An Interview with Dr. Sohini Guha on Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and UP Assembly Election, 2017


By Sanjeev Kumar

Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has been both appreciated and critiqued as a party being dominated by Mayawati and largely confined to dalit politics. The ethnographic detailing of the working of the party at the grassroots among different marginalized communities throws light on significant aspects of UP politics. In this connection, the International Elections Studies Association of India is very thankful to her for sharing with them her insights on the BSP and her thoughts on the UP Assembly Elections of 2017. This interview was conducted by Sanjeev Kumar, who teaches at Shyama Prasad Mukherjee College, University of Delhi.

Dr. Sohini Guha teaches in the Department of Political Science, University of Delhi. She has a Ph.D. in Political Science from McGill University. Dr. Guha’s doctoral thesis examined the mobilizational politics of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). She is currently writing a book on the same. Dr. Guha has undertaken two long stints of ethnographic fieldwork in Uttar Pradesh over 2003-2004 and again over 2014-2015, in course of researching the BSP.

SK: You have been studying the BSP for a long time almost more than a decade. Are there any differences in the strategies the BSP uses to mobilize voters from different communities? Have these strategies worked for the BSP electorally?

SG: The BSP has been nominating candidates from dominant castes from the mid-1990s onwards. These candidates are given clear instructions by the party organization; they are asked to mobilize support from the community to which they belong – Thakur candidates from Thakurs, Brahmin candidates from Brahmins, Yadav candidates from Yadavs, and so on.  They are not expected to approach SC groups that are committed to the BSP, most notably, Chamars. The BSP tells them not to worry about the votes of these communities, and focus instead on persuading their own caste brethren to vote for the party, as this is not an easy job, the BSP not being the first choice of these groups.

This strategy testifies to the confidence the BSP’s SC leadership has in its core support base – they know this support will not stray to any other party. It is for this reason that dominant castes are attracted to the BSP in the first place, and are keen to contest elections from the BSP platform. However, in some instances, this can work to the disadvantage of these candidates after they win. Lower caste voters have been known to tell the BSP’s upper caste MLAs/MPs that they did not cast their vote for them, but for Mayawati, and for the “haathi” (the elephant, the BSP’s election symbol), and that they do not owe these MLAs/MPs anything. This, in a way, helps Mayawati exert control over legislators from powerful caste groups who often use their status as elected representatives to serve their own communities, often to the detriment of subalterns.

In reserved constituencies, however, the BSP’s SC base expects the party’s SC candidates to approach them before elections. Often, candidates do not do this – they take the core support base for granted and focus on mobilizing support from non-SC groups, as SC support alone can rarely help them win (and that support in any case isfractured between different parties). So, while SC (especially, Chamar) voters readily overlook the failure of dominant caste candidates to campaign amongst them, they are much more sensitive to how they are treated by candidates from their own communities – here, they demand far more respect and consideration.  They also tend to monitor the performance of SC representatives more closely than that of representatives from dominant groups. SC representatives who do not work for SCs tend to be punished, and denied support when they run a second time. This tends to be less true for other (say, Thakur, Brahmin, Yadav, Jat) representatives.

The BSP leadership has succeeded in persuading the party’s core base that the nomination of dominant castes will impose a cost on them that they will need to bear, if the party has to come to power. It is for this reason that the BSP is able to transfer its votes better than any other party in UP - whether to another party the BSP allies with (as happened in the early 1990s), or to candidates from dominant social groups the BSP itself nominates (as happened from the mid-1990s onwards). The strategy of nominating upper castes and powerful OBCs has succeeded only because the core base votes for BSP candidates, their caste background notwithstanding.

SK: Many argue that the BSP has undergone a major shift under Mayawati’s leadership. Do you agree? How have her strategies differed from those of Kanshi Ram?

SG: Much has been made of Mayawati’s so-called “opportunism,” which critics argue marks a break from the earlier phase under Kanshi Ram. But when Kanshi Ram forged an alliance with the BJP in 1995, he was also called an opportunist; his reply then was that he would unabashedly embrace any opportunism that helped him further the agenda of bahujan empowerment. Mayawati has adopted this position as well. Consider her decision to award tickets to upper castes and dominant backwards (this strategy, by the way, was first adopted during Kanshi Ram’s time, and had his blessing). In parts of rural UP where feudal relations persist, landowning groups – Thakurs, Brahmins, Jats, Gujjars– are in a position to prevent SCs (most of them are landless agricultural labour) from casting their ballot, and have done so with impunity for decades. But once individuals from these communities found themselves contesting on BSP tickets, it was now in their interest to ensure that subalterns could vote. This was a master tactic that freed up the SC franchise. As many old BSP hands say, freedom is a habit, and once SCs have tasted freedom a few times, they are unlikely to accept it being snatched from them.  And this is what upper caste nominations achieved – in some pockets of the state, they gave lower castes their first taste of a free franchise.

Every time Mayawati formed an alliance with the BJP, she used her stint in power to cater to her bahujan base – through policy instruments such as the Ambedkar Village Programme, and critically, the implementation of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. She was in a great hurry to do all these, and there would be a flurry of activity immediately after she assumed the office of the CM. This was because she was aware that the BJP could withdraw support once it figured that its alliance with the BSP was hurting its upper caste base. And this did indeed happen, but not before the BSP had managed to send out its message: that BSP rule made a difference to lower caste lives.

So the tactics that appeared opportunistic, as signalling an abandonment of the commitment to subalterns, if one were to study how these tactics unfolded on the ground, and the long term effects that they had, they could be interpreted in a different light.

And remember, Mayawati had to confront the stupendous contradictions of a Dalit-Brahmin alliance as they erupted in full force during 2012-2017, when she presided over a majority government formed by her party for the first time.  Kanshi Ram had not had this experience. I would venture to say that this was Mayawati’s most difficult time; ironically, managing her own majority proved far more challenging than governing with an ally like the BJP,  that was the BSP’s ideological other.  It was her failure to manage these contradictions that led to the BSP’s defeat in 2017, and the fate of any future BSP government will hang on how well she has learnt the lessons from that time.

SK: The BSP’s critics allege that it is adept social engineering and a focus on law and order, rather than performance on the development front, that has helped it win elections in UP in the past.  But development has emerged as a critical issue in recent general and state elections in India. How is the BSP affected by this scenario?

SG: Public perceptions of the BSP have been shaped by the media, which has emphasized its social engineering experimentsand its politics of statues. The more substantive policy efforts of BSP governments have found no mention in media reports. In 1997, the BSP enforced possession of gaon sabha plots that had been made out to landless labour by earlier governments, but which the allottees had failed to occupy, due to resistance from landed groups.  Schemes were initiated that helped poor strata set up small businesses, obtain vocational training, and enter the professions. And the implementation of the SC/ST Act had important material effectsin the countryside – it provided opportunities for SC agricultural labour to undertake strike action for raising wages, which was an unintended but significant consequence of the immunity from harassment and coercion afforded by the Act.

However, it has to be admitted that lower and backward caste governments in North India have by and large failed to substantively empower the social groups they represent. Their achievements have stopped at symbolic empowerment, ensuing from the capture of the state, which has in turn guaranteed an administration responsive to subalterns. But a critical factor impeding the capacity of these governments to deliver substantive gains to their constituencies has been a recalcitrant and obstructive bureaucracy, which to this day continues to be staffed predominantly by members of dominant castes. When judging the policy performance of these governments, the bureaucracy’s determination to resist the new representational logics thrown up by electoral democracy has to be taken into account.

Finally, it can be said of the BSP as well as the SP that their policy efforts have targeted their own constituencies to the exclusion of others. This is the nature of identity

politics; the state, upon capture, becomes a partisan instrument shorn of civic possibilities, and electoral politics takes on the character of a zero sum game – A’s victory is B’s loss, something that ordinary, everyday, conversations on the ground reflect quite clearly when the state changes hands.

The BJP has of late claimed to be the one party that is interested in development, and that is how it sought to brand itself while initially campaigning in UP in 2017. But we saw how quickly the tone of its campaign shifted, and took oncommunal tones ;itclearly found the going tough when focusing solely on developmental issues.That said, an electoral campaign is always a multilayered and complex affair, and it is especially bound to be so in a state as large as UP with so much divergence across. For no party is the mobilizing discourse likely to be the same across the state – it will always be shaped by local exigencies, with campaigners for the same party possibly even contradicting one another in different sites. In other words, development emerges as a campaign motif when and where it suits a party, and fades away when the compulsions demand.

SK: The BSP is banking on the Dalit-Muslim alliance in 2017 and has distributedaround a hundred seats to Muslim candidates. The SP also has a hold over the Muslim vote. How do you think Muslims will vote in UP in this election?

SG: Muslims tend to vote for Muslim candidates, but they can also resort to tactical voting, i.e. support the candidate who they think has the best chance of defeating the BJP. That said, the Dalit-Muslim alliance should do well in eastern UP, where there is a fair amount of solidarity between the two communities. However, even here, the socially and economically dominant sections among Muslims tend to prefer the SP to the BSP.

Mayawati’s persistent appeal to Muslims this election, combined with the infighting within the SP, should work to bring a good number of Muslim votes to the BSP. There is a perception that Akhilesh is not as pro-Muslim as his father, and with the Shivpal Yadav faction working against him, I am not sure that his tie-up with the Congress will compensate for the attrition in Muslim support that he will face, to some extent.

SK: How do dalit women perceive Mayawati? Can you provide some insights from your fieldwork?

SG: Dalit women, and Chamar women in particular, are very loyal to Mayawati.  Their support for the BSP is driven by this loyalty, first and foremost.  They vote for the BSP even when the men in their families do not. When I was in eastern UP doing fieldwork in 2004, the president of the Azamgarh District Unit of the BSP told me that the party organization relies on dalit women to mobilize the support of their male relatives, in situations where that support is drifting. In eastern districts such as Azamgarh, Jaunpur, Gorakhpur and Mau, Chamar women, as well as women from other SC (Pasi, Khatik, Dhobi) and lower backward (Prajapati, Vishwakarma, Nishad) communities, when asked about Mayawati, almost always invoke the ‘personal sacrifices’ she has made, referring to her decision not to marry and have children. This ‘sacrifice’ resonates with these women emotionally; they see this as evidence of her commitment to subaltern empowerment, and makes for a powerful political and electoral bond.

SK: In India, the discourse of democracy revolves primarily around elections, around electoral victories and losses, and not so much around substantive questions of governmental performance. Do you think the discussion of democracy needs to evolve, and get over this preoccupation with elections?

SG: Yes, most certainly. We need governments to be held accountable while they are in office. It is not enough for citizens to be able to change a governmentat the end of its term, and there are certain democracies that have institutionalized the right to recall. However, in India, even some aspects of our procedural democracy are not secure. Some categories of voters have systematically, over several decades, been prevented from casting the ballot. And the playing field is far from equal for all parties and candidates contesting the polls; the structure of opportunities is severely skewed, and this is not something we can ignore if we want to improve the quality of our democracy.

Having said that, fair and free elections cannot be the only measure of a robust democracy. Citizenship cannot be reduced to the casting of the ballot; a range of freedoms need to be available alongside. It is possible to have free and fair elections, simultaneously with the shrinking of these freedoms. The vision of democracy that our Constitution upholds is a dense and complex one; it is not just a procedural vision. We have failed dismally in realizing that vision.


Further, citizenship is not just a matter of rights; it also entails duties. If we want a more robust democracy, if governments are to be held accountable and their substantive efforts held up to scrutiny, then citizens have to be more vigilant and politically engaged. The ‘consumer’ model of citizenship, where the citizen passively consumes services provided by the state, will not help us move towards a deeper democracy.

 Dr. Sohini Guha, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Delhi. Dr. Guha has been researching BSP for more than a decade. Her ethnographic study of BSP is an interesting methodological intervention in the study of party system and Indian politics.

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