In March 2010, as Mayawati thundered before lakhs of enthusiastic supporters at a political rally in Lucknow’s Ramabai maidan, with the crowd chanting slogans of ‘Jai Bheem’ in response, a swarm of bees came out from nowhere and descended on her. The crowd was stunned seeing the bees hovering over Mayawati, but the leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party stood her ground and declared that the bees were a blessing from heaven.

But this belligerence is no longer to be seen, say political observers. Mayawati, a leader known to take a fight head-on, has now gone into a shell.

While celebrating her 65th birthday on January 15 in Lucknow, the four times chief minister of Uttar Pradesh declared that the BSP would go alone in next state assembly elections, scheduled to be held in early 2022.

In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BSP had failed to win even a single seat. For the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, an alliance with the Samajwadi Party, once considered its arch-rival, helped the BSP win ten seats in the Lok Sabha. But a month after the results were declared, Mayawati had called off the alliance.

Since then, many of the political positions she has taken appear to favour the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. The question commonly being asked in Uttar Pradesh is: will Mayawati overtly or covertly support the BJP in the next election?

Tacit understanding?

Farmers’ protests: Since January 28, the protests against Modi government’s three farm laws have taken western Uttar Pradesh by storm, with leaders from several Opposition parties visiting the Ghazipur protest site to express their support for the protestors.

But BSP leaders have stayed away so far. In what is arguably the largest farmer protest movement in three decades, Mayawati’s intervention has been limited to 13 perfunctory tweets, criticising the government action against farmers.

Article 370: In August 2019, Mayawati took everyone by surprise with her stand on the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which granted special status to Jammu and Kashmir. She said in a series of tweets that even Bhimrao Ambedkar was against Article 370 as he supported the unity and integrity of India.

Unlike other Opposition leaders, Maywati did not speak against the house arrest of their counterparts in Jammu and Kashmir – Mehbooba Mufti, Farooq Abdullah and Omar Abdullah.

Triple Talaq bill: In July 2019, the BSP had indirectly supported the BJP by abstaining from voting on the Triple Talaq bill in Parliament. A month later, Mayawati removed Danish Ali as leader of the BSP in Lok Sabha. It was widely reported then that this was because of his differences with the party’s stand on Triple Talaq and the abrogation of Article 370.

Rajya Sabha elections: Political observers point to another instance of Mayawati’s tacit agreement with the BJP. In November 2020, elections were held for ten Rajya Sabha seats from Uttar Pradesh. The BJP could have easily won 9 seats with its 305 MLAs and a few others belonging to its ally, Apna Dal. But it put up just eight candidates, paving the way for BSP’s Ram ji Gautam to win one seat.

After the Rajya Sabha elections in November 2020, Mayawati declared in a press conference that her party was even willing to go with the BJP to defeat the Samajwadi Party’s candidates in the state legislative council elections. On Mayawati’s statement, Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi tweeted: “Iske baad bhi kuch baaki hai?” Is there anything more to be said?

Many believe Mayawati has toned down her stance on the BJP to buy reprieve in the cases being investigated by central agencies like the CBI and the Enforcement Directorate. “Mayawati’s achilles’ heel is the disproportionate asset and Taj corridor case against her,” said veteran journalist Sharat Pradhan. “Her biggest fear is that, if a senior leader – a former home and finance minister – of Chidambaram’s status can be arrested and not get bail for over hundred days, so she can also meet a similar fate.”

Pre-poll alliance?

Mayawati’s reported proximity with the BJP has sparked speculation over whether the BSP might enter into a pre-poll alliance with the ruling party. In the past, the BSP had formed a coalition with the BJP in 1995, 1997 and 2002.

But a pre-poll alliance between the two parties in the 2022 assembly election is unlikely, say political observers.

In the event of an alliance, “Mayawati will risk losing all her Muslim votes,” said Pradhan. “The BJP will benefit more if she fights alone and cut off the opposition’s Muslim vote.”

Preeti Choudhari, a professor of political science at the Bhimrao Ambedkar Central University in Lucknow, agreed. “A pre-poll alliance with the BJP looks like a far-fetched idea because Mayawati will not settle for less than the chief minister’s post. while BJP already has a hard Hindutva face of Yogi Adityanath, best suited to its poll strategy.”

A senior BSP leader, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, completely refuted the possibility of an alliance with BJP. “Media reports are based on rumors,” he said.

Challenges ahead

One of the factors that propelled Mayawati to power in the 2007 assembly elections was her success at social engineering: the BSP had fielded upper caste candidates in 139 constituencies, building a coalition of Dalits and Brahmins.

But Brahmins have now deserted her party. “The BJP has given upper castes a new narrative where there is a muscular nationalist leader like PM Narendra Modi and a Hindutva agenda propagated by CM Yogi Adityanath,” said Pradhan, the veteran journalist. “Mayawati has nothing to offer them”.

The greater challenge, however, remains the erosion of her support among Dalits. In recent years, the BJP has been successful in convincing non-Jatav Dalit voters that the BSP solely rewards Jatavs, the community that Mayawati belongs to, when it comes to power.

Echoing this sentiment, Sushil Rawat, a lawyer and Dalit leader in Mohanlalganj block in Lucknow district, said, “Among Dalits, all tenders, licenses and jobs, whether high posts or small, were given only to Jatavs. Even in the party organisation, the Jatavs were the ones who were made ministers so others felt betrayed and backed the BJP.”

The BJP leaders claim to have further cemented their base among Dalits since the last election. Brijesh Pathak, the law minister of UP, said, “Distribution of free ration, ample work under MGNREGA and other benefits to Dalits in rural areas have strengthened our position even during the crisis of the coronavirus pandemic.”

Political analysts say Mayawati has cut herself off from the ground, isolating herself in her Delhi residence, becoming inaccessible even for party leaders. She has not organised any major protest meeting in the state, former BBC journalist Ram Dutt Tripathi pointed out.

Stepping into this vacuum is 34-year-old Chandreshekhar Azaad Ravan, who is emerging as a new generation Dalit leader in western Uttar Pradesh. A street fighter, he has been visible at every major protest over the last few years: whether the anti-Citizenship law protest, or the protest over the rape of a young Dalit woman in Hathras. Azad is preparing to fight the upcoming assembly elections. But the electoral impact of his newly formed Azad Samaj Party may be limited, say analysts, given his party was able to win only 6.69% votes in the Bulandshahar bye-elections in November 2020.

“It can’t be said what future beholds for him but as of now he doesn’t have the standing to take on Mayawati,” said journalist Brijesh Shukla.

Alliance with Owaisi?

Besides Dalits, the BSP has cultivated voters from Muslim communities that collectively form nearly one-fifth of UP’s population. The party fielding Muslim candidates in more than 100 constituencies during the 2017 assembly elections.

But Mayawati’s perceived proximity with the BJP appears to have alienated many Muslims, claim observers.

Shamil Shamsi, the national president of Hussaini Tigers, a Shia Muslim youth organisation, said, “Muslims have lost their trust in Mayawati due to her recent activities. They will vote to BSP only on those seats where SP and Congress are not in the position to give a tough fight to BJP. ”

A senior BSP leader, who did not want to be identified, admitted that Muslims were upset with the party. “But they are not happy with the Samajwadi Party either, because, unlike in [party founder and chief minister] Mulayam Singh Yadav’s time, the Samajwadi party now never takes a stand for them on any issue.”

“This is the reason Mayawati will be interested in alliance with Owaisi that he can help her to win them back,” the leader added, referring to Asaduddin Owaisi of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen.

The leader continued: “If Owaisi comes with Mayawati, it will be a huge boost for us because in around 100 assembly seats of western Uttar Pradesh, Muslims and Scheduled Castes are in majority, and hence, it will be a winning combination.”

Many are sceptical of these claims. They point out that in the 2017 assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, the AIMIM had fielded 38 candidates but won only 0.24% of votes. “If Owaisi could not save Hyderabad in municipal elections you can’t expect him to do much here in UP,” said Brijesh Shukla, the journalist. “It will just help him to enhance his prestige nationally.”

But Ravikant, associate professor in the Hindi department of Lucknow University who writes widely on Dalit politics, took a different view. “It will not be surprising if Mayawati forges an alliance with Owaisi because under BJP’s pressure she will try to cut into Muslim vote,” he said.