A prime opponent for India’s ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) could come from one of the regional parties ahead of the national elections in 2019.

The most likely candidate, according to political commentators, is Kumari Mayawati, who heads the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Many think she will shape the opposition challenge against the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

She comes from Uttar Pradesh, India’s most politically-influential state. With 80 parliamentary seats, the state has enormous influence on who forms the federal government. India follows a first-past-the-post Westminster-style of government.

In 2014, the BJP and its allies won 73 of the 80 seats, wiping out a divided opposition. Any opposition alliance in the state will be impossible without Mayawati. She also hails from the most oppressed community in India, collectively known as Dalits. This gives her influence in states other than Uttar Pradesh.

One possible outcome from the election is that the BJP will scrape through with a majority in the Lok Sabha, or the lower house of parliament, with a much-reduced margin. The BJP now has 272 members in India’s lower house of parliament, while the NDA combined has a majority of 310 in a house of 545 seats.

The opposition Congress’s strength may improve – the party now has 49 MPs – but it will need support from other regional parties to form a government.

Another possible outcome is that both Congress and the BJP will fall well short of a majority and the responsibility of cobbling together a government will rest upon what is known as the Third Front, or India’s regional parties.

Northern India’s Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, with 80 and 40 MPs respectively, account for almost a quarter of the Lok Sabha. As a leader who presided over Dalit politics in Uttar Pradesh for about two decades, Mayawati is seen as a key political player.

Keeping them guessing

As the ongoing assembly election process in Mizoram, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Telangana comes to an end, questions are being asked about Mayawati’s actions.

In spurning a pre-poll alliance with Congress in the states of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, is Mayawati keeping her options open about a possible alliance with the BJP after the general elections? Will she dump the other major regional party, the Samajwadi Party (SP), and its leader Akhilesh Yadav in the future?

Is it curtains on prospects of a national platform of non-BJP parties being rustled up, or is Mayawati playing a warm-up game in anticipation of the big political battle of the Lok Sabha elections?

For the moment, the Dalit leader is a favorite in the opposition camp. Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu put off the opposition conclave scheduled for November 22 to accommodate her concerns of not sharing a platform with Congress. Her party, the BSP, is in an electoral contest with Congress in the three Hindi heartland states of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan.

The meeting has now been scheduled for December 10, a day ahead of vote counting in the states.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has also extended an olive branch to Mayawati, ahead of a separate January 19 gathering of opposition leaders she has convened in Kolkata.

Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader Lalu Yadav has also been reaching out to the BSP supremo with the aim of bolstering prospects of the Mahagathbandhan, or Grand Alliance, he has been attempting to put together in Bihar.

Apart from this, Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav keeps reiterating his commitment to fight the next parliamentary elections in Uttar Pradesh in an alliance with the BSP.

Past troubles

Once regarded as an unquestioned champion for India’s Dalit community, which comprises Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, approximately 31% of the country’s electorate, Mayawati today is in a slightly diminished position.

She lost two consecutive assembly elections at her home turf in Uttar Pradesh in 2012 and 2017 and suffered a comprehensive drubbing in the previous 2014 parliamentary elections to the BJP.

BSP's performance in the state elections of UP. Photo: Srinand Jha
BSP’s performance in the state elections of UP. Photo: Srinand Jha
  • In the 2014 general elections, the BSP polled 19.60% of votes, 7.82% lower than 2009
  • In 2017 assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, the BSP polled 22.2% of votes and won only 19 of the state assembly’s 404 seats
  • Since 2003, the BSP vote share has been reduced in other states including Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan

Mayawati has also remained embroiled in financial tangles, including a pending disproportionate assets case. This is under investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). The BSP’s electoral machine has also been considerably weakened because of desertions by important caste leaders such as Babu Singh Khushwaha, Dara Singh Chauhan, Gaya Charan Dinkar, Ram Shankar Vidyarthi, Swami Prasad Maurya and Naseemudin Siddiqui.

While the BSP’s earlier hold over what is called the Dalit vote bank has weakened, next-generation Dalit leaders such as Chandrashekhar Azad are seen as Mayawati’s challengers.

Screen Shot 2018-11-30 at 12.21.24 PM

According to a 2013 study by the Center for Developing Societies (CSDS), Congress polled 33.1% of Scheduled Caste Votes in Madhya Pradesh and the BJP polled 35.8% votes in the 2013 assembly elections. In comparison, the BSP had support from only 22.4% of SC voters.

  • Similar trends were seen in adjoining states of Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh
  • In Rajasthan, only 19.5% of the “Jatavs” (Mayawati’s caste) said they voted for the BSP

So why is Mayawati still relevant as a critical political player and holds the key for the next federal government?

The importance of Mayawati

Labeled as ruthless, arrogant and even narcissistic by her critics, Mayawati retains her strengths and a dedicated cadre.

In her worst political performance in the 2017 Uttar Pradesh assembly elections, the BSP polled as much as 22.2% of the votes.

Her decision to cobble together an electoral alliance with the SP and Congress for the Gorakhpur, Phulpur and Kairana by-elections in Uttar Pradesh this year – the alliance won these seats comprehensively – demonstrated not only the sharpness of her political understanding, but also her ability to adapt to a changing socio-political scenario.

After the BJP and Congress, the BSP remains India’s third-largest party in terms of vote share, with the party’s footprint spread across states including Uttarakhand, Punjab, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Also, to her big advantage is the fact that among her contemporaries, Mayawati has the unique benefit of having both age and experience on her side.

The 62-year-old BSP leader has been Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister for four terms, while the 70-year-old and ailing RJD chief Lalu Prasad is jailed in the fodder scam case and has been shuttling between the jail and hospital.

The 83-year-old Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) leader Om Prakash Chauthala is serving a prison sentence, while his grandchildren are engaged in a war of succession. The 79-year-old Samajwadi Party patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav is a shade of his former self, while Ajit Singh of the Rashtriya Lok Dal, also 79, presides over a much-truncated party apparatus. Former Prime Minister and Janata Dal (Secular) leader H D Deve Gowda is even more advanced in years (85 years) and well past his prime.

In comparison, Mayawati’s ambitions have not diminished. At her most vulnerable moment, she still dreams of becoming prime minister.

Opposition unity prospects are being intractably linked to the outcome of the assembly elections in the five states. In the event of a good performance by Congress, the party’s negotiating power with potential alliance partners among the regional parties will get enhanced. The counting of votes is scheduled for December 11. Building up state-level anti-BJP platforms is seen as being a necessity of the “secular camp.”

But will leaders such as Mayawati play ball?