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The strategy pays off

Saturday 26 May 2007, by JAFFRELOT*Christophe

There is nothing new about the BSP’s plan to move beyond its core Dalit base and include other sections of the society. Inclusion was always integral to the BSP’s ideology and strategy, writes Christophe Jaffrelot

The success of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh has come as a surprise to many, but it is the outcome of a well thought-out strategy harking back to the heyday of the Kanshi Ram-Mayawati duo. Both of them always strove to broaden the BSP’s electoral base. Certainly, the BSP’s core group has comprised of Dalits. The BSP has built its cadre by attracting middle-class Dalits who benefited from the reservation system. After Brahmins and Kayasthas, Scheduled Caste officers form the largest number in the UP cadre of the IAS. Yet these officers felt frustrated because they were denied important posts. The first bamcef (All India Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation) cadres came from this new, frustrated Dalit elite.

The consolidation of this constituency resulted then from the special treatment Mayawati granted to the Dalits when she was the chief minister. Her Ambedkar Villages Scheme, for instance, consisted of allotting special funds for socio-economic development for one year to villages with a high proportion of SCs. Eventually, 25,434 villages received special treatment in the form of roads, hand pumps, houses, etc, being built in their neighbourhoods.

However, the BSP has never been an only-Dalit party. This is evident from the fact that in 1996, according to a survey by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), 27 percent of the Kurmis and 24.7 percent of the Koeris voted for it in the Assembly elections. In 1999, however, the BSP received only 13 percent of the non-Yadav OBC vote. At the time, the Kurmis had deserted the party — largely because of the splits orchestrated by Kurmi leaders such as Raj Bahadur and Jung Bahadur who formed, respectively, the BSP (R) and the Bahujan Samaj Dal, while another Kurmi leader from the BSP, Sone Lal Patel, created the Apna Dal. But a significant section of the Koeris were supporting it, and Kanshi Ram never gave up his initial attempt at amalgamating Dalits and OBCs under the “Bahujan” label.

Not a Dalit-only party


Percentage of votes polled by the BSP In the last six general elections


- 1989 2.07

- 1991 1.61

- 1996 3.64

- 1998 4.7

- 1999 4.2

- 2004 5.3

When he lived in Maharashtra, Kanshi Ram was very critical of the Republican Party of India’s (RPI) tendency to work only among the Dalits. For him, the OBCs and the religious minorities were parts of the “Bahujan Samaj”. The first all-India association he created in 1978, interestingly, was called the All India Backward (SC, ST, OBC) and Minority Communities Employees Federation. After establishing the BSP in 1987, he continued to defend the OBCs as much as the Dalits. This is evident from a speech he made during the election campaign for the Vidhan Sabha of Haryana in 1987 where he admitted that in some respects the conditions of the SCs were better than those of the OBCs because of reservations.

After gaining power in UP in 1995, Mayawati announced that OBCs would benefit from 27 percent of the state budget. Similarly, Muslims were to receive the same grants as SC children, and Mayawati implemented the recommendations of the UP Backward Classes Commission which insisted, in a report dated July 11, 1994, that low caste Muslims should benefit from reservations in the state administration. Mulayam Singh Yadav had not been in favour of such a measure because it was bound to reduce the quotas, which the Hindu OBCs tended to monopolise. Mayawati granted the Muslims 8.44 percent of the 27 percent due to the OBCs. A comparable proportion of the police officers’ posts (8 percent) were also allegedly reserved for Muslims.

The BSP’s ambition to be more than just a Dalit party became clear in the 1980s when it nominated non-SC candidates for the UP elections. In 1996, only 29 percent of all the candidates nominated by the BSP were SCs, whereas 34 percent were OBCs and 18 percent Muslims. Interestingly, the BSP’s OBC candidates were relatively more successful since there were almost 40 percent OBCs among the party MLAs and only 28 percent among the SCs. The share of the OBCs was even more important among the state party office-bearers — 46 percent in 2000. By contrast, only 21 percent of the office bearers were Dalits — comparable almost to the 14 percent upper-caste office-bearers! A majority of the lower-caste leaders of the BSP come from the Most Backward Castes, and not from larger, dominant Backward castes such as the Yadavs and the Kurmis, who were important till the mid-1990s but whose role diminished after the Samajwadi Party — a Yadav-dominated party — and the BSP developed hostile relations. Yadavs and Dalits’ class interests are clearly contradictory, the latter being often landless labourers or cultivators with very small plots, working for Yadav farmers.

Kanshi Ram was very critical of the Republican Party of India’s tendency to work only among the Dalits. For him, the OBCs and the religious minorities were parts of the ‘bahujan samaj’ To cope with the rise of OBCs, and more especially of the party of the Yadavs, the BSP developed two strategies. First, it joined hands with the BJP, which was equally anxious to sandwich Mulayam Singh. Secondly, it decided to focus on the OBCs. As a result, the list of BSP candidates started to include people from small, dominated castes such as Nishads, Sainis, Shakyas, Baghels, Kashyaps and Rajbhars. The OBC MLAs and office-bearers of the BSP in UP come today from different jatis, whereas its SC MLAs are almost all Jatavs. But the former are in larger numbers anyway.

A catch-all party?

In order to further broaden the social base of the party, the BSP wooed the upper castes too. Since the mid-1990s, the party has made it a point to give tickets to a significant number of upper-caste candidates. In both cases, the percentage of the upper castes in question approximates their share in the population: 15-20 percent. This was in tune with Kanshi Ram’s assumption that Assemblies should reflect the composition of society. In the 1999 elections, Kanshi Ram nominated candidates in proportion to the caste and community break-up of society: out of 85 candidates in UP, he fielded 17 Muslims (20 percent), 20 SCs (23.5 percent), 38 OBCs (45 percent) and 10 savarns (12 percent). In 2002, the BSP did the same during the UP Assembly elections: it gave tickets to 37 Brahmins and 36 Rajputs. In 2004, this strategy started to bring some dividends since 5 percent of Brahmin voters and 4 percent of Rajputs cast their vote in favour of the BSP, according to the CSDS survey.

The share of the BSP’s OBC office-bearers was 46 percent in 2000. By contrast, only 21 percent were Dalits — comparable almost to the 14 percent upper caste office-bearers Among the upper castes, the BSP seems to be particularly keen on wooing the Brahmins. In May 2005, the party coined a new slogan “Brahmin-Dalit bhai-bhai” and Mayawati decided to set up bhaichara samitis in all Assembly seats with Brahmins as presidents and Dalit as secretaries! Mayawati also organised a series of Brahmin Sammelans across UP.

The BSP’s current success is the outcome of a constant effort to broaden the base of the party. This may well be a landmark in the political history of India for two reasons. First, it shows that today’s socio-political coalitions are bound to be led by subaltern groups and not by savarnas anymore. This is good thing for the democratisation of India’s democracy. Second, this victory of the BSP is also one of the few defeats of the BJP. If Mayawati sticks to an anti-BJP line of conduct — as she should now that she does not need Hindu nationalists to form a government — the upa should turn to her ahead of the 2009 general elections so that it can consolidate the anti-communal front and give more substance to its “pro-poor” discourse. How long can the Congress ignore the fact that it cannot go it alone in UP any longer?

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