The Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan may turn on the alliances the party strikes
It is curious that in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, where Assembly elections will be held by December, political debates are largely centred on the BJP and the Congress. The role that the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) may play is still to be sufficiently addressed.
One reason for the rising importance of the BSP in these States is the numerical strength of Dalits. In Madhya Pradesh, Dalits are around 15.2% of the population, in Chhattisgarh around 11.6%, and in Rajasthan around 17.2%. Dalits are scattered in different pockets of these States and can influence the election results in many Assembly seats. For instance, in Madhya Pradesh, there are around 60 Assembly seats (in a House of 230+1 nominated) where Dalit votes have the capacity to influence election results. In the 2013 Assembly election in Madhya Pradesh, the BSP got 6.3% of the vote. As there was a difference of around 8% in the votes secured by the victorious BJP and the Congress, many political analysts were of the opinion that if the Congress and the BSP had jointly contested the election, the result may have been different.
In Chhattisgarh, the Dalit population plays an important role in determining election results in regions like Janjgir-Champa, Raigarh and Bastar. In fact, Kanshi Ram, the founder of the BSP, understood the potential for Dalit politics that lies in these regions and contested his first parliamentary election from Janjgir in 1984. In Rajasthan too, the Dalit population is scattered in most parts of the State and had already asserted itself in past elections. In 11 Assembly constituencies adjoining Uttar Pradesh, there are concentrations of Dalit communities.
While it is true that the BSP alone cannot win many seats in these States, by forming an alliance with any dominant political force, it can influence the results, in some places decisively so. In the past, the BSP had not been in favour of forming alliances with other political parties, given its preference to form social alliances of castes and communities directly. But the party has changed its strategy of late. The BSP’s recent experience in Karnataka, where it tied up with the Janata Dal (Secular), and its success in forging an understanding with the Samajwadi Party for the Uttar Pradesh bypolls indicate a change of mind. The BSP is also keen to expand its base in these States. No other axis of mobilisation is likely to challenge the BSP’s influence among Dalits. This gives the BSP great negotiating power in striking deals with other parties in these States.
Change in strategy
In fact, the BSP has been trying to strengthen its organisation, from booth units to the State units. Previously, Kanshi Ram had tried to develop State leaders. But this effort withered away after his illness and death. Now BSP chief Mayawati is pursuing this strategy to nurture various lines of State leaders. This strategy is giving the party visibility.
A section of Dalit voters in these three States seems to be annoyed with their BJP-led governments due to various reasons. Cases of atrocities against Dalits, issues of reservation, and the Rohith Vemula case have upset many Dalits, and the BSP has been trying to mobilise its campaign along these lines.
The Congress is likely to be politically and electorally compelled to form an alliance with the BSP to get Dalit support in the forthcoming elections and prevent fragmentation of anti-BJP votes. A tie-up with the BSP would also help the Congress in other States in the 2019 parliamentary elections. The BJP, in turn, would like to prevent opposition unity and keep these elections multipolar. It is trying to minimise the impact of the Una atrocities, Rohith Vemula’s suicide, and growing doubts over its intentions regarding reservation by organising various programmes on B.R. Ambedkar and by promoting micro caste-based identity politics to break Dalit unity.
It is not yet clear what would be the impact of the BJP’s efforts, but the BSP has quite strongly emerged as a third force for the forthcoming Assembly elections. The BSP may play an important role not just in determining the outcome of the Assembly elections this year, but also in giving shape to a non-BJP Mahagathbandhan, or grand alliance, before the 2019 Lok Sabha election.
Badri Narayan is Director, G.B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad