The Uneasy Pendulum

What’s in store for Mayawati

As UP heads towards assembly elections, Mayawati is looking for 11th-hour solutions to help bring her a victory and a clean majority. AP PHOTO
01 January, 2012

THE BAHUJAN SAMAJ PARTY'S (BSP) triumph in the 2007 assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh was not simply electoral, it also heralded a new era in Indian politics in which, for the first time, a state with an aggressively feudal society rooted in upper-caste hegemony voted a Dalit—a Dalit woman, to top it all—to the chief minister’s chair with an outright majority. The victory brought to fruition the strategy of the late BSP founder, Kanshi Ram: that Dalits should first capture power from the upper castes and later use the government to penetrate deeper and wider to create an inclusive social, political and economic development structure.

Mayawati became the chief minister having reinvented the party, shifting it from its Dalit-oriented politics to a broader dispensation by allocating a good share of party tickets to Brahmins for the elections and to plum political and governmental posts. Her ministry had eight Dalits, and four Brahmins and Other Backward Castes (OBCs) each, besides a Muslim, a Bhumihar and a Bania.

This rainbow coalition of castes injected a sense of empowerment into the Brahmins, who had been left with few options, with the Congress continuing to lose its base and power over the previous two decades, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) disintegrating and the Samajwadi Party espousing, largely, the cause of the OBCs and Muslims, who were also divided. Collectively, all this made enviable political space for Mayawati.

Besides, there was a strong wave of unrest against the ruling Samajwadi Party based on its disappointing law-and-order record relative to Mayawati’s image as a no-nonsense administrator, a reputation that helped her secure an unprecedented majority.

The mandate brought with it the general expectation that, unhindered by compulsions of coalition politics that the state had been burdened with over the years, she would put UP on a new path to growth and development; that she would execute an encore of what Nitish Kumar had done in Bihar, and dwarf her opponents; that she held the promise of occupying a prominent national political space; and that she had a complete recipe to achieve this: a formidable caste combination, a clear majority and a tough image.

Five years down the line, none of this has happened, and, as if she has lost her script, Mayawati is scrounging around for last-minute election-friendly issues and 11th-hour solutions that could help bring her a victory and a clean majority. Her best attempt, which has put all her opponents on the defensive, is her proposal for a four-way division of the sprawling state, demands for which have often emanated from various regions—including Bundelkhand, where the Congress’s Rahul Gandhi has also advocated setting up a separate development authority.

She has thus snatched the campaign initiative and attempted to divert the political discourse from the barrage of allegations against her government’s performance. But how much closer that gets her to a permanent hold on power remains to be seen given that the quartering has to be ratified by Parliament, which is as far away as the skies.

There is little tangible evidence of development in UP—the plethora of schemes she has announced have only become sources of rampant corruption. This explains why Mayawati is unable to flog any of her ‘achievements’ as loudly as she demands special packages for the state and reservations for Muslims, or as aggressively as she pitches in favour of quartering the state, or as stridently as she plays the martyr, saying that all parties have ganged up against her.

The first indication that the BSP might eventually lose its focus down the line came almost on the very day she won the 2007 electoral battle, when party workers across the state were putting up banners and hoardings announcing that, having conquered Lucknow, the elephant (her party’s sign) would trample all on its march to Delhi. Very soon, Mayawati arrogated authority to a select coterie of bureaucrats and loyalists, and was seen hopping from one state to another in her hurry to convince others to seal her ascendancy to prime ministership.

By 2009, her ambition had made her the presumptive prime ministerial candidate for an assortment of political parties—self-styled as the ‘third force’—who wanted to pull down the UPA government over the India-US civil nuclear deal. The national media, obviously, fuelled her belief that she could indeed take the hot seat, while BSP members in UP started imagining for the party more than 50 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections.

Between all this, something was slipping away, and Mayawati may have realised what it was when the BSP got 20 seats, just one better than in 2004. And for all her national forays and her party contesting 500 seats across the country, the BSP won just one seat—from Madhya Pradesh.

Granted that a national election is a different animal from a state assembly election and that contesting as many seats as possible is a longstanding BSP strategy, but this debacle served as a reality check, informing her not only that a triumph in one state cannot be photocopied on the national level, but also that not all of UP was in her pocket.

The bonds of her rainbow caste coalition appeared to be limited to the distribution of tickets and loaves of power; it was rather less powerful than she had thought the promised marriage of the oppressors—the Brahmins—and the oppressed—the Dalits—might be.

But this is no time to write a political obituary of Mayawati. She is still ahead in the game in UP, and an overwhelming consensus has it that the BSP may emerge the single largest party there. Her Dalit core remains largely with her: it is for them a Hobson’s choice, despite the fact that even under “their” government, there has been little improvement in their stock.

The Dalits cannot team up with the Samajwadi Party, because it champions the OBCs, who are their new oppressors; the BJP is identified with an upper-caste, urban population and with traders; and they do not yet perceive the Congress, the original party of the Dalits, as a game-changer. The Congress, meanwhile, is making an all-out effort to woo the Dalits to Rahul Gandhi’s camp, even as he spends countless hours among them; and if the Dalits see the Congress reemerging in the state, they might tilt towards it.

Brahmins are dicey customers, although Mayawati is banking on their support yet again and is leaving no stone unturned to retain them. The Brahmins, who comprise eight percent of the state’s electorate, traditionally voted for the Congress and the BJP, but tilted towards the BSP and, to an extent, the Samajwadi Party as both national giants began losing ground in the state. Brahmins—like all landed and economically sound communities in UP—gravitate to parties that have a good chance of forming the government. Despite their new affiliations, their preference would still be the BJP or the Congress if either matched the BSP or the Samajwadi Party. In effect, if in 2007 securing the support of the Brahmins was an opportunity Mayawati grabbed in the 2007 assembly elections, retaining them in 2012 will be a challenge. But they are still her steady hope.

The third and toughest constituency that the BSP chief is desperately trying to persuade is the Muslim one. For Mayawati, the Muslim voter can be a game-changer: Muslims and Dalits together comprise a mindboggling 40 percent of the state’s electorate. But Muslims are an important community also for the Samajwadi Party, which has had their loyalty since the early 2000s. Following the party’s opportunistic alliances, however—including one in 2009 with Kalyan Singh, the former BJP chief minister under whose rule the Babri Masjid was demolished in 1992—Muslims have been drifting away. For the Congress, too, the Muslim vote could be crucial—it had Muslim support up to the Babri Masjid demolition. And, then, there are regional outfits like the Peace Party who are out to take a slice of the Muslim cake. A consolidated Muslim vote is an uphill task for all parties, not just the BSP.

Clearly, Mayawati’s ‘foreign’ forays have sent her home and into a huddle. If only she had dreamt of Nitish Kumar.