The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) will join the proposed Opposition alliance against the BJP-led NDA only if Mayawati is projected as its prime ministerial ‘face’. Five years ago, the demand would have made sense; today, she is dismissed as politically irrelevant. Does Behenji, once touted as a ‘miracle of democracy’, have more to offer or is the BSP story truly over?
Ms Mayawati quipped earlier this year that she dreams of becoming PM of India, and why not? After all, she is a Dalit, a woman and an experienced administrator, with four stints as chief minister (albeit only one full term) of India’s most populous state behind her. She was a capable CM, attracting praise for her handling of law and order, tough approach to erring bureaucrats and politicians, and attempts to enhance infrastructure and power generation.
We have had a Dalit President and a Dalit Chief Justice. A Dalit PM would be a welcome step forward. But today, Ms Mayawati is seen as a has-been. The perception owes less to the fact that her party has only 10 seats in the Lok Sabha and a lone MLA in the Uttar Pradesh assembly (every party suffers electoral reverses), than to Ms Mayawati’s own behaviour. She has become increasingly reclusive and apathetic, engaging on social media rather than in person.
Her main drawback is that she has done very little to rectify her ‘tainted’ image. The allegation that she has been cowed into submission by substantive evidence of financial misdemeanours against her family members has gained credence. Not because any substantive evidence against her has been made public, but because she has yielded ground to the BJP and Samajwadi Party without a murmur.
The result is that the BSP today stands severely attenuated, with workers having defected en masse to other parties. Ms Mayawati herself seems to have fallen into a torpor. In sharp contrast to her earlier habit of vigorous all-year-round campaigning, she is conspicuously absent from the political scene. Her silence in the aftermath of the Hathras rape case of 2020, involving the assault of a Dalit girl by four upper-caste men, angered her erstwhile supporters to the point that her effigy was burnt. She was not to be seen on the ground in the 2022 UP Assembly elections, and even the BSP’s decimation in the polls failed to galvanise her. The elephant did not leave the stable, much less go into battle.
Her disappearance from the public scene has been variously attributed to threats of prosecution, fear of assassination and debilitating health issues. Detractors say her occasional, issue-based support to the ruling BJP indicates that she is under severe pressure to toe the line. While her aides have strongly denied the allegation, no explanation is forthcoming for the near-total absence of public engagement.
Analysts say she has lost touch with the grassroots and is totally out of sync with the altered socio-political dynamics of UP. She made the mistake of wooing the minority vote in 2012 and 2017, rather than the powerful Brahmin lobby that had supported her last term as CM. Nor has she been able to withstand the BJP’s depredations on her vote base — or even those of younger Dalit leaders, like Chandrashekhar Azad.
Despite all this, she might just add value to an anti-BJP front. Having been the first woman Dalit CM, she is still something of an icon. In post-Independence India, no Dalit leader has stood taller. It was she who toppled the Atal Behari Vajpayee government in 1998 by switching sides at the last moment, and in 2007, forged a social coalition that swept the BSP to power in UP with a clear majority.
But she is not in a position to lead. The proposed Opposition front already has a surfeit of potential leaders, be it Nitish Kumar, Rahul Gandhi, K Chandrashekhar Rao, Mamata Banerjee or Sharad Pawar, without adding Ms Mayawati to the mix. Anyhow, the alliance is far from being actualised, with several of the regional parties remaining uncommitted or openly sceptical. Stitching it together remains a very tall order and Ms Mayawati, known for her bluntness, is not the person to do it.
Ms Mayawati would do well to shed her habitual belligerence and preserve what remains of the BSP by joining forces with the Opposition. After all, the 10 seats she commands in the Lok Sabha are owed in large measure to her last-minute tie-up with the SP in the 2019 general elections (the SP won only five), although she abruptly ended the alliance, for no perceptible reason, soon after. If she does not climb off her high horse, all that will remain of her party is the scores of stone elephants lovingly erected during her tenure.
Bhavdeep Kang is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author