Kewal Kumar, a Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) worker from Bulandshahr district of Uttar Pradesh (UP) was in Lucknow when party chief Mayawati addressed the media at her residence after the results of the assembly elections were announced on March 11. While the mood was sombre at the party office as well as among workers, he says the defeat has numbed them. “Everybody present realised that we all got our calculations on the ground realities wrong for the second time after 2014 (Lok Sabha polls), but more than that it was disbelief about the seats we got.”

Mayawati said at the press conference, one of the few she held through the campaign ahead of the polls and during the seven-phase polling, that the electronic voting machines (EVMs) used by the Election Commission (EC) were tampered with to allow the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) the biggest majority in the state since the 1980 polls as BJP took 325 seats. The EC has defended the EVMs and said no tampering is possible. Party workers too quietly acknowledge it, Kumar says.

“At most they can assure some victories in some seats where it is possible that BJP workers did indulge in unhealthy activities but the outcome can hardly be challenged as a whole,” he said. The facts support him. While the party claims to be the sole true representative of the larger Dalit community in the state which comprises 21 per cent of the population, its core vote bank has been dented beyond redemption in the last few years. Of the 85 seats reserved for SC/ST candidates, it won just two, while its main rival till now, the SP, managed seven. BJP won 69, with another six going to its allies Apna Dal and Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party, both getting three seats each.

What is worrying, workers say, is that in most seats BSP was relegated to third spot after the SP with even some independent candidates polling as many votes as the party. In western UP for example, in seats where Jatavs, the largest Dalit community, form a sizeable voter base they voted the BJP to power almost everywhere while the SP kept seats where Muslims are in a majority. A senior party leader, who lost from western UP, said on condition of anonymity, “I believe Behenji’s allegation of tampering, but in my seat I can simply say it does not look so. I monitored polling booths with my workers personally and people did end up deserting us, is all I can say.”

He says most leaders have grudgingly conceded defeat but Mayawati’s allegations are probably a last ditch attempt to save face, since something had to be said in response. “Most leaders know we have lost fair and square and the fault lies within the party. We took our own voter base for granted while trying to woo others in order to win.”

Kewal Kumar agrees. “The younger voters, who have grown in numbers exponentially, have taken a liking to Modi and believe in his promise to create jobs. Then our leaders judged the demonetisation move wrongly too, opposing it since their own stacks of black money became worthless.” Mayawati has a case of laundering over ₹100 crore against her. The EC also found unaccounted money in a bank account, on a tip from the Enforcement Directorate, of her brother Anand Kumar. 

Most leaders know we have lost fair and square and the fault lies within the party. We took our own voter base for granted while trying to woo others in order to win. 

“We should have supported demonetisation since the poor in villages were not directly affected and are resilient and so recovered from the impact. We should have targeted BJP on how after demonetisation they could claim to create jobs since the economy was impacted so dearly and campaigned on those lines. That would have got us the votes that mattered most,” the senior leader quoted above said.

Although it is common for leaders to turn around and blame campaign policy after a loss of this magnitude, those in the inner circle say resentment within the party has been growing since the defeat of 2012, when the party won 80 seats. Mayawati, they say, might have started to believe in her own hype since her term from 2007 to 2012 was hailed by media and critics alike for being riot-free, and good on law and order. The bubble, punctured in 2014, has burst now.

When BSP lost the assembly polls in 2012, the defeat was attributed largely to anti-incumbency and the extensive road campaign by Akhilesh Yadav, who emerged as a young SP leader and next generation of the Mulayam Singh Yadav clan. But a closer analysis shows that even then the core base of the BSP had been severely dented as SP managed to win 58 of the reserved seats while BSP did not win even 20. This was brushed under the carpet then, only to hit the party again in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections when the BSP’s tally was reduced to zero. This time it was attributed to the  “Modi wave”.

Some BSP leaders have consistently warned internally of such complacency regarding the voter base, and that one cannot expect people to vote along caste lines anymore. Such leaders have either been sidelined or pushed to work on the ground rather than being given leadership roles.

BSP’s traditional vote base of Jatavs, comprising 57 per cent of the Dalit population, has been the worst affected. Since Mayawati’s rise to power, they have consistently moved up the socio-cultural-economic ladder in UP. They form a chunk of the workforce in the administrative machinery that comes from the Dalits, numbering many thousands,  since they have benefited from better education and some favouritism during Mayawati’s tenures as chief minister. But this upward movement has also seen them expect more of the party than crony favouritism and political representation when none else would give them that.

This is where BJP managed to turn the tables. Even though BSP cadres are a force to reckon with on the ground, the BJP under Sunil Bansal, an old RSS hand considered close to party chief Amit Shah, brought a large number of them into the party fold in the past few years, especially after the 2014 Lok Sabha polls when it became clear that if the right appeals were made, Dalits could vote for BJP. This was done keeping in mind that 45 per cent of the non-Jatav Dalits had also voted for BJP, apart from a sizeable section of the Jatavs.

This was a turning point since it was earlier thought that Dalits, like Muslims would vote to defeat BJP wherever they could since Mayawati relied heavily on them to do so, making scathing attacks this time, too, calling them the Bharatiya Jumla Party. Bansal made sure booth-level committees were formed for majority of the 1.45 lakh booths in the state and the “sabka saath, sabka vikas” (support from all, development for all) formula was implemented on the ground by including more and more Dalits. This paid dividends; 20 per cent of BJP victories have been secured by Dalit candidates, including the 75 it won with its allies from the 85 reserved seats.

Non-Jatav Dalit sub-castes like the Dhobis, Khatiks, Pasis and Valmikis have traditionally supported BSP, and it seems to have been the case this time, too, since the voting percentage of the party remains significant even now, falling to 22.2 per cent from the 26 per cent in the 2012 assembly polls and slightly higher than the 19 per cent it secured in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. But a great portion went to BJP, as figures suggest.

BSP’s rout cannot be seen more clearly than in Agra district, which has a large Dalit population dominated by Jatavs and was considered BSP’s stronghold until now. While the party managed to win six out of the nine seats in this region even in 2012 when it lost the assembly, this time it lost all the seats, with BJP winning most of them. This trend in Agra was also visible further eastward in the districts of central UP, considered the stronghold of the SP, where BJP won the majority of seats, proving that voter bases of both the parties were dented because they took them for granted without being diligent enough to appeal to their aspirations, as the BJP tried and succeeded.

The BSP, in fact, fared badly in most Dalit-dominated districts, which shows that while it managed a good voting percentage owing to some swing votes from backward Muslims and upper castes persuaded to support BSP, and work by the party workers, it could not pre-empt the slide in its own bastions. In Sitapur, for example, the BSP managed only one seat while in Ambedkar Nagar, which was named so by Mayawati during her rule from 2007-2012, it barely saved some grace as its state president Ram Achal Rajbhar managed to win the Akbarpur seat. An old hand, he also succeeded in ensuring two more seats for the party from the district.

However, it suffered humiliation in many others. The Leader of the Opposition in the assembly, from BSP, Gaya Charan Dinkar, came third in Naraini constituency of Banda district. What is worse, it lost all 19 seats in Bundelkhand, an old stronghold and the base of its leader Naseemuddin Siddiqi where it failed to prevent the onset of drought during its 2007-2012 rule which was later made worse during the rule of the SP as it focused most of its attention in the central districts of Firozabad, Etawah, Etah, Mainpuri, etc. This eventually cost the party as the votes went to BJP, which has promised a reversal of fortunes for the people of the region.

The party also lost all three seats in Kaushambi district, which has a 37 per cent Dalit population, among the highest in the state. Its star campaigner in the region, Indrajeet Saroj, who had won on four occasions previously even when the party did not win in the state, lost from the Majhanpur seat. In fact, BSP lost almost all Dalit-dominated seats in districts like Fatehpur, Hardoi, Unnao, Sitapur, Sonbhadra, Mirzapur, Azamgarh, Auraiya, Rae Bareli, Barabanki, Chitrakoot, Mahoba, Chandauli, Jhansi, Kheri and Lalitpur.

Another so-called star campaigner, don-turned politician Mukhtar Ansari won his seat Mau; Ansari is facing trial in a special CBI court for the murder of BJP member Krishnanand Rai, MLA from Mohammadabad seat, where Ansari’s brother Sibgatullah Ansari lost this time while his son Abbas Ansari lost the Ghosi seat. With the BJP coming to power in the state as well now, Ansari can expect to face fire and if proved guilty.

It will be a big embarrassment for Mayawati who was hoping to corner many more seats with his help by inducting him into the party, which has not happened. In fact, even during campaigning it proved to be an embarrassment, as the only defence Mayawati and the party came up with on his last-ditch inclusion was that he had not been proven guilty yet.

While Mayawati was banking big on Muslim votes this time, fielding 105 Muslim candidates, the division in numbers between BSP and the SP of the Muslim vote in most districts seems to have helped the BJP consolidate its votes. This was most evident in Deoband, home to the Deoband Islamic seminary, where the BJP candidate won by a handsome margin thanks to the split of the 1.25 lakh Muslim votes between the SP and BSP candidates. The difference between the votes of the SP and BSP together against the BJP is nearly 26,000 votes more, with BSP’s Majid Ali coming second to the winning candidate of the BJP, who got around 1.02 lakh votes.

“It is clear that Muslims did turn out to vote in large numbers but I feel our own workers failed us by ignoring the trend that a lot of people from our Dalit base deserted us. BJP ne hamaare hi vote mein sendh maar di (BJP grabbed a section of our traditional votes),” Majid Ali said, speaking over the phone.

In the Deoband assembly seat Muslims constitute 27 per cent of the voter base against 71 per cent in the district overall. The Deoband seminary, known for its controversial fatwas and hardline politics at times, hardly has an impact on the politics as it is closed to outsiders and nearly all the people studying at the institution come from outside Deoband.

In most of the seats of western UP the split in Muslim votes helped BJP secure clear victories. The BSP’s plans to garner support from Muslims seems to have worked as it came second in many seats with Muslim support but the split of votes meant both SP and BSP were losers since the votes were divided between them. BJP has eaten away into some of their bases apart from consolidating its own ground. In Sardhana, for example, BSP planned to make sure it defeated BJP’s Sangeet Singh Som by combining the Dalit-Muslim votes. Som is seen as Amit Shah’s man in the region and was one of the accused in the Muzaffarnagar riots in 2013 where he allegedly incited Hindus against Muslims. BSP fielded Imran Qureshi whereas the SP banked on its own Hindu face Atul Pradhan. The result was that together the SP and BSP polled around 36,000 votes more than Som but the BJP still won by a comfortable margin.

This division of votes is most obvious in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts, epicentre of the riots in 2013 but where the BJP has managed to win handsomely. In Meerapur assembly constituency of Muzaffarnagar, SP lost to the BJP by a mere 193 votes. Old BJP hand Avtar Singh Bhadana won with 69,035 votes, while SP’s Liyakat Ali got 68,842 while BSP's Nawazish Khan got 39, 689 votes. Similarly, in Muslim-dominated Kanth assembly seat in Moradabd, SP and BSP together polled around 44,000 votes more than the BJP but SP candidate Anees-ur-Rehman lost by around 2,300 votes.

Apart from these, constituencies in Saharanpur, Bijnor, Bareily, and Shrawasti districts where Muslims were the majority voters have mostly gone to BJP as a result of the split in votes between SP and BSP. While this shows a clear consolidation of Hindu votes in favour of the BJP, it also shows that BSP and SP have lost their traditional bases, especially BSP, since it could not capitalise on the votes it polled outside its traditional bases.

Social commentators like Chandra Bhan Prasad and others have said BSP lost because of Hindu consolidation by BJP, which did not field a single Muslim candidate, but  that is only partially true; BSP has itself to blame for its losses.

The Backward and Minority Classes Employees’ Federation (BAMCEF), formed by Kanshi Ram in 1978 and considered the parent body of the BSP, threw its weight behind BSP this time but could not stem the BJP tide. The reason, members say, is that BJP held on to a niche section of the members from within the federation which quietly supported Modi in 2014. Basant Kumar Saini, a senior member of BAMCEF from Amroha who works as a judicial officer at local courts in the district, says, “We seem to have missed the bus as far as the silent vote that BSP gets is concerned. Our analysis shows that we did manage to get a lot of votes from Muslims, especially the backward Muslim classes and castes whom SP neglected as it has become a party of the upward Muslims only. These gains could have helped us immensely but BJP dented our own voter base among Dalits.”

Members of the cadre, he says, are still in shock but admits that the result reflects BSP’s own failure to keeping its voter base intact. “Also, the ones who supported Modi in 2014, especially from the educated sections of Dalits and other minorities seem to have stuck with BJP notwithstanding our appeals to vote en masse for BSP, which is a reminder that voters’ loyalty should not be taken for granted.”

Even though the Brahman Mahasabha, an organisation that claims to represent a large section of the Brahmins in the state, offered official support to BSP ahead of the elections, the outreach was limited to a single meeting and a press briefing. No real Brahmin leaders were seen during the campaign except for her close aide and legal counsel Satish Mishra, the one who brokered the deal with the Mahasabha in the first place. Although Mishra has come to be known as the Brahmin face of the party, insiders say he does not have much say in deciding candidates or building a Brahmin base of workers, which was not the case in 2007. The party had a strong Brahmin base built based on its “social experiment” to bring in the upper classes and the backward classes together as a voter base.

One of the main reasons for this, Saini and some others feel, is that while BJP presented a clean image, with Modi himself leading the charge in the state after the first few phases, Mayawati could not do so. After the 2014 debacle, senior leaders and confidantes of Mayawati like Swami Prasad Maurya, Jugal Kishore and R.K. Chaudhary had accused her of demanding that contestants pay `2-2.5 core each to the party fund. Maurya eventually quit the party.

“Also, post-demonestisation when most BAMCEF members supported the move, she came out hammer-and-tongs against it, which cost her,” says Vikram Kumar, an employee of the Delhi Jal Board and member of the federation. Kumar says large sections of the BAMCEF supported the move by PM Modi but that Mayawati got carried away by the media hype around it, which she was known to ignore earlier. “It is true that the poor suffered, but it was short-term; they were actually more than happy to see the back money debate unfold and the corrupt rich suffer.” Mayawati had termed the move anti-poor, which Kumar says is not true.

“You see, villagers store grains and essential items like oil and ghee for long-term use. It is a general practice in the hinterland to prepare for bad times. Ahead of Diwali and the winter this (storage of essential commodities) is especially common. She failed to understand that the poor voter will not be convinced by her argument as much as by Modi since the temporary shortage would not affect them that badly. Also, rural folk are used to long queues (in banks/outside ATMs), it is the rich who are not. The media couldn’t have got it more wrong on the move and Behenji seems to have fallen for it.” That Mayawati and her brother Anand have cases of “assets beyond means of income” against them led to attacks on her by local BJP leaders, which convinced many to vote against her, insiders feel.

In fact, Anand has been accused of enjoying the same role in BSP as that of Shivpal Yadav in SP—extortion through various fronts in the real estate market. Although they would not say it on record, real estate bigwigs and police officials admit that both Anand and Shivpal get a fixed share of the money a real estate developer invests on a project beforehand in return for the political “patronage” whenever either of the parties is in power.

BAMCEF quietly also got some exit polls conducted through various agencies while the elections were going on. It was one such survey at the behest of the BJP that was posted on the online portal of a leading Hindi daily, leading to the arrest of its editor. The survey posted on the site claimed that BJP was winning heavily in western UP after the initial phase of polling but BAMCEF rejected it keeping in mind the survey that they got conducted.

“However, this survey too was based on the assumption that our traditional voter base would stick with us and so we only needed to focus on voters from the communities we were relying on to come into our fold and assure us victories. Now after the results we look like fools,” says Jitender Singh, an employee with the electricity department in Noida and a member of BAMCEF. For example, of the 73 seats that went to polls in the first phase, BAMCEF initially claimed conservative estimates said they would secure victories in at least 40 seats, but managed barely five.

One of the major reasons behind these losses is also that Mayawati, despite making some overtures, never openly promised governance for all, which the BJP championed, forcing SP also into a similar approach, even forming an alliance with the Congress towards this end ahead of the polls hoping to stem the slide in its fortunes after the dispute between Akhilesh Yadav and his uncle Shivpal threatened to rip the SP apart, which party chief Mulayam Singh had to quell by stepping in to allow control of the party to his son.  While the distance Mayawati keeps from the media is said to be fuelled by the partisan and unfair writing against her most of the time, this distance from the media did not help either, he feels.

Mayawati did change her attitude towards the media somewhat. She held press conferences at regular intervals and took questions from media persons during some interactions, which is not usual for her, but tokenism could not help get attention in the media. In fact, except for some vernacular newspapers and channels and the wire organisations, hardly any English TV or print organisations—barring a few who did so rarely—gave any coverage to her rallies across the state during the campaigning.

Also, unlike all other parties active on social media, which plays a crucial role in forming opinion in favour or against a party among the younger generation, which uses Internet much more than even during the 2014 polls, BSP did hardly anything on sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Zameer Ahmad, a techie from Rampur and part of the BSP social media team during the campaign phase, said, “All we would get was a press release which we were supposed to release when required by the higher-ups. There was no talk otherwise. It did not even seem like a political campaign was going on, more like a government department issuing press releases which were badly written, mostly in Hindi. I have seen even local police in UP do better than them (BSP) on social media.”

Ahmad feels BSP’s campaign had enough steam to rival the Congress and SP, if not the “BJP too”. But failure to capitalise on the space, especially when youngsters who previously supported BSP or whose parents supported BSP traditionally are now all on social media, also played an important part in hurting BSP’s outreach. To top it all, Mayawati’s rallies were hardly publicised and she mostly spoke from written speeches, going extempore only to comments against rivals, which did not help either.

Vinod Kumar (name changed), a close relative of Mayawati who fought on his own after forming a small party from Meerut South in western UP, says Mayawati’s antagonism to rising young leaders in the party is the major cause of her humiliation. “I too defected from BSP fold but kept my links with BAMCEF because it forms our core, but BSP has become an authoritarian party run by my aunt (Mayawati). Many young leaders have become discouraged and either moved to other parties or simply left politics. I could not join any other party since that would have been against the Bahujan Samaj principles and decided to fight my own battles; also since I am a relative other parties would have projected me as the face but hijacked the core agenda, which was not acceptable to me.” Kumar lost badly to the BJP, but he says this was a one-off election. “Next time when BJP is the incumbent we will have a level playing field. I hope to make my mark then.”

The BSP, however, will have to reinvent itself to become as relevant as it had hoped to be in the elections. For one, party leaders who refused to speak on record said the plan to divide the state into four smaller states tabled by BSP in the assembly during its previous rule would have to be fought for and proposed again before the next election.

“We could have used this as a development-oriented step in our campaign and explained to the voters that in the end it will benefit everyone, just as the case has been with Uttarakhand’s separation. Had we championed this we could have made gains,” a leader who lost the election from his constituency in Gorakhpur said on the condition of anonymity.

Many other leaders think that if BSP decides to form separate units for the four units proposed to be carved out of UP—Purvanchal, Bundelkhand, Awadh and Paschim Pradesh, and promotes local-level leaderships in all four with Mayawati as national chief and mentor, it would build a base stronger than the party has ever had before.

“Behenji needs to focus on attacking BJP and other parties at the national level rather than keeping the focus endlessly on UP. The cadre has suffered immensely because of her obsession with the state and not developed in other states due to lack of local-level leadership.” Looking at the current performance it is clear that Mayawati will not be able to retain her Rajya Sabha seat, which would only mean that other party members of her party will have to be moved forward to take leadership roles.

Not everyone is giving up on BSP yet. Many party leaders, although silent, and wary of speaking in public or in the media and nervous owing to the prolonged silence of the party higher-ups including Mayawati on the debacle, say the party will rise again as it has after every defeat. “But the solution will be to declare a successor (to Mayawati) and come forward with a new image and vigour. Young blood needs to be infused, just as Kanshi Ram ji did when he promoted Mayawati to the top,” a senior leader said over the phone.

Mayawati’s house in New Delhi, meanwhile, still has a deserted look although people like Kewal Kumar keep visiting in the hope that an announcement regarding a big push will soon be made.

(Published in the April 2017 edition of Fountain Ink)