The organisation of backward and minority community employees, started by BSP founder Kanshi Ram, throws its weight behind the party in the assembly elections. It had covertly supported the BJP in 2014. BAMCEF’s support may tip the balance in BSP’s favour in western UP.

BY ARPIT PARASHAR   

Basant Kumar Saini  looks at his watch impatiently as the district court at Amroha in western Uttar Pradesh (UP) draws to a close. He has to rush back to his village Said Nagli, part of Hassanpur assembly constituency. A small group of men assemble at his residence. The gatherings are a daily affair. A judicial officer, he now misses the time when he had his own practice and could leave the court at will. Saini is a member of the All India Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation (BAMCEF), considered the parent body of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) founded by Kanshi Ram in 1978 even before BSP was conceptualised, to unite the SC, ST, OBC and minority community employees of central and state governments.

The federation’s main aim is to challenge the Brahminical social order in which the backward communities and minorities have been the worst sufferers. BAMCEF cadres mostly work for specific objectives leave the political space for BSP.

While the accurate strength of BAMCEF is difficult to ascertain—members claim few lakhs to few crores—its national general body has at least 1 lakh members across the country.

Saini claims BAMCEF has united to fight for BSP in a big way this time to keep both the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP) out of power in UP. “Last time (in 2012) members themselves were disillusioned with Mayawati and the party since their work towards the end of their tenure had been bad. Also, voters were not as interested in bringing her to power as they had been in 2007,” he says. But the spirit of 2007 is now back, “in fact, with more vigour”. Close to 30 people are waiting for him as he reaches his house in Said Nagli. It is getting dark as the group sits down for a discussion over  tea, from the responses of Jat-dominated villages in the region to the campaign by BSP workers in  Muslim-dominated villages. S. K. Saini, a member of the Ajit Singh-led Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) and the party’s candidate from the Hassanpur seat, is also present and listening.

“Many Muslim villages are showing enthusiasm for BSP; people have even pulled down posters of the SP candidate and pasted BSP’s posters. SP will have it difficult this time,” a worker says.

This enthusiasm at Said Nagli is a common phenomenon in several villages across western UP where a sizeable number of assembly seats went for polls on February 11, the first round of the seven-phase election in UP. The reason, members of BAMCEF and BSP say, is that only BSP has presented a credible social plan with some semblance of honesty and intent. “Mayawati suffered two major losses (in 2012 assembly polls and 2014 Lok Sabha polls) which are why she is in a better position to judge the situation and appeal to the public,” says Saini.

Statements by leaders like Manmohan Vaidya, publicity chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) calling for a review of the reservation policy has helped BSP. “It shows the BJP’s anti-minority and upper caste mindset and BAMCEF members have been alarmed by such statements, which has again led to consolidation.”

The factor that will work most for Mayawati, members of the BAMCEF say, is that BSP has 105 Muslim candidates, more than 25 per cent of the seats in the state, more in fact than their 19.3 per cent share in the population.

Atif Saifi, also a lawyer and member of BAMCEF from Meerut, says, “The community has traditionally been divided along the lines of upper caste Muslims like Pathans and Sheikhs and the lower caste and backward Muslims, especially the Pasmanda Muslims. While backward Muslims voted en masse with the upper caste Muslims last time, this time they have joined hands with BSP and will turn the tide in its favour in many seats.”

This shift will benefit the party most in western UP, also known as Paschim Pradesh or Harit Pradesh, where Muslims constitute almost 24 per cent of the voter base, the highest among the four major regions, the others being Awadh, Poorvanchal, and Bundelkhand.

In at least 70 constituencies, Muslims make up more than 30 per cent of the population and in another 70 more than 20 per cent. Coupled with a 16-25 per cent share of SCs and STs across various constituencies it will ensure that the fight is between BSP and SP, pushing BJP and the Congress out in at least 100-120 seats. Important Muslim leaders in BSP like Naseemuddin Siddiqui are campaigning aggressively for Dalit-Muslim unity. Muslims are also alarmed by the BJP’s inherently anti-Muslim outlook; a large section of the community is also upset with SP for its consistent failure during riots.  Two senior BJP leaders were arrested for the Muzzafarnagar riots, only to be released on bail. Sangeet Singh Som, now BJP’s face in western UP, was at the forefront of gatherings inciting people to attack Muslims. “The BJP has not one Muslim candidate, evidence enough that they want to polarise votes as they did in 2014 (Lok Sabha polls) and marginalise the Dalits and Muslims,” says Saifi.

Mayawati is also banking on Mukhtar Ansari, a gangster with a strong base in  three to five seats in eastern UP, hoping he will supplement her count by denting SP’s chances in its stronghold. Ansari was associated with SP but switched sides after being snubbed by Akhilesh Yadav.

The political parties have their own cadres but BAMCEF has considerable strength among the OBCs too, unlike BSP, which will help Mayawati, members say. Non-Yadav OBCs in UP, which includes Jats, Kushwaha, Shakya, Saini, Sunars and some Muslim OBCs seem inclined to support BSP. While anti-incumbency is one reason, the other is the inevitable rise in the fortunes of the Yadavs under SP while others have suffered. Jats are especially miffed with SP since 2013 when they were targeted by mobs led by various leaders from the party in their villages once the violence had spread.

Mahipal Singh, a BAMCEF member and Jat from Muzaffarnagar who works as a clerk in the Central Bank of India, Meerut, says, “Muslims were shifted to camps deliberately to isolate them and create a voter bank even though there was comparative harmony until after the initial attacks (during the riots). Compensation for Jats had to be fought for extremely hard while the government was busy appeasing Muslims.”

BJP took advantage of this polarisation in the 2014 polls, winning a record 68 seats in UP including Muzaffarnagar. It is trying to woo Jats ahead of the assembly elections this time, too. It recently announced a Chaudhary Charan Singh Kisan Kosh (Farmers’ fund) to aid farmers in times of distress, with an eye on the largely agrarian Jat community. They comprise only about 2 per cent UP’s population but are strong in western UP’s 19 districts in 50-70 seats. However, their demands for job reservations have largely been ignored. Also, the larger Jat community has turned against BJP ever since they were targeted by the BJP government in Haryana during pro-reservation protests. The Haryana violence claimed close to 30 Jat lives and BJP members were found to be involved in anti-Jat polarisation “despite the fact that Jats openly supported BJP under Narendra Modi,” says Singh.

While the party eventually gave in and made a provision for reservations, the matter is in court with no result in sight any time soon. “To top it all their leaders keep questioning the reservation system. Jats will not vote for BJP in the state,” says Singh. S. K. Saini, however, claims they will vote for Rashtriya Lok Dal above everyone else since Ajit Singh is the successor to the ”glorious” reign of his father, Chaudhary Charan Singh, former prime minister and revered Jat leader.

“Jats will unite to vote for RLD to make sure their demands have to be met and taken care of by any party that may come to power in the state,” he says. A laugh goes around at Basant Saini’s office when he makes the statement, some members claiming he was out of his mind to think so. “Jats will have to come to the BSP now. The time of RLD is gone,” one of them says.

The BSP backbone has traditionally been the state’s 22 per cent SC and ST vote, which it has won ever since it came into existence. But BAMCEF has not always taken its side. In 2014, for example, many BAMCEF members favoured BJP. As a result coordination between BAMCEF and BSP was weak due to the failure to reach common ground on ideological issues. “Most BAMCEF members felt a radical change was needed at the Centre. Since BSP does not wield any power at the Centre the obvious choice was to go with BJP. Even though members would not acknowledge it openly, BAMCEF was pro-BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. While many of the assurances by Modi have been kept, demonetisation (banning of Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes) has affected the lower classes, which includes a large section of Dalits,” says Basant Saini. He says that in the absence of a strong leadership in the state, neither BJP nor Congress can claim to be in a position to come to power. “Congress lost the moral high ground by aligning with SP. And BJP cannot rule UP with street-level goondas like Sangeet Som; it should focus on running the country under Modi. The Dalit vote is going to BSP this time; en masse.”

In western UP, especially the districts adjoining Delhi and Haryana, the BSP has been helped by the BJP’s decision to reserve tickets for upper caste leaders or people who have defected to the party. It has given tickets to at least 80 outsiders roped in on caste calculations in their respective constituencies, or simply for the value which it would get to cut votes of other parties in these seats. The BJP election list was reworked many times, which kept leaders and party workers confused till a few weeks before the polls. Dara Singh Chauhan, an OBC leader who was earlier with BSP joined the party in 2015 and was named national president of their OBC Morcha with support of BJP president Amit Shah in December last year. He is, however, still seen as an outsider and his rise has caused heartburn among party workers. On January 25 several party workers stormed the head office in Lucknow cornering state BJP chief Keshav Prasad Maurya, causing embarrassment to senior leadership. Maurya’s own followers have protested against the inclusion of Swami Prasad Maurya in the election committee, discouraging workers across the state.

This has also angered communities like the Gujars, who form a strong constituency in at least 15 assembly seats in western UP. Rupesh Verma, a social activist based in Dadri, from where BSP has registered consistent victories but failed to win the last time, says, “Gujars have sided with BSP time and again since the SP as well as the BJP and Congress have gone for Thakur leaders ignoring the Gujars, who number more than even the Yadavs here.” BJP, too, has fielded Pankaj Singh, son of Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh and UP general secretary of the party, as its candidate from  Noida. While BJP hopes to win the seat since it has turned into an urban seat owing to large-scale urbanisation, BSP has fielded Gujar candidates from most of the seats in the region. Vijay Pal Chaudhary, fighting from Jewar constituency on a BSP ticket, is known to be close to BAMCEF units in Gautam Budh Nagar district, under which both Noida and Jewar fall.

“A community that has been ignored by state and central leadership for long will side with the party that treats them fairly. Mayawatiji has always fielded Gujar candidates from this region and encouraged the community. Gujars will support the party,” Chaudhary claims. Verma says that consistency in BSP’s attitude towards Gujars will win her their votes again. “Gujars are emotional people. They might not vote for Mayawati in Lok Sabha polls but they understand that their interests will be safeguarded under BSP since she is from this region where we are a strong force to reckon with. The relationship is mutual – we ‘take care’ of the Thakurs who are against her while she takes care of our interests. The rural Gujar voters understand this basic give-and-take.”

In a major success for BSP ahead of the first phase of polls, the Brahman Mahasabha, which claims to represent the Brahmin constituency that accounts for close to 10 per cent of voters, is supporting the party. At a function in Lucknow, five days before the first phase on February 11, Rajendra Nath Tripathi, president of the mahasabha, said the community would back BSP since it got the most representation and respect during the party’s last term in power. The deal was brokered by Satish Chandra Mishra, Mayawati’s legal counsel and considered her closest aide. Even though the number of BSP tickets for Brahmins has gone down since 2007–86 in 2007, 72 in 2012 and 66 this time—Brahmins seem to have largely shunned the BJP for a more equitable representation for the community. Mishra was the architect of the social engineering that brought BSP to power in 2007 and the party intends to repeat the same feat this time as well.

While BSP makes gains thanks largely to the revival of BAMCEF members’ will for a pro-minorities government in the state, the fight is not restricted to BSP members. Mayawati has been known to shun partisan politics and treat people close to her roughly while trying to keep her power intact. Many relatives who expected to be rewarded or treated exceptionally have faced snubs time and again. However, in her zeal to keep family politics out of the party, Mayawati is accused of snuffing out the careers of many young leaders from her extended family and her relatives. Vinod Kumar (name changed), a close relative of Mayawati and a long-standing member of BAMCEF, said: “I too have been a member of BAMCEF for years and consistently worked with the organisation as well as the (BSP) cadre for more than a decade. But political considerations have seen me kept out of party circles or on the fringes. I do not complain, but it is unfair, after all.”

Kumar, however, says his aim is to keep supporting the movement as long as he can. “She (Mayawati) is not the only heir to Kanshi Ramji’s legacy. Thousands of BAMCEF members have inherited the ideals he stood for. That is the reason I am still standing up for those ideals and fighting to keep them alive.” Kumar has now formed his own party and is fighting from a seat in western UP independently as the chief of the party.

Asked if his move would hurt BSP chances in the constituencies where his party stood against BSP, he said, “I have chosen constituencies where BSP has fielded candidates who have no chance of winning. The idea is to supplement Bahujan Samaj ideology and not dent it. She may not value our presence but we are here to stand up, with her support or without it.”

Basant Saini, meanwhile, managed to grab a good weekend’s sleep after casting his vote. “Last time around (in 2012), I did not even vote. This time I made sure even my daughter, who just turned 18, votes for BSP,” he says. According to reports from party cadres in western UP, BSP will win at least 40 seats of the 73 that went to the polls, by a conservative estimate.

In the Agra region, where even prime minister Narendra Modi addressed a rally, the party expects to win 6-7 of the 9 seats. “Some surveys of private organisations project 50-55 seats for the party in western UP but we are happy with 40 for now.” The voter turnout has been barely 63 per cent in the first phase, which is expected to dent the BJP’s chances since urban voters have largely stayed away.

BAMCEF, Saini says, is taken for granted by BSP time and again, but the love-hate relationship is not a hindrance as long as the cause is clear. “BAMCEF stands for Bahujan Samaj while BSP gives them political representation. She may not be right all the time but this time she is the only option for the marginalised in UP. So BAMCEF will make sure she wins.”

(Arpit Parashar is a freelance journalist based in Delhi.)

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