When the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) won Uttar Pradesh (UP) in 2007, it was considered a historic moment for marginalised communities because it underlined the transformative potential of social justice politics. But the party’s complete rout in the recent assembly elections belied that hope. It is possible that the BSP might face a fate similar to Maharashtra’s Dalit political movement.
The BSP was born out of Babasaheb Ambedkar’s vision, which envisaged social justice as not merely an institutional practice for the economic welfare of the poor, but a dynamic tool to generate revolutionary political consciousness among marginalised communities. In the later stages, it was Kanshi Ram, the BSP’s founder, who re-imagined the agenda of social justice as a transformative political ideology. Kanshi Ram showcased that national political parties retain their domination over legislative bodies by relegating lower caste groups to passive vote banks. He proposed the replacement of the conventional ruling elites by Dalit-Bahujan collectives and forged alliances between Scheduled Castes (SCs) and backward groups.
By 2000, the BSP had risen as a maverick force and introduced Mayawati as a contender for Delhi’s throne. Her time as chief minister in UP expanded the representation of Dalits and Other Backward Classes (OBC) and worked against caste discrimination with law and order enforcement and social justice policies.
For sustained growth of the party, forming social and political alliances was a foundational requirement. However, stiff social divisions and cultural ruptures between Dalits and OBCs disallowed this possibility. Further, Mayawati showed little interest in crafting independent Dalit-Bahujan leadership in other states. Her defeat in the 2012 assembly elections first ignited criticism that the party was getting attached to the Jatavs, the largest SC group, whereas other worse-off social groups were not given space.
In consecutive elections, the party became increasingly dependent upon the Jatav social base and the capacity of individual candidates to mobilise support from their own castes and communities. The party’s limitation to engage with the vulnerable and economically poor sections within Dalits, OBCs, and Muslims, later forced the party to look for the dominant castes (mainly Brahmins) for electoral victories.
By the 2017 assembly elections in UP, the party was failing to project itself as a primary opposition to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), instead investing its energies to challenge the Samajwadi Party (SP). This rivalry created more chasms between Dalit and OBC groups — which couldn’t be bridged by the time the two parties came together before the 2019 general election — allowing the BJP to mobilise socially vulnerable sections. It allowed the BJP to paint the Opposition as caste-based parties.
The BSP showed no organisational grit or ideological merit in challenging the Right-wing juggernaut. Instead, it was left hallucinating about its conventional social engineering tactics and assumed that its traditional vote base would remain committed to the party. The party looked unaware about the BJP’s growing might in the state. On the electoral turf, the party appeared lethargic, its leadership looked unconvincing, and there was lack of zeal among activists.
The party continues to have an ideological agenda but needs to regain the ability to provide a voice to the grievances of the deprived masses. It needs to rise above old electoral calculations based on the conventional arrangement of caste and communities and challenge the BJP on its core competence — election management, perception-building, and availability of capital. Defeating the BJP on a cultural turf is difficult now. Proponents of social justice politics must demonstrate sincere accountability towards worse-off social groups and ensure their dignified presence in the mainstream political process.
This is possible only if the Dalit-Bahujan movement promotes a dynamic mass leader, offers a populist slogan to unite the diverse deprived groups, and builds a sustained democratic struggle of Dalits and OBCs against the Hindutva regime.
Harish Wankhede is an assistant professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University
The views expressed are personal