Monday, August 22, 2016

In UP, Can Mayawati Pull Off A Social Coalition That Includes Dalits, Muslims And Brahmins?


From bahujan to sarvjan

After months of lying low, Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati sounded the clarion call at a rally in Agra on Sunday. She railed at the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Samajwadi Party, accusing them of exploiting communal faultlines to suit their electoral interests, but was almost silent on the Congress.

The Dalit leader made a visible attempt to spread out beyond her traditional constituencies, reaching out to Muslim and Other Backward Class votebanks cornered by the Samajwadi Party as well as Brahmin votebanks that usually go with the the BJP. A Dalit-Muslim combination alone could power a BSP win, given that the two communities account for 40% of the state's population.

On the face of it, this would seem like an opportune moment to build such a coalition. The BJP, which had sensed an opportunity in the state's vast Dalit constituency, is currently on the backfoot, hit by Dalit agitations in Gujarat and the Centre's mishandling of the outrage sparked by the death of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit scholar in Hyderabad university. When BJP leader Dayashankar Singh tried to take down Mayawati by comparing her to a prostitute, it proved to be a self-goal. Students and activists took to the streets in protest, reaffirming Mayawati's status as a Dalit icon and cooling the tentative warmth between the BJP and Dalit constituencies in the state.

As for the Samajwadi Party, it gained in the elections of 2012 as Muslims voted in a bloc for the party. But in the first Assembly elections since the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013, the party will need to answer why it failed to protect Muslim communities besieged by the forces of Hindutva. The refugee camps for riot victims that lingered for years afterwards were an indictment of the state government, which could not provide the security that would enable the displaced families to go back to their homes. In the Assembly elections of 2014, the BJP made rapid gains while the Samajwadi Party's Muslim vote got fragmented.

Both constituencies could now migrate to the BSP. But the party has tried to forge broader social coalitions in the past, with mixed success. As political scientist Sudha Pai points out, it came to power in 2007 through a strategy of "sarvjan", or "representation for social groups the BSP in accordance with their strength". Once in power, it tried to shift focus from Dalit-oriented policies to an agenda that looked after the interests of all backward social groups and regions. The shift from "bahujan" to "sarvjan" angered powerful Dalit constituencies, who felt their interests had not been attended to, and seemed to dilute the Dalit identity that had been the mainstay of the party. It gave the BJP a chance to make inroads into the BSP's constituencies.

The BSP's candidate list suggests the sarvjan strategy is firmly in place: out of 403 tickets, over 100 have gone to Muslims, over 50 to Brahmins, another 50 to Thakurs, Vaishyas and other upper castes, and the remaining 200 to Dalits and OBCs. It speaks of an ambitious politics, aimed at creating widening circles of support and answering a diverse range of concerns.

But in the deeply divided society that is present-day UP, can Mayawati pull it off?

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