UP Elections 2017: How The Elephant Disappeared From The Poll Circus

Posted by PEOPLES PULSE in Politics, Staff Picks
February 21, 2017

By Sajjan Kumar:

The formation of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) on April 14, 1984, was symptomatic of the larger trend of the replacement of class by ascriptive identities in the socio-political sphere. The state of Uttar Pradesh witnessed a similar trend and this was reflected in the general decline in the citadel of the Left in places like Mau, Azamgarh and other areas. These places have, off-late, been dubbed as communally sensitive places.

Kanshiram, the founder of the BSP and the mentor of Mayawati, had a clear conception of the structural mosaic of ‘Bahujan’. The mosaic was like a ‘cake model’ wherein the base had to be the Dalits and the topping had to come from lower-caste OBCs and Muslims. He succeeded not only in consolidating the Dalit base but also in nurturing many OBC leaders who shared his conception of the ‘Bahujan’ that was deeply rooted in ‘identitarian aspirations’.

The BSP experiment has succeeded since the 1990s. Every political party has employed social engineering primarily by weaving caste and religion from different vantage points like Hindutva, Mandal and Bahujan, threby catering to the political aspirations of the different sections.

The BSP’s spectacular success in 2007 under the leadership of Mayavati was the outcome of similar ‘identitarian craft’. Here, Mayawati identified domineering ‘Yadavisation’ by the Samajwadi Party as a ‘common other’ among the Dalits, lower OBCs and upper castes, especially, Brahmins. She reinvented the party’s electoral strategy creatively and imaginatively by rhetorically shifting from the conception of ‘Bahujan’ to ‘Sarvajan’, and also reversing the symbolic image of the ‘elephant’ differently for the different sections. Hence, BSP’s ‘elephant’ became the revered lord ‘Ganesh’ for the Brahmins. For the Yadavs, it was the symbol of the ‘intimidating vanquisher’ as reflected in the party’s three slogans back then: “Brahman Shankh Bajayega, Haathi Badhta Jayega (The Brahmin will blow the conch and auspiciously set the elephant on the path of victory)“; “Hathi Nahi Ganesh Hai, Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh Hai (The elephant is the incarnation of Ganesh and the trinity)”; “Chadh Gundo Ki Chhati Pe, Batan Dabegi Haathi Pe (Crushing the chests of rowdies the elephant would emerge victorious)”.

The interplay of these three slogans captured the ‘identitarian’ imaginations of the varying castes and communities, and creatively constituted an electoral alliance by channelling the social fault-lines wherein the upper castes, lower-caste OBCs and the Dalits were given a ‘common other’ in the form of the much-disdained ‘Yadvisation’. Thus, the ‘cake model’ got another ‘layer’ of Brahmins, as well as a section of other upper castes, upon the already existing base of Dalits and lower-caste OBCs.

All this would have been fine had the political craft in the state remained the same. What Mayavati failed to see was the ‘structural limitation’ of ‘identity politics’ in the post-1990 context. Although the caste and religious arithmetic mattered, the exclusivity of different sections of different parties were getting blurred on account of every party employing the ‘old-Congress’ mode of the ‘catch-all’ strategy, by giving the same social constituencies varying options to weigh and explore.

This phenomenon was linked to the larger shift in the outlook of political parties that started treating electorates as consumers who must be tapped into the political market. Except for the core voters of the different parties, like Dalits (for BSP), Yadavs (for SP) Jats (for RLD), Banias (for BJP), the other sections who didn’t have long-term political contingencies to any political outfits (in other words, swaying voters) increasingly became the ‘swinging/floating voters’ from election to election.

Therefore, in the post-Mandal era in the 2000s, the electoral decline of the BJP in UP made the upper castes emerge as the ‘balancing factor’ – a section of whom used to oscillate alternatively between the only viable options of two regional parties, BSP and SP, besides the BJP. Similarly, the non-Yadav OBCs kept ‘swinging’ among all the three outfits as per the incentive offered.

Mayawati won the 2007 elections, not only on account of her positive efforts, but equally because of being perceived as the ‘best alternative’ to the Samajvadi Party and the lawlessness that prevailed. However, her victory in 2007 blurred the undercurrent of the saturation of ‘identity politics’ in the ‘old mode’, wherein all that a party had to do was to rope in some ‘popular caste leaders’ in its fold who would act as the conduit for the votes of that caste. Ironically, the ‘Sarvajan’ that Mayawati employed became the new trait of all the parties, wherein every party started sending overtures to every caste, thereby making ‘new identity politics’ extremely competitive.

The competitiveness of ‘new identity politics’ raised the expectations of the electorates, who now started desiring a larger ‘visibility’ of the leaders, their targeted policies and their accessibility in everyday life, in order to feel ‘relatively privileged’ over the others. The electorates, now pampered by all parties who were competing to send better overtures, acquired a comparative vantage point – to pause, ponder and assess the alternatives, and then choose the one which they perceived to be the best.

While Mayawati succeeded in proving her credentials as an able administrator, she failed as a politician in the ‘new context’ which demanded a sense of humility, accessibility and constant visibility from a leader in power and from a leader in the Opposition.

Her presence in the state, which remains extremely inaccessible from the vantage point of new aspiring electorates, is only visible when she is in power. In the wake of an electoral defeat, she retreats to Delhi, leaving the party to the ‘second-rung leadership’ which often has no imagination while tackling the respective constituencies. In fact, there has been a complete lack of political activism when she is out of power.

Her sudden quest for Dalit-Muslim electoral alliance on the eve of the election also hasn’t captured the imagination of a significant percentage of Muslim electorates. This is because Mayawati has failed to bring the BJP and the ruling Samajwadi Party to task on issues like Muzaffarnagar riots and Dadri incident, apart from a general condemnation of both the parties. Seen in the backdrop of other two parties, the SP and the BJP, who tend to hit the street as opposition parties – the desertion of political field by BSP as an opposition party, the refusal of Mayawati to sit in the UP Assembly as the leader of Opposition and her refusal to lead popular protests against the apathy of the government of the day can end up alienating a great majority of voters except the core ones. This would make the BSP’s election-driven ‘social engineering’, like the recent quest for Dalit-Muslim unity, ‘opportunistic’ and ‘crudely instrumentalist’.

In spite of her ‘political invisibility’, she happens to survive the political arena on account of the entrenched Dalit support – a constituency meticulously created by Kanshiram.

At a time when every political party has seriously taken cognisance of the heightened electoral expectations; when the political actors are going for massive ‘image-makeovers’; when the PR-agencies are employed to constitute a ‘perception-advantage’ – the BSP and Mayavati, it seems, are still caught up in the ‘old mode’ of political strategising that lacks any innovation.

Take for instance some simple facts that BSP activists keep proudly bragging about :

BSP doesn’t release an election manifesto because no one reads it, especially their core voters!

BSP doesn’t contest the local and by-elections as a policy, as the party doesn’t want to waste its energy before the final battle, i.e., the State Assembly and Lok Sabha elections!

BSP doesn’t have a spokesperson as a policy because the media is Brahmanical!

The plain refusal of Mayawati to come to terms with the changed political context that demands a constant visibility of the leadership and the party, not only on the ground but also in the media, her reliance on the old mode of caste-and-community-based quasi-secret ‘Bhaichara-Sammelans (Gatherings for Brotherhood)’ signify her over-reliance on the assumption that a consolidated Dalit base would convince other electorates to see a ‘winnability quotient’ behind the BSP, leading to the emergence of a successful electoral equation.

These assumptions were relational and closer to the political reality when SP was led by Mulayam Singh and his ilk, who shared the assumption of adding a layer to their core voter as the central electoral strategy. This is reflected in their ‘pre-family feud’ steps of bringing leaders like Amar Singh (a Rajput), Beni Prasad Verma (a Kurmi), Ateek Ahmad and Mukhtar Ansari (Muslims) within the fold of the SP. Had Mulayam Singh Yadav succeeded in having his way, Mayawati’s strategy would have made sense. But with a rival like Akhilesh Yadav who has successfully reinvented not only his own image but also of the SP, the old assumptions of having the core vote-bank intact, and adding ‘layers’ of other castes and communities, have become inadequate.

Off-late, elections have been fought and won by ‘swaying’ the ‘swing voters’. This requires constant innovation and creativity. Judged by this parameter, Mayawati seems to be lagging behind. Her speeches lack any ‘dialogic mode’ – a fact which goes against the contemporary trend of preferences for extempore speeches.

At a time when the leaders are making witty and aggressive statements against their rivals, one can find an element of ‘defensiveness’ in Mayawati’s speech when she constantly repeats that no statues and parks will be made if she comes to power. This betrays her acceptance of the opposition’s propaganda that she had previously wasted money in building statues and parks. Nowhere does she mention her colossal achievements in providing reasonably-decent residences to the poor classes in general, and the Dalits and lower-caste OBCs in particular, by way of her policy of ‘Kanshiram Awasiya Colonies’. Also absent is any reference to her unique experiment of developing the poorest villages by providing them with logistical support and monetary allocation by way of the policy of designating them ‘Ambedkar Gram’. On the other hand, this concept was copied by the Akhilesh Yadav government with a nomenclatural change of designating the villages as ‘Adarsh Lohiya Gram’, which he is now marketing with full vigour.

Except for asserting her credentials as a tough administrator, she doesn’t have much to offer for the middle class and ‘floating voters’ either. Her style of addressing big rallies is in sharp contrast to that of her prime rival, Akhilesh Yadav, who is consciously seen as addressing more, frequent and smaller rallies wherein there is a better sense of ‘connectedness’ with the audiences. This is not only making her relatively more invisible, but from electoral point of view, it is also going against her prospects of capturing the extra votes that she is increasingly losing in the ‘war of perception’. This is also hindering her from capturing the ‘floating voters’. This ‘war of perception’ is fought in the realm of the media, and this requires a constant engagement with the same. However, Mayawati’s disdain for the middle class gets extrapolated in her disdain for media, and by extension, for the ‘floating voters’, when one finds a near absence of her engagement with the media even on the eve of election.

Mayawati’s rivals are going all the way out to sway the ‘floating voters’ to their sides by dominating the ‘war of perception’, like ensuring the release of spurious exit-polls before the polling, in complete defiance of the Election Commission’s guidelines. Mayavati, from the perspective of ‘floating voters’ is therefore becoming invisible.

Her exclusive reliance on cementing the Dalit-Muslim electoral alliance has made her blind to the importance of the crucial role that ‘floating voters’ play in tilting the electoral outcome. Unfortunately, she cannot be seen to be taking any measures in that regard. It’s the rivals who are setting the agenda and dominating the ‘war of perception’.

Seen in terms of social background, the majority of ‘floating voters’ who hail from non-Yadav OBC castes, a significant section of whom used to be quasi-loyal voters of BSP, are being approached by the BJP and SP. A majority of them are not taking her ‘Muslim-centric’ approach in good humour. Affected by the sense of relative deprivation, these lower-caste OBCs desire a pampering, attention and a sense of being considered as the core of the target groups of the respective political parties.

Ironically, Mayavati is seen to be not only lagging behind in capturing the aspirations of these lower-caste OBCs, but also of the Muslims who are still swayed by the overtures of the Akhilesh Yadav-led SP. Wherever Muslims are voting for a BSP candidate, they are found to be voting for ‘instrumental’ reasons of backing the candidates with a better ‘winnability factor’, rather than for an enthusiasm to see Mayavati as the Chief Minister (CM). Rather, it’s Akhilesh who the majority of Muslims desire to see as the next CM of the state.

Therefore, it’s high time that Mayawati takes cognisance of the changed electoral context and electoral aspirations, and thereby reinvents the image of her leadership as well as that of the party. She needs to be accessible, approachable and visible to meet the challenges of the ‘new mode of identity politics’.

The author has a PhD from the Centre of Political Sciences, JNU, and is associated with Peoples Pulse, a Hyderabad-based research organisation specialising in fieldwork-based political and electoral studies.

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