1995, heading a BJP-BSP government, for five months between June and October that year; she was back in the saddle in March 1997, again leading a BJP-BSP government till September 1997. On the third occasion, too, she headed a BJP-BSP dispensation, from May 2002 to August 2003.

2 It won an additional seat in neighbouring Madhya Pradesh, taking its national tally to 21. And the fact that it polled over a lakh votes in 10 of the 11 seats in Haryana, over 40,000 in almost all the 40 seats in Bihar and over a lakh in four seats in M aharashtra all paled into insignificance.

3 The signs, too, were, all there: on March 31, 2006, a BSP workers’ meeting at Lucknow’s Ambedkar stadium drew more people than many political rallies, interestingly, three days after the BSP emerged as the only party not to face cross-voting in the Rajya Sabha/legislative council elections. Also, with just 67 MLAs, it polled an impressive 86 first preference votes.

4 Shekhar Tiwari hit the headlines earlier this year when he was arrested for allegedly killing a PWD engineer, Manoj Kumar Gupta, who resisted making the obligatory “contribution” to Mayawati’s birthday fund.

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