How the BSP is trying to revive its fortunes in UP

After a rout in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) is trying to make a comeback in Uttar Pradesh (UP) by going back to the basics. With the Assembly elections a year away, the Mayawati-led party is planning to tap its key support base among Dalits and Muslims. While Dalits have been given preference in the revamped organistion, it is eyeing the crucial minority votes by giving tickets to nearly 25 per cent Muslims.

The party is also eyeing a section of upper-caste votes with its strong advocacy of reservation for poor among the community. This, the party says, will be over and above the existing quota for Dalits and other backward classes. Incidentally, it's the combination of Dalit, Muslim and Brahmin votes that helped BSP win 206 of the 403 seats in the 2007 elections with a vote share of 30.43 per cent.

Energising party organisation and engaging workers have been at the core of the party's revival plan in the state, which is going to polls early next year. Shortly after the 2014 Lok Sabha elections when the party did not win a single seat despite a vote share of nearly 20 per cent in the country's most populous state, one of the first decisions Mayawati took was to go for organisational changes. All the existing coordinators and booth in charges were dismissed and Dalits were given prominence in the organisational structure.

"You know why we lost elections. Many opportunists entered our ranks who milked the party for their own benefits and ended up harming the party and alienating workers. One of the very important instructions we got was to treat workers with respect," said a Meerut-based party office-bearer. Party workers have been given additional responsibility of giving feedback on the prospect of candidates.

The BSP announced its candidates for the Assembly election a good two-and-a-half years in advance. "At each monthly meeting, we review the performance of our candidates and assess whether they have added some people to our support base or not. Depending on their performance, a final call on their candidature will be taken," the Meerut-based leader said.

A day ahead of one such routine review meeting, this reporter visited BSP's district headquarters in Meerut. Office-bearers were busy supervising the cleaning up of the entire premises even as scores of party workers kept coming with their own set of queries. All that one leader said was "taking care of the needs of the workers is of paramount importance" to him and his party.

The review meeting was to be chaired by senior leader Naseem Uddin Siddiqui, who also happens to be party's in-charge for western Uttar Pradesh. Apart from routine issues, the meeting was to take stock of the preparations for BSP president Mayawati's birthday on January 15. The party is expected to launch its campaign for the 2017 Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh the same day.

According to the plan, functions will be held at all the district headquarters on that day. "It is one of the ways to engage the workers and make them aware of our plans for the assembly elections," a party leader told this reporter at Muzaffarnagar. All the leaders who gave inputs for this story requested not to be named as they were not authorised to speak to media.

The BSP has announced candidates for nearly 90 per cent of the seats. While Dalits have been given prominence in the organisation, selection of candidates has been done on the basis of their 'winnability'. In western UP, for instance, there is a noticeable preference for Muslim candidates. In Bijnor, Baghpat, Muzaffarnagar, Meerut and Shamli, majority of BSP candidates are Muslims.

Muslims constitute nearly a third of the population in western UP. And, out of the total 77 Assembly constituencies in the region, 26 Muslim candidates emerged victorious in the 2012 elections.

Experts say the party is focusing on forging a Dalit-Muslim coalition. Dalits constitute 20 per cent of the state's population and Muslims nearly 18 per cent. Brahmins, numerically the most important among upper castes in the state, number nearly 11 per cent.

A party booklet says, BSP favours reservation for poor among upper castes, Muslims and other minorities. Nearly 10,000 such booklets have been circulated in each of the 403 Assembly constituencies. The issue of reservation for the poor among upper castes is one of the seven items highlighted in the booklet.

However, will the party be able to cobble together a combination of Dalits, Muslims and Brahmins? Badri Narayan, political scientist and author of many books on Dalit politics including a biography of BSP founder Kanshiram, says it is too early to say conclusively that the same combination will work again.

"If elections are held today, the BSP might get a section of Muslim and Brahmin votes. But elections are more than a year away and the BSP will have to do much more to make the combination work in its favour."

Other than restructuring the organisation, the BSP has come out with new set of slogans. One of the slogans this reporter kept hearing was: Sabki Suraksha sabko samman, Na honge dange na marega insan, BSP ki yehi hi pehchan. (Security and honour for all; no riots, no loss of life; this is what the BSP stands for).

"There are variants of the same slogan. We want to highlight that the reign of Mayawati is known for better law and order situation. We have also seen that riots do not take place during her regime. Since the state is fed up with riots and deteriorating law and order situation, we hope our slogans find resonance with the people," said the Muzaffarnagar-based BSP leader cited above.

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