Until recently, the BSP, following its poor performance in the 2012 assembly elections and 2014 general elections, was not viewed as a noteworthy player in the upcoming UP assembly elections in 2017. The BJP, with its massive victory under Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, was regarded as a frontrunner. However, a series of atrocities against Dalits and Muslims in quick succession at the hands of gau rakshaks at Una in Gujarat, Bisada in UP and elsewhere, have brought in a significant change.
Also, Modi taking a long time to reach out to those who had suffered in these incidents, led to a perception that his statements were too late, were largely symbolic and political in nature, and would result in little action. The BJP’s anti-Dalit image was highlighted when senior party member Dayashankar Singh abused BSP chief Mayawati in vile language, prompting her supporters to hit the streets in protest.
Mayawati has been quick to take advantage of these recent incidents and has flagged-off an early and aggressive electoral campaign. Along with dividing UP into four zones under trusted lieutenants, she has planned big rallies in Agra, Allahabad, Azamgarh and Saharanpur – all districts with a large Dalit and Muslim population.
At a well-attended rally in Agra on August 21, she attacked the BJP by calling it an anti-Dalit party and one that treated Muslims badly. Hence, the question arises whether Mayawati can bring together the two communities that have been threatened by the fringe elements of the Hindu right and lead the BSP to power in 2017?
A shared history
It is noteworthy that these two disadvantaged communities have a shared history in UP. In the immediate post-independence period, both the communities supported the Congress.
In the mid-1960s, disillusioned with the Congress, the Republican Party of India – the first schedule caste Ambedkarite party in UP – formed an electoral alliance with the Muslim organisations in four districts in the state, which gave the party seats in this region and in two eastern districts.
A second coming together was in the BAMCEF (All India Backward (SC, ST, OBC) And Minority Communities Employees Federation), formed by Kanshi Ram, who conceptualised the ‘Bahujans’ as consisting of all the oppressed sections, including Muslims.
The BSP and the Samajwadi Party (SP) also joined hands prior to the 1993 assembly elections to successfully combine Dalits, OBCs and Muslims, capture power and contain the Hindutva-based mobilisation of the BJP.
Subsequently, large sections of the Muslim community have preferred ‘Maulana Mulayam,’ but in the absence of the Congress, they have viewed the two lower caste parties as secular formations that would protect them against the anti-Muslim stance of the BJP.
Challenge of uniting the communities
Today, Mayawati will have to deal with significant challenges to create a Dalit-Muslim combine. UP is a volatile state, and the Dalit and the Muslim vote has oscillated in the elections in the 2000s. In the 2007 assembly elections, Dalits had solidly supported Mayawati and 29 Muslim candidates had won on the BSP ticket. But in the 2012 assembly elections, Mayawati’s defeat – despite gaining over 26% of the votes – was largely due to the Jatavs, her core supporters who were unhappy with her sarvajan policy, and the Muslims moving towards the SP. Again in the 2014 national elections, due to the Modi wave, the BSP gained almost 20% of the votes, but could not win a seat. A single Muslim candidate could not gain a seat either.
Her greatest challenge will arise in western UP, which has a large Dalit and Muslim population. During the Muzaffarnagar riots in September 2013, a Dalit-Muslim divide due to the changing social equations, became visible for the first time in the rural areas. Field studies reveal that Dalits did not try to protect or help Muslims, but rather in many cases actively participated in the riots. They started by attending the Jat mahapanchayats and even attacked Muslims in their villages.
FIRs filed by Muslims mention Dalits and many of those who are still in jail in connection with the riots, include Dalits. With the Muslim community having fled from their villages, Jats are facing an acute shortage of labour, which has raised the demand for Dalits.
The communal riots, thus, impacted the Dalit equation with Jats and Muslims very differently. Their equation with the former improved, but towards the latter, there was animosity. A popular sentiment shared by Jats, Dalits and the upper castes was one that the state government had disbursed compensation money among Muslims to obtain their support.
During the riots, the BSP found it difficult to handle relations between the Dalits and Muslims in many places, since its base and leadership straddles both communities. During communal incidents, BSP leaders like Kadir Rana often rushed to support the Muslim community that was involved, hence angering the Hindu and Dalit supporters who also expected their support.
Clashes between Dalits and Muslims also occurred in the aftermath of the riots. The Indian Express reported that out of the 605 communal incidents in UP in the 10 weeks beginning with the Lok Sabha election results of May 16, 2014, 68 – or every ninth incident – involved Muslims and Dalits. Over 70% of the incidents took place in and around 12 assembly constituencies where byelections were due.
An immediate response often given is the changing relationship between the younger members of the two communities. Couples from the communities enter into a relationship or elope, which is often described as ‘love jihad’ giving rise to tension and conflict. Education has brought about a change and the development of technology, such as the introduction of mobile phones and social media, has made it easier for the youth to communicate. Also, the BJP leaves no stone unturned when fomenting trouble and its cadres have quickly led to the party being labelled as the “protector” between the two communities.
Finally, in eastern UP, the local dynamics are different. The Muzaffarnagar riots had little impact, the Muslims are not unhappy with the SP and continue to support it as the party that will protect them against the communal mobilisation of Yogi Adityanath and his Hindu Vahini. Here, a triangular fight is expected between the BJP, SP and BSP over Dalit, OBC and Muslim votes.
The recent political developments have however introduced change and today the situation seems to favour the BSP. The Dalits are angry with the BJP, particularly those in UP and Gujarat. In contrast to earlier atrocities, whose impact was limited to a region, Dalits have been able to network and organise using social media. The Chamar-Jatavs – Mayawati’s core constituency – have been the most active. In UP, protests were organised in various towns and an almost complete boycott of the Dhamma Chetna Yatra by Buddhist monks was organised by the BJP.
Mayawati has given 100 seats to Muslims candidates and four prominent Muslim leaders have recently joined the BSP, which indicates the growing preference of the community. Her reputation of being a tough administrator capable of maintaining law and order could appeal to Muslims, who have found the SP government to not take action when atrocities occur against Muslims, particularly in western UP.
However, the Muslims will choose between the BSP and SP closer to the elections depending on which party they feel will perform better in relation to the BJP. If the BSP is able to gain a large section of the Dalits and Muslim votes, Mayawati could probably form a government, considering that both the BSP and SP were able to obtain majorities in 2007 and 2012 by obtaining 29% of the votes. Given that the Congress is attempting to put up a fight, the percentage of the BSP would require in a four-way contest would be even lower.
On the other hand, the BJP leadership is clearly worried that its efforts since 2014 of bringing the Dalits into the saffron fold – through attempts such as celebrating Ambedkar’s 125th birthday – have been gravely affected by cow vigilantism. While the Ram temple issue enabled the BJP in UP to create a single Hindu identity and vote bank across the state in 1991, the actions of the gau rakshaks have created a divide.
Despite Modi’s efforts to control the groups, Vishva Hindu Parishad leader Pravin Togadia’s remarks indicate that the issue will be brought up in the UP elections. Earlier, BJP chief Amit Shah had claimed that the main fight would be between the SP and the BJP. The recent attempts to criticise Mayawati and the poaching of significant BSP leaders from the OBC community – such as Swami Prasad Maurya and R.K. Choudhary and more recently Brajesh Pathak, an important Brahmin leader responsible for the sarvajan strategy – reflect the BJP’s growing anxiety. It also underlies its recent claim that Rohit Vemula was not a Dalit and its strategy of using nationalism through the Tiranga Yatras to win over Dalits and the backward classes.
Thus, the main fight in the upcoming UP elections will be between the BJP and the BSP in most parts of UP, with the SP trying hard to improve its standing among its backward and Muslim base, and with the Congress still on the margins.
Clearly it will be a historic fight between a right-wing Hindu nationalist party, with its base among the upper castes, and a Dalit-based party that is attempting to stitch together a strong Dalit-Muslim alliance. It remains to be seen if the BSP succeeds during its aggressive electoral campaign to create a winning combination of Dalits and Muslims.
Sudha Pai is National Fellow, Indian Council of Social Sciences, former rector and professor, Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University