Opinion: The Looming Irrelevance Of The Bahujan Samaj Party

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Is the exodus of leaders from the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh a signal of the decline of the once-powerful political entity symbolised by the giant elephant? In yet another major setback ahead of the general elections, Lok Sabha MP Ritesh Pandey resigned from the Mayawati-led BSP and joined the BJP on February 25. Reports suggest that three more BSP MPs are poised to follow suit before the general elections, with another BSP MP considering a switch to Jayant Chaudhary's Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD).

Previously, Ghazipur MP Afzal Ansari had already secured a Samajwadi Party (SP) ticket from the same seat, while Amroha MP Danish Ali, suspended by the BSP for anti-party activities, is set to join the Congress. Another BSP MP from Jaunpur joined Rahul Gandhi's Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra on February 25. Consequently, out of a total 10 MPs in 2019, Mayawati's party may end up with retaining only two.

It appears that BSP leaders, in a last-ditch effort to salvage their political futures, are fleeing to safer havens, leaving the once formidable party in a state of limbo. Following the seat pact between the SP and the Congress in Uttar Pradesh, BSP leaders fear diminished electoral prospects as the contest shifts into a direct confrontation between the BJP-led NDA and the SP-Congress combine. Despite disappointment from both INDIA bloc parties and her own party leaders, Mayawati has remained steadfast in her stance that the BSP will contest the upcoming elections alone, notwithstanding its previous alliance with SP-RLD in 2019, which yielded 10 seats.

Disconnect With People Behind The Decline  

The BSP's decline has been in the making for a long time now. In the 2007 assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, the party secured 206 seats, garnering over 30% of the votes. This success was largely attributed to Mayawati's ability to forge an unlikely alliance between Brahmins and Dalits, securing a majority. However, subsequent elections saw a steady decline, with the BSP winning only 80 seats in 2012, down to 19 in 2017, and finally just one in 2022, in the 403-seat Uttar Pradesh assembly. In 2022, for the first time, its vote share dropped to just 12.88%.

In the Lok Sabha, the BSP's fortunes mirrored this descent, plummeting from 21 seats in 2009 to zero in 2014. The alliance with the SP-RLD in 2019 provided a brief respite, resulting in 10 seats. Notably, its vote share remained consistent between 19% and 21% in 2014 and 2019.

Changing Friendships

Rank opportunism and shrewd manoeuvres have defined Mayawati's political career. Riding on the promise of political empowerment for Dalits, Muslims, and other marginalised social groups, she served as Uttar Pradesh chief minister four times, aligning with different parties at different times. These electoral alliances were strategically formed to benefit the BSP, with tie-ups being discarded once they no longer served its interests. Even in 2019, Mayawati terminated the alliance with the SP's Akhilesh Yadav, her arch-rival, despite its electoral gains, leading to the BSP winning only one seat in the 2022 assembly elections while contesting alone. The SP in contrast got 111 seats.

"While there is no denying the fact that the BSP is no longer a potent force in Uttar Pradesh and has been reduced to a minor player in the electoral arena, it will be a grave mistake to think that the party could be ignored. A party that still has around 13 per cent vote share may not be able to win many seats but it can definitely influence the outcome of the polls," says Sanjay Pandey, a political analyst.

BSP's Loss, BJP's Gain

Two factors have contributed to the BSP's slide. Firstly, the BJP has succeeded in attracting Dalit voters on a large scale through its Hindutva agenda and various welfare schemes, leading to a disillusionment with the BSP. This disenchantment paved the way for smaller caste parties, such as the Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (SBSP) and the Nishad Party, to eat into the BSP's base. The emergence of alternative Dalit leaders, such as Chandrashekhar's Azad Samaj Party, further fractured the BSP's support base. Leaders like O.P. Rajbhar, Dara Singh Chauhan and Swami Prasad Maurya left in search of greener pastures, significantly denting the BSP's core support base.

Muslim voters, too, have oscillated between loyalty to the SP and the Congress, perceiving these parties as better-equipped to challenge the BJP. The BSP's decision to contest alone further diminishes its appeal, resulting in a shift of Muslim votes to the SP-Congress alliance.

"Dalit vote of the BSP will mainly shift to the BJP. Muslims may move to the SP-Congress alliance as there is no third alternative. Though BSP may not be in a winning position, it will still try to keep its vote share intact," says J.P. Shukla, a senior political analyst based in Lucknow.

The 'Third Party'?

With many alleged corruption cases pending against her, Mayawati has adopted a guarded approach as far as her politics is concerned. For the BJP, it suits to use the BSP as the 'third party' to turn the battle in Uttar Pradesh into a triangular one.   

"The BJP will also want to see that the BSP remains in the fight in at least Muslim-dominant constituencies," adds Shukla.

The upcoming general elections are poised to be a two-party contest in Uttar Pradesh, between the BJP and the SP-Congress alliance. With Dalits increasingly gravitating towards the BJP over the past decade, the BSP might not be averse to subtle collaboration with the party. The BJP's Jatav support base has surged from 5% in 2012 to 21% in 2022, while its non-Jatav base has expanded from 11% in 2012 to 41% in 2022.

Although the BSP has rebuffed overtures from the I.N.D.I.A bloc thus far, in politics, nothing is definitive. Uttar Pradesh, with its size and complexity, promises an engaging battle in the lead-up to the Lok Sabha elections.

(Bharti Mishra Nath is a senior journalist)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author