Unlike other Indian parties, the Bahujan Samaj Party does not issue an election manifesto. It neither seeks to diagnose the problems bedeviling the state in which it is a contender for power, nor promises to execute a slew of schemes should the electorate give it a majority.

As the countdown begins to next year’s Assembly election in Uttar Pradesh, some say the Bahujan Samaj Party’s tradition of not releasing a manifesto has allowed the parties in power, whether in Lucknow or Delhi, to alter the state’s political context.

For instance, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s demonetisation policy has shifted the focus from the social conflict arising from cow vigilantism to the need to tackle black money. Likewise, over the last three months, Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav has assiduously projected the impression that he can break away from the control of family elders, keep at bay the corrupt and the criminal from his Samajwadi Party, and develop Uttar Pradesh as never before.

A manifesto, they say, is the only way an Opposition party can excite the popular imagination. Thus, in the absence of one, the Bahujan Samaj Party is doomed to a brand of reactive politics, hitting out at the Bharatiya Janata Party for triggering misery through its demonetisation policy, and pillorying Chief Minister Yadav for opportunistically waiting before the election to rebel against family elders.

The Bahujan Samaj Party, however, does not believe in releasing a manifesto before every election because the very rationale of its existence stems from its mission of ushering in a social transformation in India, defined as establishing the equality of castes. This equality cannot be achieved until a conglomeration of lower castes and religious minorities, particularly Muslims, get a share of power proportionate to their population.

Since other parties pretend to be social radicals merely to preserve the dominance of upper castes, it is only when the Bahujan Samaj Party captures power for at least two successive terms that subaltern groups can hope to become empowered – or so the party believes. Since the party’s voters know what its mission is, producing an election-oriented manifesto is unnecessary.

Constant activity

Given the link between power and the quest for social transformation, the Bahujan Samaj Party has structured itself like an army that is engaged in a perpetual thrum of activity, whether an election is five years away or just a month or two away, as is the case in Uttar Pradesh.

The party pyramid has Mayawati at its apex. At the base of the pyramid is the booth committee. These have five members – adhyaksh (literally, president, but a more appropriate designation would be official in-charge) and four sachivs (secretaries). The president is generally from the Scheduled Caste. The other four members of the committee are chosen from social groups most represented on the booth’s electoral rolls. In case a booth does not have a significant Scheduled Caste population, a Muslim is preferred as the official in-charge.

Ten booth committees constitute a sector, which is also supervised by a five-member committee. Every Assembly constituency has approximately 300 polling booths. There are, therefore, 30 sector committees.

Above the sector committee is the zilla (district) committee. It is led by zilla adhyaksh, who has to be from the Jatav caste, the Bahujan Samaj Party mainstay of support. He has three members assisting him – up-adhyaksh (deputy in-charge), treasurer, and mahasachiv (chief secretary).

Depending on the size of the district, the zilla committee could oversee three or four or five Assembly constituencies. While the official in-charge has to be a Jatav, the other four members are drawn from the more numerous caste groups of the district.

A group of four or five districts is clubbed together to form a mandal. Typically, a mandal comprises 27 Assembly constituencies. Two mandals constitute a zone, which has as its supervisor the zonal coordinator.

Unlike in the Bahujan Samaj Party’s early days, the zonal coordinator does not necessarily have to be a Jatav now. His is a key post – it is he who is permitted to telephone Mayawati to report special occurrences or emerging political trends. It is through the zonal coordinator that Mayawati communicates to the grassroots workers the party’s strategy and goals.

In the run-up to the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election of 2007, a new unit – the now famous bhaichara (brotherhood) committee – was grafted to the Bahujan Samaj Party pyramid. It focuses on non-Scheduled Caste social groups, explaining to them that the party seeks social transformation without undermining the age-old brotherhood among communities.

A bhaichara committee has two horses pulling it. A Brahmin bhaichara committee will have members from the Brahmin and Jatav communities as its members. A Muslim bhaichara committee will be supervised by a Muslim plus a Jatav. A Jatav is essential in the pair that leads the committee.

No less a significant role is played by BAMCEF, or the Backward Class And Minority Communities Employees Federation, which constituted the nucleus of the Bahujan Samaj Party at its inception. Every district in Uttar Pradesh has a convener from this federation. He frequently tours his area to meet with the district’s intelligentsia to find out what the emerging issues are – and which among them require special emphasis. He reports his findings to the zonal coordinator.

Fine calibration

In most political parties, such committees burst into a state of feverish activity just before an election. But the Bahujan Samaj Party works differently.

If the Bahujan Samaj Party fails to form the government in 2017, the committees will not necessarily be dissolved. For instance, after the party’s debacle in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, when it did not win a single seat, Mayawati reshuffled some of the personnel of different committees without dissolving them.

However, should the party win the election, all the committees will be dissolved and reconstituted, said an important Bahujan Samaj Party official. This is because the party believes its goals change when it is voted into power. Since servicing of new goals requires a fresh orientation, all committees are dissolved.

Through the year, the Bahujan Samaj Party organises cadre camps at which members are told about the party’s philosophy of social transformation and the new goals spelt out by Mayawati. Typically, the initial cadre camp is organised at the Assembly constituency level. It is a closed-door meeting attended by key members from zilla, sector and booth committees.

The zonal coordinator is the chief guest at the closed-door meeting. He kicks it off with a speech, which, as one official said, could last as long as 90 minutes. He provides a bird’s eye-view of the struggle for social transformation in India, what the mission of Dr BR Ambedkar was, and why it remained incomplete and the need to fulfill it in contemporary India. He also speaks of Kanshi Ram’s vision of subaltern assertion and how best to undertake the tasks set out by Mayawati.

Thereafter, such cadre camps are organized at zilla, sector and booth levels. The zilla in-charge prepares reports and files it to the zonal coordinator, who notes such things as the likely accretion of votes for the party in the next election.

Since round-the-year work is required, full-time workers belong to families that are willing to sustain their relatives who are committed to the Bahujan Samaj Party. A key party member said it would have been impossible for him to undertake party work if his brother did not support him financially.

This is one reason why those who do not constitute the party cadre but are given party tickets have to contribute money to the Bahujan Samaj Party coffers.

“Unlike the Congress and the BJP, we don’t have industrialists queuing up outside our doors to contribute money,” said the key party member. “Not only do we have to financially assist committees from the booth upwards, but also bankroll our election campaigns – a prohibitively expensive exercise.”

From his perspective, insinuations and allegations that Mayawati takes money for herself are part of a motivated campaign. He said that the Bahujan Samaj Party chooses and intimates candidates that they would be fielded in the forthcoming election a year or more in advance to overcome the paucity of resources. This enables the party’s candidates to undertake intensive campaigns spread over months. The candidates are also on their toes as adverse reports from the zonal coordinator could lead to the cancellation of their tickets.

The ticket is not assigned to the highest bidder, as is alleged. Usually, the zilla committee forwards four names to the zonal coordinator for every Assembly seat. The zilla in-charge, the two bhaichara committee members representing the castes of each prospective candidate, and the zonal coordinator grade the electoral chances of the shortlisted person.

In the last stage, the zonal coordinator conducts a one-on-one interview with each of them. Three factors are taken into account to evaluate the candidates – their image, their financial strength, and how they fit into the Bahujan Samaj Party’s caste formula. Of these, the last factor is considered paramount.

The party assumes it can transfer Jatav votes to any candidate it fields and also get the cadre votes, estimated to be around 10,000 in every constituency. The principal factor the zonal coordinator, therefore, takes into account is: what chance does a candidate have to pull at least 25,000 votes of his caste? The prospective candidates are then ranked from one to four on the winnability scale.

Financial resources

The toughest round comes next – an interview with party chief Mayawati.

The zonal coordinator accompanies each of the four candidates who visit Mayawati separately. Even before the meeting, though, she already has a dossier on them. She converses with them to gauge whether they can be susceptible to pressure from rival formations, the kind of family responsibilities they have, whether they run businesses that a vindictive government could cripple or have family members through whom the candidate could be browbeaten into submission.

Yes, the financial resource of a prospective candidate is a very important factor.

“It just isn’t possible for us to finance each of the 400 candidates in the party,” said a zonal coordinator. But once the party ticket assigned to a candidate is withdrawn, say, because he is lackadaisical in his campaign work, he tends to fling wild charges against Mayawati. This is partly out of pique but also because he would have already incurred expenditure on his campaign and made donations to the party kitty.

Caste strategies keep changing. Thus, for instance, in comparison to the 2012 Assembly election, the Bahujan Samaj Party has given fewer tickets to Brahmins this time round – as of now, just 50, likely to increase at best by another 10. In its quest to forge Dalit-Muslim unity, 125 Muslim candidates will be fielded in 2017.

Post-demonetisation, the Bahujan Samaj Party feels it has a better chance of wooing the Dalit subcastes of Valmikis, Khatiks, Kolis and Dhobis, who have tended to gravitate to the Bharatiya Janata Party. This is because demonetisation has had a severe impact on them, said a Bahujan Samaj Party leader privy to the thinking among the party’s zonal coordinators. In this sense, the party, in the manner of the Army, keeps assessing the social ambience to alter its strategies accordingly.

For the Bahujan Samaj Party, the 2017 Uttar Pradesh Assembly election is of vital importance. Should power elude it, and, worse, if it were to come a poor third, the quest for social transformation, which is what keeps the army-like structure of the party intact, could weaken and throw the organisation into disarray. This is the price a social movement that is crucially dependent on the acquisition of power must pay. Should it win, the Bahujan Samaj Party could emerge as the principal contender to the politics of Hindutva.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid.