Mayawati’s reputation as a political ally is legendary. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) president picks her partners astutely, drives bargains on her terms and conditions, is streetsmart in running a coalition for as long as it suits her electorally, and discards her allies at the time of her choosing.
Ask the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Today, it might preen with obvious self-satisfaction over Mayawati, but thrice in the past — in 1995, 1997 and 2002 — it installed her as the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister to keep Mulayam Singh Yadav at bay. The short-lived coalitions damaged the BJP's credibility for time to come and cost the party in the elections it fought thereafter. The BJP had rationalised and packaged the partnership with the BSP as its way of "enhancing" Dalit empowerment, but events testified who indeed was empowered at whose expense. It was an experiment the BJP might never care to go for again unless propelled by circumstances.
Akhilesh Yadav, Samajwadi Party heir, learned the hard way what a political arrangement with Mayawati entailed. Against his father Mulayam Singh Yadav's reported wish, Akhilesh courted Mayawati for a basic reason: arithmetic. The votes of his Samajwadi Party (SP) when added with those of the BSP and the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) seemed like the obvious formula to turf out the BJP after the BJP's walkover in the 2014 Lok Sabha and 2017 Assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh. The SP-BSP-RLD coalition tasted success in three byelections held in 2018. Akhilesh's prognosis was the alliance would work effectively on a large canvas, spanning UP's 80 parliamentary seats. After all, Mayawati had the best record of vote transfer, given the fact that she was the queen of Dalit hearts since 1995. One call from the stump to vote an ally was enough to send her voters flocking to the party in question, regardless of whether it suited their interests or not. That used to be the norm.
Akhilesh was oblivious to the new circumstances that arose in UP after Narendra Modi's ascendancy. The BJP's runaway success in 2014 was not a black swan event because in the intervening years, Modi's "Chanakya", the moniker that president Amit Shah earned, had engineered a near-invincible social coalition that cemented the castes and sub-castes, historically outside the ambit of the SP and BSP. So, if the SP-BSP-RLD worked to prospectively coalesce 19 per cent Muslims, 10-11 per cent Jatavs (from Mayawati's dominant Dalit sub-caste), eight to nine per cent Yadavs (purportedly loyal to the SP) and two to three per cent Jats, their numbers would approximately add to a little over 40 per cent. In 2014, the BJP secured a vote share of 42.63 per cent after netting 73 of the 80 seats with its ally, the Apna Dal (Sonelal). The gathbandhan was convinced its mathematical formula was enough to best the BJP.
The problem is that castes, though socially hierarchical, tend to be electorally mobile. In 2014, and, to a lesser extent, in 2019, the SP's Yadavs and the BSP's Jatavs gravitated towards the BJP because they were attracted by the prospect of seeing Modi as Prime Minister and captivated by the expectations he aroused in people and impacted by Hindutva sentiments that grew in direct proportion to the BJP's vitriolic propaganda against the minorities on the ground.
When Mayawati sundered her tie-up with Akhilesh after the gathbandhan proved a dud in the Lok Sabha polls, she blamed his "inability" to transfer the Yadav votes as the principal reason for the failure. By now, there's enough data, including a CSDS-Lokniti post-poll survey, to establish that while the Yadavs and Muslims rooted unambiguously for the gathbandhan, Mayawati's Jatavs did not. These studies also revealed that the Jats, who live in west UP, jettisoned the coalition and went over to the BJP because the communal polarisation that tore the region asunder after the 2013 Muzaffarnagar violence remained despite the RLD's effort to re-establish harmony between the Jats and Muslims.
Statistics reinforced the findings. In 2014, the BSP did not win a single seat but picked up a vote share of 19.77 per cent. Five years hence, it won 10 seats with an identical vote share of 19.26 per cent. The SP got five seats in 2014 with a vote a share of 22.35 per cent. While it won the same number of seats in 2019, its vote share declined to 18 per cent. The gathbandhan's combined vote share (that included the RLD's 1.67 per cent) came to 38.93 per cent, 10.67 per cent less than the BJP's 49.6 per cent. It was no match for the "Modi magic". In the conditions, the alliance benefited Mayawati over the others, considering that she was slumping since her government was voted out in 2012.
As is her wont, she had her way on the number and choice of seats over Akhilesh. She wangled 13 seats where the SP was a runner-up in 2014. She figured out that these were sure-shot winners because of the social combination. She left the urban ones such as Lucknow, Ghaziabad and Kanpur for the SP that Akhilesh could never ever have made a fight of because these were BJP bastions. Mayawati also gained from the SP's committed Muslim votes that only reluctantly came to her in the past because the minorities inherently suspected she would do a "deal" with the BJP, if required to.
If the SP must start afresh and enlarge its following beyond the Yadavs and Muslims to induct the other backward castes, Mayawati has her task cut out. The SP remains the first choice of Muslims until and unless the Congress reinvigorates itself in UP. That leaves Mayawati with only the Jatavs because the BJP has spirited away the other Dalit sub-castes through adequate representation to their leaders in Parliament and Assembly and the Hindutva ideology. Mayawati was elected with a majority in 2007 because in a sense she resurrected the Congress's old rainbow coalition where the Brahmins, Muslims and Dalits co-existed. She also brought in the backward castes.
Over the years, she lost the influential backward caste leaders from the Kurmi, Kushwaha, Koeri, Maurya, Chauhan and Rajbhar communities, who her mentor, the late Kanshi Ram, had assiduously nurtured and promoted, to the BJP or the SP. The widespread perception was that under Mayawati, the BSP was more of a "commercial" enterprise than an instrument for the empowerment of the less empowered.
She has to disabuse this notion before embarking on the next phase of her politics.