Desperate times, desperate measures: Mayawati faces a compelling need to rebrand herself

Does the Bahujan Samaj Party chief’s decision to back Samajwadi Party in the Uttar Pradesh bye-polls signal a full-fledged shift in her politics?

Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati’s decision to support Samajwadi Party candidates in two upcoming parliamentary bye-polls in Uttar Pradesh is a small but crucial step towards a more flexible and pragmatic approach to her regional arch-rival. No less important is Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav’s offer to support Mayawati or any candidate of her choice in next month’s Rajya Sabha polls from the state.

These two decisions reflect the current political realities in India’s most populous state where the Bahujan Samaj Party and Samajwadi Party – vastly weakened regional behemoths – are cowering at the might of the new gorilla in the room that is the BJP.

Although Mayawati hastened to clarify that the collaboration was limited to the March 11 bye-polls and April’s Rajya Sabha elections after her announcement led to speculation of a long-term formal alliance between the two parties, the political logic behind the move is likely to gather momentum in the run up to the 2019 parliamentary polls.

This last-minute gambit may not succeed, particularly in Gorakhpur, which Adityanath represented from 1998 till 2017, when he took over as Uttar Pradesh chief minister. But there is little doubt that both parties have crossed the Rubicon by sinking past hostilities to meet the challenge posed by the formidable Modi-Shah-Adityanath juggernaut.

Big change from past

For Mayawati, this is a particularly big step, and quite out of character, considering her past suspicion and contempt for electoral collaboration with other parties. The last time the Bahujan Samaj Party collaborated with the Samajwadi Party was 25 years ago. In 1993, party founder Kanshi Ram, keeping Mayawati out of the negotiations, struck a deal with Samajwadi Party founder Mulayam Singh Yadav, with the help of a few power-broker industrialists. The alliance won a historic victory over the BJP in the months following the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. But the coalition government led by Mulayam Singh Yadav soon collapsed amidst much acrimony including the infamous incident in 1995, when, a day after her party withdrew support to the coalition, Mayawati was forced to confine herself to a VIP guest house in Lucknow while Samajwadi Party goons paraded outside.

Three years later, Mayawati opposed a second electoral alliance forged by Kanshi Ram with the Congress for the 1996 Assembly polls. She felt that such alliances always worked to the detriment of the Bahujan Samaj Party, which, while transferring its entire core vote to candidates of the ally, did not get much support in return for its own candidates. Since then, Kanshi Ram left Mayawati to plough a lonely furrow in Uttar Pradesh. She saw great success in the beginning, managing to lever post-poll pacts with other parties to repeatedly become chief minister. Then in 2007, she got a clear majority on her own without any support before or after the polls. In recent years, however, as her support base waned, the lack of an electoral ally severely diminished the Bahujan Samaj Party’s seat tally despite its reasonable vote share.

A second reason behind Mayawati’s reluctance to have electoral alliances is her unique style of preparing for polls. She is said to have offered parliamentary and Assembly election tickets to the highest bidder over worthier candidates with fewer resources. This worked well when Mayawati was on the ascendant, allowing her cash-poor party to move forward. But it has tended to drag her down in the past few elections where she has met with far stiffer political competition in the form of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah.

It remains to be seen whether Mayawati’s decision to collaborate with the Samajwadi Party in the bypolls and perhaps in Parliament too signals a full-fledged shift in her politics. The hasty manner in which she sought to dilute the current partnership with her earlier rival against her new political foe shows that she is still not willing to reveal her hand. This may well be to bargain for more seats or it could also be an effort to stave off a fresh witch hunt against her and her family by Central government agencies on corruption charges.

Home minister of India?

The fact is that Mayawati is running out of political options. Another decisive defeat for her party in the coming parliamentary polls would almost certainly wipe her out forever. With even her core base of Jatavs getting restless with her constantly dipping fortunes and looking for an alternative, the Dalit leader desperately needs to rebrand herself as a political winner who can be relevant in pushing the interests of her community.

One way of doing this could well be a single-minded focus – even if it meant giving up a few seats here and there – to help put up the strongest candidate possible to defeat the BJP in every constituency across Uttar Pradesh and perhaps in other parts of the country. In return she should make a single demand – that any alternative coalition government after the 2019 polls makes her home minister of India.

She could swiftly regain her earlier political stature if she made this demand not because it is a coveted post but because it will enable her to take steps to protect Dalits across the country and along with them vulnerable communities like minorities as well as women.

Many of Mayawati’s critics have criticised her alleged corrupt ways but most admit that during her reign in Uttar Pradesh people across society felt much safer, and that she was perhaps the most able administrator when it came to law and order. This perception could also help her build a national image far surpassing what she had as a leader of Uttar Pradesh.

But this would require bold and innovative thinking since it would involve detaching herself from the Bahujan Samaj Party and pushing herself as an individual leader rising above party interests. In this case, Mayawati need not really worry about how many Bahujan Samaj Party members she has in Parliament because she would have special status on her own. This may sound far-fetched, but in India today people want dynamic aspirational leaders who can actually deliver on the ground rather than jaded faded netas.

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