The results of the 2024 general elections have unsettled many taken-for-granted claims about India’s polity. Among the most significant trends has been the complete wipeout of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) from the Lok Sabha, which has gone from 10 seats in 2019 to none in 2024. While the party faced and recovered from similar results in the 2014 general elections. , the ongoing leadership tussle within and its rout in the 2022 UP Assembly elections will make another comeback very difficult.

The space left by the BSP in north India’s Dalit-Bahujan politics will have many competing takers among mainstream parties. yet Chandrashekhar Azad’s win in Bijnor’s Nagina Constituency should alert them that Kanshi Ram’s legacy remains alive in north India. This win for Chandrashekhar and the Azad Samaj Party (Kanshiram) has been years in the making. The verdict has many implications for how we think about social movements and smaller parties in North India.

Early years

The Azad Samaj Party (Kanshi Ram) was formed in March 2020 as the political wing of the Bhim Army. As the name suggests, the party is heavily influenced by the ideology of Kanshi Ram and has attempted to claim “true succession” to Kanshi Ram’s heritage, as opposed to the BSP. Before it won Nagina, the ASP had contested various parliamentary and legislative elections across North India with little success, winning a few thousand votes at best. The ASP’s most notable performance was in the 2020 Bulandshahr by-poll for the Lok Sabha seat called after the death of the BJP MP from the seat, where its candidate came in third, polling 6 percent of the votes — ahead of the Congress, Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), and AIMIM (All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen).

Nevertheless, even as it failed to get seats in national and state-level elections, ASP performed well in the zila panchayat elections in Western UP. Indeed, Bijnor was one district where the ASP performed well — winning eight seats in the 2021 panchayat elections, with four in the Nehtaur Tehsil. This helped the party’s performance in the subsequent 2022 assembly elections, with the ASP candidate securing the fourth position — getting more votes than the Congress. The difference between the winning BJP candidate from the constituency and the second-placed SP-RLD candidate was only 258 votes. During the 2023 by-elections in Khatauli in nearby Muzaffarnagar district — where it won seven seats in the zila panchayat elections, the ASP and Chandrashekhar’s campaigning on behalf of the RLD was also widely claimed to be the reason for RLD’s victory. Azad and the ASP were also courted by the SP-RLD alliance in the 2022 UP assembly polls. Despite these local-level victories and alliances, the ASP had until now been unable to prove its electability at larger levels. So what changed?

The making of Nagina

The party and Azad’s win in Nagina was a result of three broad trends that worked to its advantage.

Festive offer

First, while Chandrashekhar has been a familiar face in North Indian politics — from being one of the leaders of the anti-CAA-NRC protests to leading effective protests against caste atrocities — he was largely seen to be a popular youth leader and social activist on the ground rather than a “proper politician”. This was an image that Azad himself cultivated in picking his electoral battles — first against Modi in Varanasi (which he withdrew from after criticism from Mayawati), and then against Yogi Adityanath in Gorakhpur. Although these elections prompted significant media interest, they did not do much to boost his credibility as a “serious” politician.

In his third contest from Nagina, Azad seems to have realized the importance of appearing electable and cultivating a base beyond Jatav youth. Eschewing the usual high decibel media-heavy campaigning, this time Azad invested significant effort in door-to-door campaigning and local rallies. In many ways, Azad’s win seems to be a nod to Kanshi Ram’s famous epithet of first election to lose, second election to get noticed, and third election to win.

Second, Azad’s involvement in social movements against the BJP seems to have finally paid off. By all accounts, the mandate of the 2024 elections looks to be one of installing checks and balances against an increasingly authoritarian BJP at the Centre. Going as far back as 2017, when Azad and the Bhim Army successfully organized a large-scale protest in Jantar Mantar in response to upper-caste violence in Shabbirpur, he has time and again shown himself to be an effective and vocal critic of Modi and the RSS. Indeed, he has been at the forefront of nearly all nationwide protests against the Modi government, from the CAA-NRC protests to the farmers’ protests. These protests also helped in broadening his appeal among Muslims, Jats, and some OBC groups — all important players in the Nagina LS constituency, as well as in garnering media attention.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Azad and the ASP benefitted from the decline of the BSP, which has suffered from a leadership crisis and large-scale disillusionment from many of its core voters in this election. In competing against the BSP, leaders from the ASP, including Azad, have been very mindful not to directly target Mayawati, who is still one of the most respected Dalit leaders in the country. Instead, ASP and Azad have argued — for a while now — that the BSP has no next generation and seemingly little appetite for opposing the BJP.

Mayawati’s last-minute decision to remove Akash Anand from his role as the national coordinator and her “political successor” confirmed this criticism. It helped that the ASP had been making this argument on the ground in Nagina since the 2021 panchayat election, and the voters seem to have finally bought it in this election.

It remains to be seen how effectively Azad and the ASP can capitalize on this win to expand beyond Western UP and take up the space left by the BSP’s decline. Nevertheless, in Azad’s win in Nagina, the grounds are fertile for the reinvigoration of Kanshi Ram’s Bahujan politics.

The writer is a PhD candidate at University of Melbourne