Political pundits appear to be surprised at BSP supremo Maywati’s low profile in the coming Assembly polls in her earlier bastion Uttar Pradesh. Yet for those who have followed her remarkable political career over the past several decades it had become palpable for quite some time now that Behenji was no longer a dominant factor in the politics of India’s most populous state. As a matter of fact, nearly five years ago in my third and final edition of her biography Behenji I had deliberately changed the sub-title from ‘The Political Biography of Mayawati’ to ‘The Rise and Fall of Mayawati’ despite the obvious risk of predicting the political obituary of someone who had in the early part of her career managed to overcome so many odds and setbacks.
My conviction that Mayawati and her Bahujan Samaj Party had reached a point of terminal decline was not merely influenced by her persistently poor electoral performances starting from the 2009 Lok Sabha polls that crushed her prime ministerial dreams, then losing the throne in Lucknow to Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party in 2012, followed by the humiliation of not winning even a single seat in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls and barely five percent of the seats in the 2017 Assembly elections. What was more important than these successive bruising defeats was the fundamental change in the socio-political landscape of the state. Instead of reaping the advantage of her core Jatav voter base swelling considerably with the support of other social segments, Behenji like before now finds that even her own vote bank is fast dwindling.
The rise of the BSP in Uttar Pradesh masterfully strategised by its founder Kanshi Ram and fiercely implemented by his protégé Mayawati happened in the specific aftermath of former prime minister VP Singh’s Mandal Commission gambit that gave a new boost to backward caste identity politics in the 1990s. This simultaneously propelled both the Samajwadi Party and the BSP in Uttar Pradesh and the two joined hands to defeat the BJP despite the latter’s incendiary Ram Janambhoomi politics fresh after the demolition of the Babri Masjid and decimating the Congress as well.
Realising the danger of the Samajwadi Party and its canny leader Mulayam Singh Yadav spreading their wings across Uttar Pradesh, the Brahmin elites of both the BJP and the Congress then in power at the Centre quickly struck back toppling the Samajwadi Party-BSP coalition government in Lucknow and installing Mayawati as the head of a minority government supported by both the BJP and Congress. Much against the wishes of local BJP leaders in the state, the Brahmin lobby in the party propped up three short-lived governments led by Mayawati, helping her to expand her base both among Brahmins and a whole slew of lower backward castes and non-Jatav Dalits.
In the 2007 state polls Behenji played her masterstroke that overnight turned her into the rising political star in the country. Using her now larger than life stature in the state to bag a majority on her stitching up a formidable alliance between Dalits and Brahmins, lower backward castes and a section of Muslims she was now poised to take over the national stage. However, it did not take long for her fortunes to go downhill. Brahmins were dissatisfied with not being allowed to run her government despite her close Brahmin aide Satish Mishra, the lower backward castes and non-Jatav Dalits felt that Maywati only favoured the Jatavs who in turn too feared that their interests were being constantly compromised.
The first indication that Maywati was in decline came in 2009 parliamentary polls when the BSP failed to get a sizeable number of seats to make a serious bid for power at the centre even as the Congress romped home to a comfortable majority.
This was followed by a comeback of the Samajwadi Party in the 2012 state Assembly elections. By the time the Modi juggernaut rolled around in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections the BSP had completely lost the confidence of the Brahmins and considerably eroded in lower backward caste and non-Jatav Dalit sections as well.
With her successive debacles in parliamentary and state polls in 2014 and 2017 Mayawati was increasingly cornered. Desperate to retrieve her position in the 2019 Lok Sabha she entered into an alliance with Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party but although she herself gained by increasing her number of seats in Parliament from zero to 10, her ally got only half the number. Soon after she abruptly ended the alliance reportedly under pressure from Home Minister Amit Shah and since then there has been speculation that Behenji had sold out to the rulers of Delhi and Lucknow.
Mayawati herself has fuelled suspicions of a backroom deal with the BJP by being visibly inactive in Uttar Pradesh pointedly not intervening even in controversial atrocities on Dalits across the state apart from the occasional tweet. Her dogged refusal to jump into the poll fray on the plea of Covid appropriate behaviour is seen both as a tacit acknowledgement of her low expectations and playing along with the BJP. It remains to be seen whether a further downfall of Behenji will benefit the ruling party or its main opponent Samajwadi Party-RLD alliance.
The writer is a Delhi-based political analyst. Views expressed are personal.