Few within her party barring her younger brother Anand and trusted aide Satish Chandra Mishra were aware of her decision. Mishra has emerged as her go-to person specially after the expulsion of Naseemuddin Siddiqui, her one-time close aide. The BSP Is being squeezed out by a marauding Modi-led BJP intent on making inroads into her Dalit vote bank, and the emergence of new forces and leaders from within the community like Chandrashekhar Azad "Ravan", the leader of the Bhim Sena. She was upstaged by firebrand Chandrashekhar during the Saharanpur riots. He was clearly the face of the agitation, while all the SC/ST leaders including Mayawati struggled to get into the frame. His brand of agitational, in-your-face politics appeared to find greater resonance with the younger generation of Dalits, while Mayawati's power-oriented approach appeared to be increasingly out synch, specially with the younger members of her community.
Mayawati realises that the ground has begun to shift from under her feet, a fact underlined by her party's poor performance in the 2014 Lok sabha polls in which the BSP failed to win a single seat, its worst performance in recent times and the 2017 assembly elections in the state in which it won only 19 of the 403 seats in the UP assembly. The BSP's footprint has been shrinking not just in UP, but other states as well. It has a reasonable presence in pockets of Madhya Pradesh like Satna, Bhind and Morena, and also parts of Rajasthan, Uttarakhand and Punjab. Like Uttar Pradesh, its support base and its representation in the state assemblies of these states has also seen a dramatic decline.
The BSP chief has so far managed to ward off and cut to size all challengers to her position as the Numero Uno of the party and also to her party's hold over the Dalits. She used to often boast of her stranglehold over her vote bank by claiming that she was the only leader in the country capable of transferring her vote to whichever party or candidate she endorsed. It was for the same reasons that she steadfastly refused to enter a pre-poll alliance with any other party. She is reported to have said as much to two senior Congress party interlocutors who approached her for an alliance ahead of this year's assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh .
Mayawati's current term in the Rajya Sabha ends next April, and given the fact that the BSP has a mere 19 MLAs in the state assembly, she cannot get elected to the Rajya Sabha without the help of the Samajwadi Party and the Congress. The BSP chief has sought to seize the political initiative by quitting her Rajya Sabha seat in dramatic fashion on the issue of atrocities against Dalits. She hopes to recover some of her lost ground now by relentlessly campaigning in UP and elsewhere on the issue and will try and portray herself as a political martyr who gave up her membership in protest against the treatment meted out to her by the BJP.
Though Mayawati insisted and got the Congress-led opposition parties to nominate Meira Kumar as their candidate in the Presidential election, she has clearly been rattled by the steady inroads that the BJP has been making amongst her support base and also by its decision to field and help elect Ram Nath Kovind, a Dalit, as the next President of the country.
The BSP did succeed in making the Dalits realise their voting potential and establish their presence as a formidable vote bank. The party also helped the community play a vital role in the country's politics and its power structure. The BSP, initially under its founder Kanshi Ram and later under Mayawati, not only succeeded in weaning the Dalits away from the Congress fold but also in organizing themselves as a major political force. From being an also-ran, the BSP and the SP together and separately brought about a seismic shift in UP's politics by upturning the established power structure in the state which was firmly with the Congress and the upper castes. They rewrote the political script ushering in an era where the OBCs and Dalits called the shots. Both parties took turns to form the government since 1989 barring a brief spell by the BJP. The Dalit assertion in UP was to a large extent instrumental in making Mayawati Chief Minister of UP four times.
But that was then and this is now. The BSP and her political managers perhaps concluded that something dramatic had to be done to arrest the decline. Her task is by no means easy. The BSP, specially under her leadership, has become a power-oriented party. While she ran a tight ship and brought a visible change to the law and order situation in UP, her tenure as the head of the government left a lot to be desired when it came to issues of good governance and probity, all of which have been exploited by her opponents both within and outside the party.
While her supporters are traditionally the Jatavs, the BJP has tapped into the resentment amongst the non-Jatavs within the larger SC ST community and has assiduously wooed and empowered leaders from these sub-castes, Ram Nath Kovind's choice as President being an obvious example. Mayawati's obsession with her family and her own caste ended up denting not just her image, but also the stranglehold she once enjoyed over her electorate.
Mayawati likely intends to launch a vigorous campaign on the question of atrocities against weaker sections particularly the Dalits. But success is not a given. New leaders with a distinctly different approach than hers are emerging from within the SC/ST fold, its voter bank is being steadily eaten into by the BJP, for her to reclaim lost ground will take a lot of doing. For one she needs to drastically change her style of functioning, become more accessible and communicative. And in what is perhaps an indicator of things to come, she has indicated a willingness to consider the possibility of an alliance with the SP and the Congress in the 2019 general election - a big climbdown from her earlier stated stand.
Either which way, the BSP chief has a mountain to climb.
(The writer is a senior journalist and political analyst.)
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