Catch 2017: The year when old ideas ran out of steam for Mayawati, Akhilesh
India's most populous state Uttar Pradesh witnessed nothing less than a political tsunami in 2017. The two parties that have ruled the roost in the state for the last two decades - the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party - were decimated by the BJP in the Assembly elections held in the beginning of the year.
It was a setback for the SP led by young Akhilesh Yadav, who grew out of his father's shadow, and Mayawati's BSP. Behenji lost her mojo despite cries of 'Sarvjan Hitaya' that she coined in her last tenure when the upper caste gravitated towards her, or the way she fielded so many Muslims in 2017.
“Nobody from the upper caste would vote for the BSP’s Brahmin candidate. They are not even offering him water when he goes to campaign,” Munna Awasthi, a local priest confidently told this correspondent in the temple town of Chitrakoot, right on the UP-MP border in Bundelkhand, before the Assembly elections.
“We have made up our mind. BJP has to be brought in this time,” he continued, as other joined him.
This is exactly what seemed to have happened.
The Bharatiya Janata Party's Chandrika Prasad Upadhyay, a former bureaucrat who contested in 2012 as well, garnered more than 90,000 votes with his share in votes going up from a mere 17% to over 41%. Samajwadi Party’s Veer Singh, the sitting MLA, also the son of dead dacoit Dadua, got just 29%, down from 36% of polled votes in 2012 and the BSP’s candidate could only manage 21%.
After a complete wipe-out in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, where BSP’s tally came to a nought from 21 seats in 2009, the 2017 Assembly elections were no better.
Its tally comes down to just 19 seats. Its percentage of votes on seats contested, a more credible marker of its support in the most populous state has come down from a high of 30.4% in 2007 elections to just 22.2% in 2017. To put this figure in perspective, the party got more than 28% votes even in 1993 and 1996, in its heydays.
So what went wrong with a party which had prospered despite Mayawati’s cult and no second-rung leadership?
The 2017 elections was a counter-movement by the upper castes, says Professor Vivek Kumar, who teaches Sociology at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and watches the party closely.
But does the Upper Caste polarisation in favour of the BJP enough to explain BSP’s debacle?
Perhaps not, the way the BJP made inroads into not just Dalit communities like the Valmikis but also other backward groups like Kushwahas for example. Or built alliances with others like Om Prakash Rajbhar's Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (SBSP).
It also managed to retain the non-Yadav OBC vote-bank it had consolidated in 2014 elections riding on the communal polarisation – branding the Samajwadi Party as a pro-minority outfit, out to appease the Muslims at the cost of the majority Hindus.
The SP, overconfident despite the rift in the family, with father Mulayam Singh Yadav, repeatedly speaking out against the son, failed to take into account of the anti-incumbency against its MLAs.
SP believed that the coalition with the Congress, which was stitched at the last moment, along with pollsters like Prashant Kishore on their side would be enough to upset BJP’s hard work on the ground.
“Muslims would see us as the only credible choice even without us wooing them openly,” as one leader put it then.
Yet, the way Mayawati for the first time went out on a limb to woo the minority community with over 100 tickets upset this calculus.
“The moment she announced that they are fielding so many Muslims, the election was bound to be polarised,” a Congress leader had said then.
Can Mayawati’s BSP and the SP survive these virtual wipeouts first in 2014 and then again in 2017?
AK Verma, an academic who studies elections says it is not right to think that this is the end of these outfits. He says the vote percentage of the Samajwadi Party, for example, has been around 28% on the seats it contested in 2017.
Or the way BSP has been able to win Meerut and Aligarh, the two big corporations in Western UP, too, signal the party’s support may have weaned but it could come back on its feet.
The BSP, after the humiliating loss, dismantled all its organisation post the 2017 elections. The new organisation, insiders say have around 50% youth representation, signalling Mayawati is learning with the times. In districts like Ambedkar Nagar where only a Jatav would mostly be appointed as the district head, the party chief has this time gone for a Kurmi.
Or the way she is trying to woo the backward Muslims, trying to build a Muslim-Dalit alliance.
“This alliance could work if Mayawati manages to convince the Muslims that she is in the fray,” Verma says.
However, that looks unlikely in the 2019 elections for now if past experiences like the 2009 Lok Sabha polls are to go by. Despite the BSP government in the state, it was the Congress which managed to get more seats.
But does a coalition between the SP, the Congress and the BSP, the only way out if BJP is to be cut to its size in the state which sends maximum MPs to Parliament?
Mayawati is known to be not too fond of coalition politics. She knows the limitations of it the way her vote bank of Dalits is easily transferable unlike that of other parties like the SP or even the Congress. As analysts and politicians accept, it is unlikely that a Yadav voter of the SP, who sees the BSP as a party of the Dalits, would vote for its candidate if there is an alliance. BSP also believes that it has more chances of a win in fierce three-cornered contests unlike in bipolar election.
Yet, a larger anti-BJP coalition which includes the Congress, too, could turn the tables, especially in UP, which now has a BJP government. And people take to rating the performance of the party which by 2019 would have completed five years at the Centre and about two years in the state.
But as Verma says, one has to go back to game theory. It would also depend on how BJP plays its cards, not just on how well or badly the others do.
Edited by Jhinuk Sen