Mayawati, the chief of the Bahujan Samaj Party or BSP, has a tradition of keeping her strategy classified. So the only reason given by her top aides for the party sitting out crucial elections this week is that participating in these would distract from the preps for the big state election early next year. On Saturday, Uttar Pradesh held Zila Parishad Adhyaksh elections. The BJP won a landslide, taking charge of governing villages in 67 of the 75 districts of India's most-populous state. The winners are elected by those who were elected to panchayats in April. Both the BJP and the Samajwadi Party claimed to have gained the upper hand in those elections, where candidates do not contest as members of political parties, but are backed by whichever outfit they are affiliated with.
This set of elections for village governance is being used by politicians - and observers - to test the temperature of Uttar Pradesh months before it picks its next government. So, Mayawati's decision to hard-pass them may seem counter-intuitive. Critics say it establishes that the BSP is a spent force in its home state. "This is the biggest mistake they are making," says a senior MP of the Rajya Sabha from the party. The confidence is incongruous with Mayawati's performance in recent elections - in 2019, she won just 10 of the state's 80 parliamentary seats. But her party leaders warn that writing off Behenji, as she is known, is only for amateurs. "Behenji's biggest strength is that even when we got zero Lok Sabha seats in 2014, her core voter never went anywhere. She still managed 2.62 crore votes in UP. This shows that we are not out of the contest," said a leader who works closely with Mayawati, who is now 65, and has served 4 terms as Chief Minister of India's most politically-vital state.
Mayawati's numbers have shrunk with each successive state election. From 206 in 2007 to 80 in 2012 to a mere 19 in 2017. This was a function of her shrinking vote percentage. 30.43% in 2007 to 25.95% in 2012 and 22.23% in 2017. A slight swing led to disastrous results. The story in Lok Sabha though has been different. BSP scored a duck in 2014 despite 2.6 crore people voting for it. Which forced her to team up with arch rival SP in 2019. BSP contested on 38 of the 80 seats. And bounced back with 10 seats.
In a recent interview to NDTV, Akhilesh Yadav said the alliance was a poor experience. After the 2019 experiment Mayawati's party got 10 MPs but SP managed only 5. And yet, after a few months, Mayawati broke the alliance blaming the SP. She said that data analysis showed her while BSP votes transferred to the SP, the reverse of that did not happen. Mayawati's confidantes - tiny in number - say they're losing no sleep over Akhilesh Yadav's assessment. "The problem is that BJP's infighting and Yogi's actions are visible (which will hurt the BJP). And the Samajwadi Party makes a lot of noise in any case. This is why a general assumption is made that these two are in the reckoning and the BSP is not. This is the same mistake people made in 2007 as well. And look what happened," said an MP from Mayawati's party.
He was referring to the first time that the BSP won a majority by itself with its unique social engineering, amalgamating castes that were seen as hostile to each other: the Dalits, who were the BSP's largest supporters, and Brahmins - the historically oppressed and the oppressors. Mayawati won 22% of the Dalit vote and 12% of the Brahmin vote. This was new to the state, which, since the 1990s, had witnessed political instability on account of a fragmented vote and the subsequent threading of coalitions which often collapsed under their own weight.
But that is the BSP's past. And in 2014, the BJP managed to eat large chunks into Mayawati's most loyal support base, that of Jatav Dalits, who form 54 percent of the Scheduled Caste population in the state. The Brahmin-Dalit combination, starting 2014, has been working in favour of the BJP and not Mayawati. But the tilt away from it can be corrected, claim Mayawati's aides who work with her, led by Satish Mishra, her closest confidante. "The timing is perfect," says a BSP leader. He is referring to the perception that as Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath has heavily skewed favours and important appointments towards the Thakur community, which he belongs to, much to the discomfort of Brahmins.
The BSP's strategy to leverage this will involve picking more candidates for the state election from among the Brahmins and Dalits. "We gave 100 tickets in 2007 to Brahmins. 45 of them won. 15 cabinet minister were Brahmins. 15 MLCs in Mayawati's regime were Brahmin. Even the Vidhan Sabha Adhyaksh was a Brahmin. Many commission heads were Brahmins. We even had to face media headlines at that time that we are not Bahujan Samaj Party, but Brahmins Samaj Party! And yet, Behenji bestowed her confidence in members of the community. But they deserted us," said a BSP leader.
Reverse migration is underway, according to the BSP. "Many Brahmin organisations approached our senior leaders, including Behenji, saying that the community is in danger in the Yogi regime. There is a growing Thakurwaad in UP under his rule. The community now wants to come back," says a BSP MP. NDTV has learnt that Brahmin organisations from 70 of a total of 75 districts in the state have held meetings with Mayawati at her Lucknow residence over the past few months. And this is a continuous exercise. She will be meeting more leaders. Such is the desperation in the community that "many sitting MLAs from BJP may also support her and join the BSP," claims one of her aides.
But here lies the problem. The BSP won 2007 and the Brahmins because the BJP was not strong then. Yes, there is resentment against Yogi Adityanath, but he is a strong and powerful mascot for the BJP and Hindutva. And Brahmins will not be persuaded to vote against the saffron robe-wearing monk, claim BJP leaders. "Mayawati can keep on formulating whatever cocktail of castes and communities she wants to. They will only remain in her head, and sadly for her, not materialize on the ground. The realities have changed and UP has moved beyond voting for castes," says a senior BJP leader.
What the BJP does acknowledge is that the tussle for the Brahmins will be between Mayawati and Adityanath; Akhilesh Yadav and his Samajwadi Party (SP) are not in the reckoning, BJP leaders believes. "Brahmins know that for the SP, they will always remain (a)low priority. SP is and will be a Yadav-Muslim party," said a BSP leader.
But even if the Dalits, forming 22% of the population, and Brahmins, who are 12%, were to choose Mayawati, would that be enough to cross the finish line? The BSP says that it is already working on that by reaching out to smaller religions and communities "Work has already begun," said a leader, insisting that the party's alliance with the Akalis in Punjab will have some impact in the Sikh-dominated areas of UP, like Lakhimpur and Pilibhit. For Muslims, who form 19 percent of UP's population, the BSP needs to tread carefully. In 2012, 2014 and 2017, the party experimented with a Muslim-Dalit social engineering combination. The result proved disastrous on all three occasions. In 2012, BSP won 80 assembly seats. In the 2014 election, they got 0. And in 2017, they were reduced to 19 assembly seats. "Muslims largely vote for whoever they see is capable of defeating BJP. When they will see that the BSP is the new winning formula, you will see them voting for us," claims a BSP MP.
Party leaders also claim that they are mindful that the UP campaign could be held after a third wave; with the Election Commission being strongly admonished for allowing huge rallies for the recent Bengal elections, BSP leaders say they're drawing up a strategy that would focus on digital campaigning and online meetings. "Smartphones have penetrated deep inside villages. Behenji can now communicate directly with her voters. We will campaign smartly. And you will see it happening. But ignoring her isn't a luxury the SP and BJP can afford," says a BSP leader.
(Sanket Upadhyay is Executive Editor, NDTV)
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