Choices before the BSP


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THE assembly elections held in December 2003 in four states in north India – Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Delhi – were widely perceived as the ‘semi-final’ round to the Lok Sabha elections due in 2004. The importance of the BSP in these elections lay in the presence of a large community of dalits in all the four states, and the ability of the party to function as a ‘third force’ standing between the two principal contenders grabbing votes from both of them.

The BSP is more than merely a state level party. A product of dalit assertion in the northern plains, within a little more than a decade of its formation it has attained recognition as a national party – a status that important state level parties such as the Samajwadi Party have yet to acquire. In all the four states where elections were held, both the Congress and the BJP locked in a bipolar situation have been competing throughout the 1990s for the support of the dalits in order to obtain a majority. The two national parties hope to control the states in order to capture power at the Centre; the BSP on the other hand hopes, in a period when no party can gain a majority and alliances hold the key, to emerge as a major player on the national scene.

An examination of the election results in the four states reveals that the BSP despite the difficulties it has faced throughout 2003 – the Taj Corridor controversy, collapse of its government in UP, the illness of Kanshi Ram, and a major split in the party in UP followed by one in Madhya Pradesh prior to the elections – has improved its vote share in all the four states. However, the party has not been able to translate this gain into seats. This is most evident in Madhya Pradesh where the BSP obtained 7.6% of the vote share as against 6.3% in the 1998 state elections. It could wrest only two seats each in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh as against 11 in the previous election in the undivided state.

In Rajasthan the party got two seats in the previous and present election, but its vote share rose from 2.17 to 3.97%. In Delhi in neither elections could the party manage a single seat though its vote share rose from 3.09 to 5.7%.1 The BSP’s poor performance in terms of seats is of particular significance as its ambition of emerging as a key player in politics, both in the states – particularly in Madhya Pradesh where it hoped to replicate the UP model – and in the national arena has been belied.

The problems faced by the BSP during the past year have undoubtedly contributed to its poor performance. However, this paper argues that despite the seminal importance that dalit identity has come to occupy in state and national politics, the increasing polarization between the two national contenders – the BJP and the Congress – within a fragmented and ‘regionalized multiparty system’,2 has reduced the space that smaller parties such as the BSP with a sectarian base can occupy. Every state assembly election during the past decade, including the December 2003 elections, has been fought like a national election. Further, since the early 1990s, politics is no longer played at the national level, and the states constitute the battleground in which national parties in alliance with ambitious state players attempt to build parliamentary majorities.



The approaching Lok Sabha elections have introduced an element of urgency and intensity in the contest between the two national parties. Both the Congress and the BJP are trying to capture power in as many states as possible in order to use them as the base from which they can form a coalition at the Centre. Against this larger political canvas, the paper attempts to understand the importance of the electoral verdict for the future of the BSP, which represents powerful nascent social forces and hopes to play a role at the national level.



The December elections were crucial for the ambition the BSP harbours of emerging as a national player on many counts. They were the first elections held since Mayawati became the national president of the party after Kanshi Ram, its founder who is held in great esteem by the dalits in north India, fell ill. Since the mid-1990s the party has faced a dilemma: while identity assertion by the dalits has increased at the grassroots in north India, this has not been appropriately reflected – with the exception of UP – in electoral outcomes. This is most glaringly evident in Punjab and Haryana where growing antagonism between the Jats and dalits, as seen in the Talhan controversy in the former and increasing atrocities against dalits in the latter, but the party in electoral terms not helped to progress. In Rajasthan, Delhi and Madhya Pradesh its base has been growing, but at a slow pace.

Consequently, during 2003 the party organised a number of swabhiman (self-respect) rallies to arouse awareness and increase the party’s base, aggressively criticize opposition parties and demonstrate its exclusive claim to the ‘dalit constituency’. While the largest rally was held on the occasion of Mayawati’s birthday on 15 January 2003 in Lucknow, similar ones were organized during the summer in Chandigarh and other parts of Punjab and Haryana. The party also tried to gain support among dalits at Talhan by supporting the Dalit Action Committee against the Jat Sikhs on the gurudwara issue. Earlier in December 2002, at a savdhaan (caution) rally at Amethi on the issue of rebuilding the house of a dalit razed by local Thakurs, Mayawati denounced Sonia Gandhi’s attempts to meddle and ‘create caste tensions’ and called upon dalits to defeat the Congress in the next Lok Sabha elections (Frontline, 14 February 2003:43).



Prior to the assembly elections in the four states the BSP faced two major problems which impinged upon its poll strategy: the collapse of its coalition with the BJP in UP, followed by a major split in the party. The BSP-BJP coalition formed after the February 2002 assembly elections was from the start built upon distrust and cynicism. As in earlier coalitions, Mayawati adopted an imperious style of functioning reducing the BJP to a junior partner, revived many exclusively dalit-oriented programmes, and spent considerable state resources on ‘cultural policies’ and memorials for Dr Ambedkar in Lucknow (Pai 2003). These were meant to improve its support base among the dalits and the backwards.

All this demoralized and alarmed the BJP, which in successive elections had already seen a systematic erosion of its support base. On the other hand BSP seemed to be gaining substantially from carefully nurtured Muslim and dalit constituencies. Consequently, for 15 months the coalition moved from one crisis to another until the Taj Corridor controversy eventually led to its collapse in August 2003. The investigation into Mayawati’s assets which followed, and the possibility of her arrest, demoralized party cadres.

More serious was the split in the party which was much bigger than previous ones. According to initial reports, 37 defectors from the BSP joined the SP immediately and more were expected to join as the SP’s tally of 181 was still short of a simple majority by 21. On 9 September when the SP proved its majority on the floor of the assembly, of the total 398 votes polled through the raising of hands, 244 were in favour of the motion. The strength of the SP coalition, which in September consisted of 181 SP, 16 Congress, 14 Rashtriya Lok Dal and four Rashtriya Kranti Party MLAs besides 26 others, rose to 241 as against 160 of the BSP, BJP and the Hindu Mahasabha (‘Mulayam wins trust vote’, Hindustan Times, New Delhi, 9 September 2003). Some commentators have argued that the split was mainly in the Thakur and Muslim sections of the party who were lured to the SP and the BSP’s main dalit base remains secure (‘UP: more of the same’, editorial, Economic and Political Weekly, 2003: 3744). Nevertheless, it considerably weakened the party and undermined its position vis-à-vis its rivals prior to the assembly elections in four states in December.

The collapse of the Mayawati government led to significant political realignments in UP. The BJP and the SP, keen rivals in UP for a decade, now decided to keep the Congress from forming a government with the BSP, apprehensive that this might lead to an alliance between the Congress and the BSP in the December elections. This in turn forced the Congress to support the SP coalition even though it decided not to join the government. These developments marginalized the BSP and reduced the possibility of an alliance with the Congress in the December elections.



Among the proximate factors that impinged upon the performance of the BSP in the elections, the most important was the issue of pre-poll alliances. As the party has a major dalit base in Madhya Pradesh, considerations here determined strategy for all the regions. The essential bipolarity of politics in Madhya Pradesh left the party unclear as to which of the majors to join hands with. It also felt that by going alone in the state it could improve its vote and seat share, at least in the northern districts and, based on it, to replicate the UP model with the help of the BJP if no party gained a decisive victory. This strategy, however, had to be revised after the fall of the coalition government in UP.



Nor could the BSP make up its mind on whether to form an alliance with the Congress. In the early 1990s, the Congress had been keen to keep the BSP out of Madhya Pradesh as it believed that it could mobilize the dalits and thereby absorb its base. The Congress victory in 1998 and the poor performance of the BSP in the 1999 Lok Sabha election when it was squeezed between the two national parties, led the former to continue with this line of thinking. But in 2003 the need to meet the challenge posed by the BJP finally impelled the Congress to revise its strategy.

The collapse of the BSP-BJP coalition in UP also led Mayawati to declare in October, ‘We will do anything to defeat the BJP’ (‘A chief minister’s battle’, Frontline, 5 December 2003: 22). Accordingly, in early November the Congress declared an initial list of only 220 candidates leaving the field open for the BSP in the Gwalior-Chambal region, a stronghold of the party. Mayawati, however, decided that the BSP would fight the election alone, though not contest those seats where it was weak, in order to prevent the BJP from winning. During the campaign she further declared that the major aim of the party was to win sufficient seats to prevent any government from being formed in the state without the BSP (Dainik Bhaskar [Hindi], Bhopal, 5 November 2003).

In sum, while the BSP was not willing to make a formal alliance, the Congress leadership was so confident of victory in Madhya Pradesh that it did not think a formal alliance was required. In the event, the BSP ultimately pursued a strategy of improving its position vis-à-vis both the national parties, keeping an eye on the coming Lok Sabha elections.

In keeping with this strategy the BSP decided to contest 170 seats in Madhya Pradesh, 125 in Rajasthan, 55 in Chhattisgarh and 40 in Delhi (‘Congress gives room, BSP opens the door’, K. Neelima, Indian Express, 1 November 2003). Accordingly, in the Gwalior-Chambal and Rewa-Satna regions, voters were told ‘by word of mouth’ to support the Congress in constituencies where the BSP did not put up a candidate. In these regions the BSP had done well in the previous elections and it was felt that with the help of the Congress it could do better. The Congress hoped that in return it would benefit in the Mahakoshal and the Bundelkhand regions (Rajnish Sharma, ‘BSP asks its supporters to vote for Congress’, Hindustan Times, New Delhi, 29 November 2003).



However, the tacit understanding between the BSP and the Congress in Madhya Pradesh led to a split in the state unit of the party. Unlike in UP where the issue of alliances has been divisive, the Madhya Pradesh unit of the BSP has always opposed any alliance with the two national parties. Its leaders argue that the BSP must grow as a dalit-based party through sustained grassroots mobilization rather than opportunistic alliances to gain votes (Dainik Bhaskar [Hindi], Bhopal, 30 October 2003). Dalit leaders within the BSP in Madhya Pradesh showed their displeasure with Mayawati’s policy. State BSP chief Phool Singh Baraiya left along with Sant Singh, another leader, in end October to form the Samata Samaj party. (Frontline, 21 November 2003: 33). Mayawati accused Baraiya of a clandestine electoral agreement with the BJP, which he has denied. Although he lost his seat, the exit of Phool Singh, an experienced and respected leader who had worked with Kanshi Ram, damaged the party’s prospects in the Gwalior region.



Another significant development responsible for the poor performance of the BSP in its stronghold of the Vindhya and Chambal region of Madhya Pradesh was the breakdown of the Dalit-backward alliance within the party in southern UP (Bundelkhand) and northern Madhya Pradesh (Baghelkhand) in which the Kurmi and Kacchi OBC groups had played a central role. In 1996, Sonelal Patel broke away from the party in east UP to form his own party, the Kurmi-dominated Apna Dal.3 The party performed well in small pockets in the 1998 election in Madhya Pradesh and is gaining ground.

In the 1998 state elections the Kacchi’s under the leadership of BSP MP Sukhlal Kushwaha broke away to form the Samanata Dal (‘BSP loses steam in the Vindhyas’, Hindustan Times, New Delhi, 24 November 2003). Both parties are now consolidating their base by attracting their own caste men and have cut into the vote of the BSP, each gaining a little more than 1% of the total vote. Moreover, the BSP’s strategy of giving tickets to upper castes in order to widen its base and gain more seats was disliked by the dalits in Madhya Pradesh. ‘If a Thakur will fight as its candidate, what’s the use of voting for the BSP?’ argued Ramkishore Saket, a chamar in Mangawan constituency (ibid.). Nor did giving tickets to Thakurs help, as they did not like Mayawati’s treatment of Raja Bhaiyya in east UP.

An analysis of the results shows that the dalit vote was divided between the BSP, BJP and the Congress due to which the BSP failed to win seats. It performed poorly in its traditional areas where the BJP gained substantially: in the Chambal region the BJP won six seats and in the Vindhya region 11 seats. In contrast, the BSP won one seat in the Chambal region, but lost five seats and 5.1% of the vote share compared to 1998. In the Vindhya region it won one seat and lost one though it increased its vote share over 1998. In Mahakoshal, tribal Malwa and North Malwa it gained no seats over 1998 but increased its vote share, which enabled it to improve its overall vote tally by 0.9% (‘Behind an electoral wave in Madhya Pradesh’, The Hindu, New Delhi, 10 December 2003). The Congress was damaged by both the BJP and the BSP, the latter improving its vote share over 1998. The Congress gained only a slender lead over the BJP in dalit votes: it got 31%, the BJP got 28%, the BSP standing last with 19%. The SP also performed well winning seven seats and cutting into the share of the Congress and the BSP (ibid.).



The most important factor, however, proved to be the strong anti-incumbency wave against the ruling party in Madhya Pradesh. The ‘BSP’ (bijli, sadak, pani) factor proved so important that a large number of the traditional supporters of the Congress and BSP shifted to the BJP. The BJP performed well among all classes in all regions of Madhya Pradesh, including Congress and BSP strongholds. Of the 171 seats that the BJP won, only in 36 does the BSP vote exceed the BJP’s margin. Had the Congress even won all these 36 seats in the absence of a BSP candidate, the BJP would still have secured a comfortable majority (ibid.). In such a situation a Congress-BSP alliance would not have helped either of them.



In the remaining three states the situation was somewhat different. A seat-by-seat analysis of voting percentages in Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan shows that the lack of an alliance between the BSP and the Congress worked to the advantage of the BJP. In Chhattisgarh a Congress-BSP tie-up would have given them six constituencies; while a Congress-BSP-left alliance would have yielded 44 seats (‘Ekla chalo re’ does Congress in’, The Times of India, New Delhi, 6 December 2003). In Rajasthan a Congress-BSP alliance together with an understanding with the NCP and the left, would have deducted 29 seats from the BJP tally.

In Delhi, where the BSP vote share has been rising steadily, the lack of an alliance led to a division of dalit votes between the Congress and the BSP, giving the BJP an advantage on 17 seats that it won. If the BSP had not put up any candidate, the Congress could have won many more seats decimating the BJP in the capital (‘Gunning for BJP, BSP ends up hitting Congress’, Sreelatha Menon, The Indian Express, New Delhi, 6 December 2003). While it is true that in these three states the Congress as the larger party would have benefited more than the BSP, a Congress-BSP coalition government was a possibility, which would have given both parties an advantageous position in the approaching Lok Sabha elections.

The poor performance of the BSP in the December elections soon after the collapse of its government in UP followed by a major split, has undermined its position in state and national politics. Buoyed by its recent electoral success, the BJP in UP, is attempting fresh alignments to strengthen its base prior to the Lok Sabha elections: bringing Kalyan Singh back into the party to strengthen its OBC vote-bank and moving closer to the SP. After the assembly elections there are already reports of a rift in the Congress-SP alliance in UP with the latter feeling that it does not require the support of the former. In the immediate post-electoral scene the BSP is no longer perceived as a valuable ally.

At the national level the SP, after forming the government in UP and performing well in Madhya Pradesh, is projecting itself as a national party and is trying to marginalize the BSP. For instance, in the winter session of Parliament it refused to include the BSP in the opposition on the grounds that it had campaigned for the BJP in Gujarat. It has also argued for keeping the BSP out of the ‘secular’ front floated by the Congress prior to the Lok Sabha elections. Following the elections, the SP is not keen to join the NDA either. Currently all alignments are open with each party making a fresh bid for alliances. In such a situation, the immediate task before the BSP is to rebuild the party in UP and the northern states and formulate new strategies for the Lok Sabha elections.



More important are some long-term issues thrown up by the elections for the future growth of the party. A basic difficulty is that the BSP has not been able to establish, except in UP, a strong base in the other northern states despite a substantial dalit population that has in recent years experienced identity assertion. The growing antagonism between the Jats and the dalits in Punjab and to a lesser extent in Haryana and Rajasthan, the steady rise in the vote percentage of the BSP in Delhi, the split in the party and desertion by OBCs in Madhya Pradesh are indicative. It is significant that the BSP has improved its vote percentage in all the four states despite a split in the party and a crisis of leadership due to the absence of Kanshi Ram and Mayawati’s involvement in a corruption case. The UP experience indicates that powerful leadership, efficient organisation and sustained mobilization over a period of time leading to high levels of social awareness and politicisation are required to create a strong dalit party. Involved in coalitional politics in UP, the BSP leadership has not spent sufficient time and effort to establish strong cadres, carry out grassroots mobilization and harness the dalit upsurge in these states. Consequently, the party has grown in UP at the expense of its position in other states.



At the same time, Mayawati harbours ambitions of emerging as a key player on the national scene and the party under her leadership has since the mid-1990s pursued opportunistic strategies and alliances at the expense of party building. The two ambitions are contradictory and impose limitations on the party’s expansion: it is caught between being an identity based movement of social uplift and transformation for its core supporters and an opportunistic party interested in a share in political power. The lack of a strong electoral base in the northern states deprives the BSP, a smaller party, of bargaining strength vis-à-vis the two bigger national parties in the regional and national political arena.

The BSP’s ability to attract votes in north India in the future is also affected by the fact that in the December elections, more than identities based on caste and community that have dominated elections in north India for a decade, issues of governance and development played a central role. The BJP has decided not to use the Ram Mandir issue in the Lok Sabha elections and to focus on economic development. In this situation a developmental focus rather than only swabhiman (self-respect) will be required to attract the BSP’s core supporters and widen its base to ‘others’.



A closely related issue is building alliances, crucial for small parties such as the BSP, which have a limited social base and yet have ambitions of capturing power. In a situation where no party is in a position to form a government at the Centre, dalit votes retain their importance in the coming Lok Sabha elections. Yet despite its desire to emerge as an important player in state and national politics, the BSP has not demonstrated an ability to form alliances outside UP where it has shared power with both the SP and BJP and formed a pre-poll alliance with the Congress. In the December elections the party leadership lost the opportunity to team up with the Congress party in Rajasthan, Delhi and Chhattisgarh which could have improved the position of both parties and placed them in a stronger negotiating position against the BJP in the coming national elections. Caught between the two national parties and without an alliance with either, the BSP performed badly.

But the reluctance of the BSP leadership to form pre-poll alliances is not entirely opportunistic. It arises from a realisation that an alliance with the Congress may not benefit it, but could lead to a transfer of dalit votes to the former. In north India, the Congress party except in UP and Madhya Pradesh, today represents a substantial section of the dalits in Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Delhi. Hence the latter is trapped between the need to expand its own base or to form an alliance with a bigger party that may help it to gain seats and share power in the northern states. This factor explains the hesitation on the part of the BSP to enter the ‘secular’ alliance being formed by the Congress prior to the Lok Sabha elections. The BSP found the BJP, with its predominantly upper caste base, a congenial partner in UP, but due to the collapse of the coalition and its recent electoral success, the latter is no longer interested in an alliance with the BSP and feels it can attract at least a section of dalit votes in north India. Thus, the BSP’s options for forming alliances are limited and may not help it realize its ambitions of influencing national politics.

In sum, with increasing polarization between the BJP and Congress, the room for smaller parties such as the BSP which hope to play a role at the national level to manoeuvre, formulate successful strategies and build alliances is shrinking. The BJP and the Congress are national parties with a base in many states and are able to attract a wide cross-section of supporters and electoral partners. The BSP is a much smaller player limited both by its size and narrow base beyond which it cannot attract much support. The challenge before the BSP leadership is how to expand its social base and emerge as the spokesman of the dalits in the northern states such that it can then bargain from a position of strength with the two major players on the national scene. This, as we have seen, is a difficult task involving grassroots mobilization and building strong party cadres. But its ambition of emerging as a key player on the national scene depends on it.



1. All the election results mentioned in the paper are from the Statistical Report of the Election Commission of India for the state assembly elections held in the four states in 1996 and 1998.

2. See Pai, 1996.

3. See SG, 1999.



Sudha Pai, 1996. ‘Transformation of the Indian Party System: Lok Sabha Elections 1996’, Asian Survey 34, December: 1170-83.

Sudha Pai, 2003. ‘Deprivation and Development in UP: The Economic Agenda of the BSP’, Man and Development 25(1), March: 35-54.

SG, 1999. ‘UP: Rise of Smaller Parties’, Economic and Political Weekly 34(41), 9 October: 2912-13.