With the BSP’s Vote Share Shrinking, Which Way Will UP’s Dalit Voters Go?

As the sun sets in the Dalit-dominated village of Hussainabad, Mohanlalganj in Lucknow district of Uttar Pradesh, a few locals are engaged in a political discussion under the flickering light of a feeble bulb.

Mahesh Gautam sets the tone with his remark, “Kanshiram kahte the ki vo Bahujan ko is desh ka hukmaran dekhna chahate hain par ab vahi BSP sirf ek seat jeeti hai aur Bahujan andolan khatm ho raha hai (Kanshiram used to say that he wanted to see Bahujans to be the rulers of this nation, but now, the same Bahujan Samaj Party has only won a single seat and the Dalit movement appears to have nearly finished).”

In the recently concluded Uttar Pradesh state assembly elections, what emerged quite significantly was the voting behaviour of Dalits – more particularly the Jatavs, the numerically larger group in the community. There are around 66 sub-castes within the Dalit community, whose population is estimated to be around 22% of the states total. And neatly 50% of these are Jatavs, the sub-caste to which BSP supremo Mayawati also belongs. Of the remaining 65 sub-castes, the more prominent ones are Valmikis, Pasis, Koeris, Khatiks etc.

Since the BSP’s rise in the state, Dalits showed infallible loyalty to the party time and again. However, after the Bharatiya Janata Party’s resurgence in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the party worked hard on the non-Jatavs. Their effort bore fruit, with a chunk of the non-Jatav population deserting Mayawati and switching loyalties to the BJP.

However, post-poll analysis from this year’s election clearly suggests that Mayawati’s core Jatav base has also eroded, perhaps for the first time in the party’s 38-year history. According to the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), 87% Jatavs voted for the BSP in 2017, but that number came down to 65% in the 2022 election. In addition, BSP’s overall vote percentage also went down from 22.23% in the 2017 assembly elections to 12.8% in 2022.

Shamshad Khan, psephologist and managing director of the PEACS News Service, said, “A major chunk i.e 9-10% of votes in the remaining 12.8% vote share of BSP is of the Jatav community.” The BSP is left with its Jatav base and Mayawati’s noticeable absenteeism has prompted other parties to actively work among Jatavs. Yashwant Deshmukh, founder-director of ‘C – Voter’, said, “The Jatav vote can revert to the BSP only if Mayawati stages a miraculous comeback – that can mark the beginning of a new era in UP politics.”

Thirty-eight years ago, when the late Kanshiram gave birth to the BSP on Ambedkar Jayanti (April 14), he ignited a new hope among the Dalit community. He toiled to mobilise Dalits, who soon hailed him as their tallest leader. He showed new horizons, following which the party marked its first electoral success in 1993 when it formed the government in coalition with the Samajwadi Party in the state. It was the undaunted strength of Dalits and skilful bargaining by Kanshiram that made Mayawati chief minister of the state three times in collaboration with the BJP. And finally, the BSP got its biggest success, when in 2007 Mayawati could ride to power with a full majority of her own.

Ironically, BSP’s decline started during this period. According to Yashwant Deshmukh, “Mayawati’s downfall started when her image as a strict administrator – that was her biggest USP – took a hit. Slogans like ‘Goonde chadh gaye haathi par, goli maare chaati par’ did massive damage.” A lot of questions were also raised on Mayawati’s style of functioning and allegations of corruption raised against her. Former IPS officer S.R. Darapuri, who is now a prominent Dalit rights leader and social activist, besides the head of his own political outfit All India People’s Front, said, “When Mayawati came to power with full majority, she did not present any Dalit agenda and Dalits did not benefit during her regime. Moreover, she ignored the non-Jatav communities.”

Darapuri added, “Kanshiram was an ideologue whose social justice was for the welfare of the Dalits. Mayawati is less of an ideologue, her social justice is not on the ground, and it is just there for votes.” Being out of power for nearly 10 years, BSP’s cadre has become weak; the party also lacks local leadership of Jatavs and non-Jatavs. Dinesh Khatik, a student in Lucknow University, said, “The younger generation has not seen Mayawati fighting for us [Dalits], so much so that even the older ones in our families have lost confidence and faith in her.”

According to CSDS post-poll study, BSP’s Dalit vote share went down from around 16% in 2007 to 9.96% in 2022. The challenge for BSP is twofold first to retain the Jatavs base, and secondly, also regain its Non-Jatav base from the BJP. This has also been acknowledged by the BSP supremo. In a press statement issued on 27 March, 2022 she said, “Apart from the Dalits of my caste the non-Jatav Dalits, have to be adjoined to BSP after taking them out from the BJP’s Hindutva.”

The negative aspect of the BSP’s downfall is that it’s a big loss for Dalits. The hope and voice Kanshiram gave to the community is being affected. In the past 10 years, the Dalit movement is seen to be ending, senior journalist, Brijesh Shukla said. “A movement is just not fought on the road – it has an ideology, a commitment; it has its thinkers who propagate it among people’s mind. The movement that has its genesis in social thought, has come at crossroads. In Indian history, you would have never seen such a movement that invokes your consciousness, creates awareness and aggressiveness at the same time. But slowly it is losing its spark, it is getting over,” he said.

BJP

Ever since the Narendra Modi-led BJP came into power in 2014, the party’s image in Uttar Pradesh has completely changed. Unlike in the past, when it was seen largely as a party of Brahmins and Baniyas, it is now a party that encompasses Dalits as well as backward classes in addition to upper castes. And that is what has led to the further downfall of the BSP.

Gearing up for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, the Bhartiya Janta Party has doubled its efforts to capture the Dalit base once and for all. The challenge before them is to keep their non-Jatav Dalit voter base intact, while making inroads among Jatavs. The Yogi Adityanath government is all set to organise grand celebrations for Ambedkar Jayanti. The chief minister will launch a new ‘Dalit Mitra’ agenda which is slated to be a four-month-long programme. Meanwhile, as many as eight Dalits were given berths in Adityanath’s newly formed council of ministers.

The BJP has made it a point to lay special emphasis on Jatavs by inducting two prominent faces into the cabinet. Baby Rani Maurya, the national vice president of the BJP, who was Uttarakhand governor until she was given a ticket to contest from Agra, is the state’s new minister for women and child welfare. Likewise, senior IPS officer Asim Arun, who was ushered into the party after being made to seek premature retirement as Kanpur police commissioner, has been inducted as minister of state for social welfare (with independent charge). Arun won the election from Kannauj, defeating three-time sitting SP MLA Anil Dohre.

Shukla pointed out, “Asim Arun is the son of UP’s widely respected IPS officer Shriram Arun, who was two-time DGP of the state and post retirement he had worked with dedication for the upliftment of the Dalits and the poor in his native village in Kannauj. Following his footprints, Asim Arun and his wife Jyotsna also continued to serve those people. It clearly shows how BJP is always keeping an eye out for people with talent and potential, which is how they build leaders and also fit them in their narrative.”

Different strategic decisions taken by the BJP have helped them immensely. Their Dalit base has increased over the years, especially in this election. According to the CSDS post-poll study, the BJP’s Jatav base went up from 5% in 2012 to 21% in 2022. It’s non-Jatav base went up from 11% in 2012 to 41% in 2022.

According to Preety Choudhary, assistant professor at Ambedkar University, “Over the years, the BJP and RSS have paid respect to Dalit icons and symbols in the rural areas. They gave homage to non-Jatav heroes such as Baldeo and Daldeo and Jatav heroes like Ravidas and Kabirpanthis.”

How various government schemes also made the desired impact on Dalits was highlighted by Shukla, who said, “The benefit of welfare schemes like housing, construction of toilets, free gas, free electricity, scholarship and Ayushman Yojna have benefited the poor Dalits the most.”

Another former UP DGP, Brijlal, who was handpicked to be made BJP Rajya Sabha MP, said, “The SC/ST Act is now more effectively and strictly implemented. There is also a massive increment in relief funds for Dalits and their families against atrocities.”

Samajwadi Party

The SP has realised that if it wants to form the government in UP, it needs the backing of the Dalit community. No wonder, Akhilesh Yadav too has plans to have a grand celebration on the occasion of Ambedkar Jayanti. A colourful tableau (jhanki) is to be organised, lit with diyas by SP workers, in each block and village of Uttar Pradesh.

After a gap of nearly three decades, Akhilesh reconvened the Samajwadi Party’s Dalit Wing called Baba Saheb Ambedkar Vahini in October 2021. And this did not go unnoticed among Dalits. According to the CSDS post-poll study, SP’s non-Jatav base has gone up from 11% in 2017 to 23% in this election. Shukla too confirmed, “Non-Jatav Dalits like Pasis, Valmikis have gone with SP in pockets like Allahabad and Azamgarh commissionary. It has been possible due to the influential Dalit regional leaders like Indrajeet Saroj.”

Now with Mayawati losing bulk of the non-Jatav Dalit votes, it could be SP’s golden opportunity to capture this chunk. Chandra Shekhar Choudhary, the state chief of SP’s Ambedkar Vahini, said, “We will go from village to village to provide Dalits with more opportunities and space in the party.”

Preety Choudhary argued that Akhilesh has not done much for the Dalit community and has also not been able to develop a Dalit leadership within the party. There are various reasons why Dalits don’t prefer the SP, and a major one of them is the aggressiveness of the party’s Yadav supporters. Monu Satnami, a small shop owner in the Banda district of Bundelkhand, observed, “Dalits are harassed and beaten most by the Samajwadi Party people in our village. BJP has provided us with protection against this hooliganism.”

Agreeing, Yashwant Deshmukh said, “If there is an anti-BJP vote, then there is also an anti-SP vote bank. If the BSP Jatav base starts dwindling, then it will be the loss of the SP, because Yadavs and Jatavs don’t vote together.”

The SP has begun planning to counter this perception. Chandrashekhar Choudhary said, “We will work most among Jatavs. At the village level, we will assign responsibility to well-to-do Yadavs to embrace the Dalits of their respective areas and show respect towards them.” Whether such outreach could pay political dividends for the SP remains to be seen.