Nearly five years ago, in the third and final edition of Behenji, I had forecast her political obituary—renaming the sub-title of my book from The Political Biography of Mayawati to The Rise and Fall of Mayawati. She and her aides were furious, and even several keen analysts of Uttar Pradesh politics felt I was jumping the gun in writing off a leader who had in the past so often snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. However, I was convinced. Not just by her repeated electoral losses in the previous five years, but also with the rapidly shifting socio-political landscape of Uttar Pradesh—that Behenji and her party was in terminal decline and a resurrection would be nothing short of a miracle.
It is true that in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the BSP supremo managed to bag ten seats—a big jump from zero in 2014. But this was mainly due to the Muslim votes transferred to BSP candidates by the Samajwadi Party after a hastily-stitched alliance between a desperate Mayawati and an even more beleaguered Akhilesh Yadav, hamstrung by squabbles within the Yadav clan. Strangely, though the Samajwadi Party lost out far more than BSP in the alliance, it was Behenji who abruptly abandoned the alliance, reportedly under pressure from BJP strongman and Union home minister Amit Shah.
Since the Lok Sabha polls, Mayawati has been politically listless. She has watched helplessly as 13 out of her already meagre 19 party members in the 403-strong state assembly crossed over to the Samajwadi Party. She had already been battered earlier by the desertion of her closest political aides, Swami Prasad Maurya, Dara Singh Chauhan and Nazeemuddin Sidiqqui among the many senior defectors, the first two to the BJP and the last to the Congress.
Though the BSP had suffered defections from the outset, Behenji had previously exuded a political aura that suggested she was in control regardless of whoever left the party. Yet, over the past few years, Mayawati’s half-hearted involvement in state politics—even when it involved controversial atrocities on hapless Dalits across Uttar Pradesh—has led to a widespread perception that the former Dalit firebrand had either lost her political mojo or simply sold out to the ruling regimes at the Centre and in the state. “Behenji used to inspire us to fight whatever the odds, however great the challenge! In the past few years, she seems to have lost interest in active politics,” laments a veteran Dalit activist who has campaigned for the BSP over the past three decades in state and parliamentary polls but not this time.
He says that even if six months ago Mayawati had taken advantage of the rumblings within the BJP, among former BSP members like Swami Prasad Maurya, and issued an appeal for everyone who had left to come back to the parent party, it would have sent out a message that she was really serious about getting rid of the BJP from the state. “Instead, Akhilesh seized the opportunity and now there is a procession of former BSP leaders joining the Samajwadi Party,” the activist adds.
Much of Mayawati’s problems stem from her disconnect with political realities on the ground since she is no longer in touch with grassroots Dalit activists. The once formidable election machine of the BSP is now rusty and unlikely to deliver the votes on polling day, even from sections of her core Jatav base. There are signs that the younger generation of Jatavs incline towards more dynamic leaders like Chandrasekhar Azad, who despite his palpable lack of resources and organisation to fight elections has been always in the forefront of fighting for the Dalit community that has further underlined Mayawati’s own reluctance to jump in the fray.
Yet, many long-term factors have contributed to the fading of the Behenji phenomenon. While the BSP was helpless like other political parties against the Modi tsunami in Uttar Pradesh in 2014 and once again in the 2017 assembly polls there is one elemental dynamic influencing the rise, decline and fall of Mayawati—the support and loss of it from Brahmins. The fact that there has been simultaneous erosion of support for Mayawati from a large swathe of lower non-Yadav other backward castes and non-Jatav Dalits who Kanshiram had recruited as foot soldiers of the Bahujan Samaj has further diminished her.
Indeed, it is a telling paradox that the first big success of a Dalit party in mainstream Indian politics was propelled by Brahmins in Uttar Pradesh who decided to prop up a political outfit with an overtly anti-Brahminical ideology. They were determined to curb the rising clout of Yadav chieftain Mulayam Singh, who had with the help of BSP defeated the BJP in 1993 in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition. In the summer of 1995, two of BJP’s tallest leaders, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Murli Manohar Joshi, both Brahmins, engineered a dramatic coup that led to the installation of Mayawati as chief minister of a minority BSP government in Uttar Pradesh, supported by both the BJP and the Congress. The then Congress Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, also a Brahmin, publicly celebrated it as “a miracle of democracy”. Despite the fall of her government in a short time, because of wrangling with local BJP bosses, Vajpayee and Joshi brought her back to power twice more in the next few years. Nurtured by the BJP’s Brahmin lobby, the BSP kept increasing its electoral tally at the cost of its political ally.
Mayawati played her master stroke before the 2007 UP polls, bypassing the BJP Brahmin lobby and striking a deal directly with the Brahmins of Uttar Pradesh. Winning a majority on her own catapulted the Dalit leader as the premier political star in the country. It all started going downhill within a few years of her coming to power. Unable to handle the daunting task of accommodating Brahmin interests in a Dalit party, Mayawati lost support from both communities, each complaining that she was favouring the other. This tug-of-war between her political sponsors and core support base first snuffed out her prime ministerial dream in 2009 and then ousted her from power three years later. With the advent of the Modi juggernaut and a refurbished BJP since 2014, the Brahmins appear to have abandoned her completely despite the recent pathetic attempts by her closest aide Satish Mishra, a Brahmin, to regain support in the community through Prabuddha Sammelans.
A move to replace her earlier Brahmin alliance with one with Muslims in 2017 ended in an unmitigated disaster—failing to get substantial minority votes, antagonising Hindu groups and, in the process, facilitating the rise of a saffron-clad monk, Yogi Adityanath. On the eve of the 2022 UP assembly polls, Mayawati looks almost as jaded and faded as the Congress. The two may end up fighting over who will be a poor third in the elector contest even as the Akhilesh Yadav-led alliance is locked in a grim battle for supremacy with BJP’s Hindutva mascot Yogi Adityanath.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Elephant in the Room")
(Views expressed are personal)
Ajoy Bose is a journalist and author