When Mayawati was born, her father Prabhu Das Dayal claimed he had strokes of good fortune at work and she was named Maya just because of that. Her mother claimed just a fortnight after her birth a sadhu predicted that she would become a neta. After she actually became a mass leader, her followers and family members made it a practice to propagate stories which added to the mystery surrounding Mayawati. She herself extensively wrote in her autobiography about her early childhood days which enhanced the aura about Mayawati. When a bleak political future is staring at her after back to back defeats, these fairy tale stories so meticulously spread won’t give any solace to Mayawati and her followers. Her disciples and those follow her, despite some warning ground reports , believed in her political acumen which would spring a surprise when votes are counted. All these hopes now lie shattered. After three crushing defeats in five years is it the end of the road for Mayawati and her brand of politics? Is the current crisis of BSP another reflection of the limits of caste based politics?
Though it drew a blank in the last parliament election BSP was the third biggest party in terms of vote share. After the worst electoral performance in decades, what are the options available before Mayawati? The bigger question is how BJP could eat into the large share of Dalit votes despite its upper caste bias?
Ever since Mayawati was anointed as the de facto chief of the BSP by founder Kanshiram, what she consistently did was to plough a lonely furrow in electoral politics. The alliance with SP after the Babri Masjid demolition taught her some bitter lessons personally and politically. Mayawati’s alliance with BJP two times out of practical compulsions –both times to thwart her bete noire Mulayam Singh's attempt to form the government- did not have the desired results.
Then she equipped BSP to fight alone and it worked for almost two decades.
When she won 2007 election all alone, the credit was given to the innovative strategy she had evolved. Mayawati's decision to offer an olive branch to Brahmins and other caste was called as social engineering project. Many Dalit leaders welcomed it as a pragmatic move. But some intellectuals like Anand Teltumbe questioned it saying it smacks of opportunism. “If they were (the social engineering project) taken as a vehicle to bring about a change in the caste/class relations to the benefit of oppressed and poor people, then Mayawati’s unscrupulous handling of them throws up a galore of serious suspicion”.
When BJP were able to consolidate its social base that is basically upper caste Hindus, the social engineering project of Mayawati failed to survive as has been proven by the results of the last three elections. Extending hands towards the Brahmins were welcomed by many Ambedkarites because of the social symbolism emanated out of it. “ Dalits were overwhelmed by the sight of upper castes paying homage to the daughter of an untouchable,” wrote Ajoy Bose in Behanji A Political Biography of Mayawati. But beyond the temporary symbolism and resultant joy, the project failed to sustain. BJP by its whirlwind campaign and cunning methods took the Brahmins away from BSP fold.
Though Mayawati fielded maximum number of Muslim in this election the results prove that this was not sufficient for the minority community to repose faith in BSP. Mayawati’s earlier alliance with BJP might still be fresh in the minds of minorities. More than that, despite its questionable attitude vis a vis various communal skirmishes in the state, minorities still has not lost faith in SP.
So everything turned against Mayawati.
Mayawati had three inherent disadvantages as a political leader. In what is a predominantly male bastion that Indian politics is, she fought as a woman. In a field where upper caste leaders dominated the leadership of almost every political party, she struggled as a Dalit by speaking relentlessly about her identity. In a system where the majority of leaders emerge through patronage, Mayawati was a self-made fighter.
But merely repeating this history of struggle won't salvage Mayawati and her party. After almost all political parties which fought on the basis of Dalit identity failed to make any impact.
The success BSP had in the last decade made it look like the only success model available before the marginalised sections of the society. Kanshiram and Mayawati like all other major political leaders mastered the art of real politicking. They made alliances, experimented different social combinations to gain power. But as has been proved there strategy could not politicise even their own core vote base.
Dalits in 2014 and in 2017, voted for BJP. Though capturing power is important and BSP rule in Uttar Pradesh has helped to instil confidence among the marginalised sections, this was not enough. Asserting the social identity in the fight for equality is important. But in the fight for equality, addressing class question cannot be ignored. In their bid to capture political power, BSP ignored it. The party did not address the class issues that the marginalised sections of the society encountered.
It is a fact that neo-liberalism exacerbated the crisis of living of the Dalits, BSP ignored the issues at their own peril. The dwindling public investment in agriculture and health care affected the Dalits most. The landlessness among the Dalits, according to some studies increased after the central government unleashed neo-liberal policies. BSP leadership conveniently ignored all these factors and resorted to other methods of politics in the same way as other mainstream parties did. By ignoring this it is difficult to politically mobilise different untouchable caste groups. Because, as pointed out by Anand Teltumbde caste is fundamentally a hierarchy seeking category which does not allow unity. According to him “The fundamental folly of the Dalit movement is that it has not comprehended that caste cannot be the category to articulate any radical struggle”. A party that seeks to end discrimination can’t survive without working for radical change. BSP’s current crisis undermines this.