By Ashima Makhija
In the 1980s, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) emerged as a herald of reform for the Dalits of the country. Under Kanshi Ram’s leadership, it was envisaged as an organisation based on pragmatic considerations. It consolidated the Dalit votes in northern India, particularly Uttar Pradesh (UP) and achieved a political breakthrough in the elections of 1989. Soon afterwards, the BSP chief Mayawati became an icon for the upliftment of the Dalits and backward classes.
However, the war that BSP initiated has acquired new and interesting dimensions. Leaders like Jignesh Mevani, a newly-elected Gujarat legislator and Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar “Ravan”, have garnered large-scale support and popularity by voicing the discontentment of the backward classes in India and have emerged at the forefront of the movement for the betterment of the conditions of the Dalits. As more and more leaders and parties are swaying the Dalit voters, the BSP is facing a whole new set of challenges. The party that once united the Dalit voters under one banner is increasingly losing support and credibility, in eyes of the electorate.
The legacy of the BSP
The Backward and Minorities Communities’ Employees Federation (BAMCEF) was formed in 1978. This was no ordinary trade union of government employees. Instead, it strongly supported the cause of political power to the ‘Bahujans’, which comprised of Dalits, Adivasis, Other Backward Classes (OBS) and minorities. The BSP was a political product of this organisation and voiced the concerns of the oppressed sections of the Indian society. The BSP had a strong presence in UP, Punjab and Haryana. Mayawati’s mentor Kanshi Ram often described UP as his political lab to carry out experiments to achieve their goal of changing the upper caste dominated the democratic face of the state and BSP.
Despite large-scale electoral success and splendour, the BSP was keen on expanding its support among other social sections. Therefore after having consolidated the support of the Bahujans, the BSP formulated the strategy of “Sarvjan”. This incorporated the upper castes into the benefit and welfare programmes of the state, without disturbing the core support base. In 2007, Mayawati dangled the carrot in front of the Brahmins and offered them substantial representation in power. The Dalit-Brahmin combination brought her 206 out of 403 seats in the state assembly elections. In 2012, Mayawati became the first Chief Minister (CM) of UP to complete her full five-year tenure.
The new faces of ‘Bahujan’ politics
Mayawati is no longer viewed as the protector of Dalits, as she once was. She is increasingly becoming a leader, who runs the government on false promises and political rhetoric. Furthermore, new leaders like Mevani and Chandrashekhar are encroaching on her vital Dalit vote-bank.
Jignesh Mevani is a newly elected Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) from Gujarat. As a Dalit face, he is already playing an active role in other states too, taking up the same anti-feudal, anti-caste stance on which Mayawati built her political career. He has a significant presence on social media. At his ‘Yuva Hunkar’ rally in Delhi, he spoke in favour of Dalit assertion across the country, supported the cause of Chandrashekhar’s release and criticised the Modi government for its ‘unconstitutional’ practices.
However, a much closer threat to Mayawati is Chandrashekhar Azad “Ravan”. He has set up a Dalit collective, Bhim Sena, in Uttar Pradesh’s Saharanpur. The body has risen to prominence rapidly since 2016 and, in a short while, Ravan has become a popular Dalit leader. Within months of the Yogi Adityanath government being sworn in, Saharanpur’s Shabbirpur village witnessed clashes between Rajputs and Dalits, in which several houses were burnt. Ravan was arrested for this violence and has been in prison ever since. Mayawati has assumed an unnatural silence over the imprisonment of such a prominent Dalit face and political observers view this as a sign of political insecurity.
Can Mayawati’s citadel be toppled?
Until the early 1970s, the Congress enjoyed undisputed support among the Dalits of UP. With the formation of BSP under Kanshiram, Congress lost a crucial vote bank in the state. Now, as Mayawati stands at a fatal precipice of her political career, the Congress has the opportunity to topple the fortress of Mayawati. Mevani’s connect with the Congress is well-known. If the party manages to win the support of Chandrashekhar, too, it can eat into Mayawati’s electoral pie and succeed in anchoring a strong backward caste-Dalit-Muslim alliance in the most populous state of the country.
Featured Image Credits: Flickr
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