MAYAWATI SAT IN THE LIVING ROOM of her Delhi residence, on Gurudwara Rakab Ganj Road, her eyes fixed on a television screen. A sense of gloom pervaded the house. It was the afternoon of 16 May 2014, the day that votes were to be counted for the sixteenth general election, and the news was dismal for her Bahujan Samaj Party. The BSP’s electoral fortunes, it appeared, had been crushed by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance, which looked set to win by a comfortable majority.
She noticed a stain on the white towel draped over the back of the sofa on which she sat. Summoning one of her housekeepers, Mayawati scolded her for the oversight. The towel was changed immediately. “She is finicky about cleanliness,” a top-rung BSP leader who was with her that day told me. “Gets the house mopped thrice a day.”
Mayawati complained that the room was not cool enough and looked around for the remote to the air conditioner. “All remotes—TV, air conditioning—have to be laid down neatly on the centre table,” the leader told me. “The AC remote was missing that day.” Mayawati’s housekeeping staff got another scolding, after which the remote was located and brought back to the table. For the next few hours, as the results unfolded, her staff and party colleagues tiptoed around her.
By 4 pm, the verdict was clear: though the BSP had won 4.2 percent of the national vote share, placing it behind only the BJP and the Congress, that respectable tally had not translated to it winning a single seat anywhere in the country. The vote had delivered no executive power or legislative influence to the party. The BSP had come up empty-handed even in its stronghold, Uttar Pradesh, where it finished second in 33 of 80 seats. It was the worst-ever defeat for the party, which had won at least a few seats in every general election since 1989, the year it first contested one.
In previous years, Mayawati’s choice of residence had depended on her participation in politics: she generally remained in Uttar Pradesh when she was in power there, and when she was not, she shifted base to Delhi. In 2003, for instance, after resigning as chief minister when the BSP’s alliance with the BJP collapsed, she shifted to the capital, where she tended to her ailing mentor, Kanshi Ram. After Kanshi Ram’s death, in 2006, she returned to Lucknow to prepare for the 2007 assembly election. The BSP won, and Mayawati stayed in Lucknow for the next five years, as chief minister. After losing power in 2012, she shifted to Delhi again, where she has since served as a member of the Rajya Sabha. “She never sits as the leader of opposition in the UP Vidhan Sabha,” a key party strategist told me. “She always comes back to the Rajya Sabha as an MP. If not administering UP, she’d rather spend her time in national politics, now that Kanshi Ram is not there to handle that front.”
The party’s performance in 2014, however, called for a rethink. Mayawati recognised that, after such a rout, if she did not dedicate time to strengthening her party in Uttar Pradesh, its hold over the state’s voters would weaken further by the 2017 assembly election. As soon as the poll results were confirmed by the Election Commission of India, Mayawati rose from the sofa and announced to those who were present, “Ab main Lucknow mein baithne wali hun”—I will now be sitting in Lucknow.
For a couple of days, she was inaccessible. A senior professor in Delhi who is close to her recalled that she later told him, “I shut myself in a room for two days to think deeply, and introspect about what went wrong despite our high vote share.” Immediately after this period of reflection, on 19 May, she arrived in Lucknow. The next day, she dissolved all the party’s committees, ranging from those formed for each voting booth to those in charge of the entire state. Over the next four days, she held meetings with coordinators from each of Uttar Pradesh’s 75 districts.
Over the course of the meetings, where she reviewed booth-level feedback from the coordinators as well as Election Commission data, she realised that a large proportion of the BSP’s Dalit vote, both Jatav and non-Jatav, had shifted to the BJP. The Jatav scheduled caste (also known as Chamar), to which Mayawati also belongs, is the largest Dalit group in Uttar Pradesh, and has long formed the BSP’s core support base. The party strategist recounted that in one meeting with around ten senior BSP members, she said, “There are two reasons for it. One is the Modi wave driven by the anti-incumbency factor at the centre, and second is because of the religious polarisation of voters after the Muzaffarnagar riots in UP.” A 2014 report by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies confirmed the loss of the party’s Dalit vote, noting that the BSP’s Jatav vote share declined by 16 percentage points, while its non-Jatav Dalit vote share declined by 35 percentage points.
These changes, in particular the depleted Jatav support, had enormous implications for the BSP. The BJP has reaped great success on, among other factors, the strength of its image as a Hindu majoritarian party. The BSP, in its formative years, rejected Hinduism, and appealed to its Dalit voters to do the same, blaming the religion for the centuries of oppression that the community has suffered. This meant that any success the BJP had in wooing Dalit voters, particularly Jatavs, could weaken the very foundations on which the BSP was built.
Mayawati quickly set in motion a plan to regain this support base, which had helped her ascend to the chief-ministership of Uttar Pradesh four times over the past three decades. Within a year, she began looking ahead to the 2017 assembly election, and mobilising the BSP ranks to combat the BJP. Her anxiety about the BJP winning over Dalit voters was reflected in an instruction she issued to the party’s zonal coordinators: “Find out the Dalits who have started going to temples.”
MAYAWATI HAS MORE AT STAKE in the 2017 Uttar Pradesh assembly election than she has had in any poll she has contested before. The BSP’s loss in the 2012 assembly election to Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party, and its abysmal performance in 2014, have seen its political fortunes dip to a perilious low compared to the 2000s, when Mayawati served as chief minister, and was viewed as a strong contender for the post of prime minister.
The cornerstone of Mayawati’s current strategy to reclaim her political stature has been to woo Muslim voters with a newfound intensity. Kanshi Ram had long dreamt of winning power on the back of an alliance of Dalits and Muslims. Uttar Pradesh, with its sizeable populations of both communities, would have been the ideal ground to test such an approach. But Kanshi Ram never attempted the strategy during his lifetime. Over her career, Mayawati has enjoyed significant support from Muslims, and has regularly fielded candidates and appointed ministers from the community. In her current campaign, she has, for the first time, placed the community front and centre.
The BSP has given tickets to at least 99 Muslim candidates—more than in any earlier Uttar Pradesh election. The late addition of Mukhtar Ansari, a politician who is also known as a mafia don, and has dozens of criminal cases to his name, revealed just how much Mayawati was willing to overlook in her attempts to woo Muslim voters.
The BSP has expended considerable effort in building links between Dalit and Muslim communities, and has accused the ruling Samajwadi Party government of utterly failing the latter. One of its central messages has been that both Dalits and Muslims have suffered after the BJP’s 2014 victory. This claim has had particular resonance after a Muslim man named Mohammad Akhlaq was murdered in September 2015 in the village of Bisara, Uttar Pradesh, on suspicion of possessing beef; and after four Dalits were assaulted in July 2016 for skinning a cow carcass in the city of Una, in Gujarat.
In 2007, Mayawati won by stitching together a voting bloc of Brahmins and Dalits, using the word sarvajan—the welfare of all—to help popularise the strategy. If she can retain some portion of the Brahmin vote—though the community has a natural affinity for the upper-caste-dominated BJP and Congress—and also win over a significant number of Muslims, she will be assured victory.
The BJP, meanwhile, has continued to try and eat into the BSP’s Dalit base. It ramped up its efforts in April 2015, around the time of BR Ambedkar’s one-hundred-and-twenty-fifth birth anniversary. The party organised numerous meetings at which speakers discussed icons of the Dalit movement, such as the social reformers Jyotirao Phule and Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj, and sought to present them as Hindu figures. The BJP also distributed literature, from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, on other Dalit icons.
One of the booklets contained a story titled “The Badshah and The Raja,” about an eleventh-century battle near what is now Uttar Pradesh’s Bahraich district. The battle pitted a Muslim king, Ghazi Saiyyad Salar Masud, against Suheldev, a chieftain who many believe to have been Pasi. Currently, the Pasis form the second-largest scheduled-caste group in Uttar Pradesh, after Jatavs. According to the booklet, Masud invaded India early in the second millennium, and waged an aggressive campaign till he encountered Suheldev. Ahead of the battle, Masud decided to place a herd of cows at the head of his army, aiming to disrupt any attack by his Hindu opponent, who considered the animals sacred. But Suheldev and his army freed the cows under the cover of night, and saved them. The booklet states that Suheldev then went on to kill Masud—a claim that some historians have challenged. One historian, Harbans Mukhia, told the news website The Wire, “There is written evidence that he finally couldn’t stop Masud’s army from advancing further into UP.”
The booklet praised Suheldev and called on readers to protest against the Urs, or death anniversary celebration, of Masud, held every May at his dargah in Bahraich. These efforts, apart from attempting to create divisions between Dalits and Muslims, were also “an attempt to divide the Dalits further on the basis of caste,” a BSP worker in central Uttar Pradesh told me. In presenting a Pasi figure as a Hindu hero, many believed, the BJP sought to make Pasis feel less affinity for fellow Dalits. Apart from this, the BSP worker said, the “BJP was actively trying to spread the message that Mayawati only promotes Chamars, since she belongs to that community and not other communities like Pasi.” The RSS, the BJP’s ideological parent, also organised activities through several fronts, such as the Maharaja Suheldev Sewa Samiti and Shravasti Naresh Rashtraveer Suheldev Dharma Raksha Samiti.
At around 3 am on 25 April 2015, one BSP coordinator received a call from Mayawati. She asked him, “Do you know about this booklet distributed in your zone?” The coordinator said he did not, only to be rebuked by Mayawati.
Mayawati had learnt of the booklet from a tailor, one of her army of informants throughout not just the party organisation but every constituency in the state. Ajoy Bose, the author of a biography of Mayawati titled Behenji—a name that many call Mayawati—told me that the BSP “works a little like an underground party. All Dalit coordinators are like comrades in the army. Elaborate, intricate processes are chalked out to control the functioning of the party.”
Mayawati decided to counter the BJP’s project. She instructed the coordinator to dig out contact information for all former members of the BSP’s jagriti dastas—cultural wings formed by Kanshi Ram in the 1980s, which had since been disbanded. She hoped to use prominent writers and intellectuals who were part of the dastas to argue against the BJP’s narrative.
When this plan failed to take off, Mayawati shifted her focus to young cultural talent, organising an exhaustive search to identify performers and writers for the campaign. A senior BSP leader told me, “Singers are important because a large portion of our Dalit electorate is illiterate.”
Mayawati settled on the format of “Bhim jagrans” to take on the BJP and the RSS. Bhim jagrans are late-night programmes that the BSP is known for, featuring song and dance, as well as stand-up comedy. They are modelled on north-Indian “Mata ka jagrata” programmes, which celebrate Hindu goddesses. Manjeet Mehra, the head of the BSP Cultural Front, which spearheaded this initiative, borrowed the style of his costume and presentation from Narendra Chanchal, a singer who is wildly popular for his midnight concerts in praise of the goddess Durga and her avatars. The party poured resources into holding scores of these programmes between 2014 and mid 2016. It was helped by the All India Backward (SC, ST, OBC) And Minority Communities Employees Federation, or BAMCEF, the organisation of government employees founded by Kanshi Ram in 1978, which, along with the cultural organisation DS4, was a precursor to the BSP. “We countered the manipulated stories of Suheldev which sought to incite Dalits to turn to Hinduism and become foot soldiers of the gau rakshak”—cow protection—“brigades,” a BAMCEF member told me. “Dalits and Muslims are both penalised by BJP and that is what we need to understand.” (Almost four decades after its formation, today there are several factions of BAMCEF. The largest one operates as a shadow organisation under the BSP. It helps the party mobilise supporters through invitation-only late-night meetings at auto repair shops, tailor shops and grocery shops. Pictures of Ambedkar, Kanshi Ram and Mayawati in such locations, and some houses, are likely to be the only clues that they serve as meeting venues. BAMCEF members—mostly men—do not openly talk of the organisation, and many are often given membership cards in the names of their wives to protect them from disciplinary action in their government jobs.)
I attended a Bhim jagran, in April 2015, in Banat village in Shamli district. It was held to mark Ambedkar’s one-hundred-and twenty-fifth birth anniversary—celebrations for which began a year in advance. At the time, parties’ attempts to woo Dalits were at their highest pitch, with the RSS distributing its booklet on Suheldev, and the Samajwadi Party organising several programmes of its own to commemorate Ambedkar.
Mehra was dressed in glossy clothes: a blue silk kurta-pyjama and a golden waistcoat. He belted out one Bollywood song after another, swapping out their lyrics for reinterpretations of Hindu myths and Indian history that underlined the message of Dalit empowerment. “Upper-caste groups use fancy posters, lights, stage to eulogise the unjust acts of Hindu gods and goddesses,” he told me. “They organise durbars to lure our youth. We are using the same jagratas and durbars to spread Ambedkar’s message, to enlighten our youth.” At one point early in the evening, Mehra broke into a tune from the 1991 Bollywood film Saathi, with lyrics that invoked Ambedkar. “Bhai, coat-pant aur vote-note ka jisne haq dilaya, haai phir bhi Bhim kyun na yaad aaya?” (He got us the right to wear coat-pant, earn money and vote, so why did we not remember Bhim?) The crowd applauded.
Mehra was accompanied by a keyboard player, a drummer, other instrumentalists, and young Dalit boys and girls who served as his interns, and who took turns to sing between his performances. “Before elections, you will be called Hindus, after elections, you will go back to being achhoot, neech,” —untouchable, low—“reserved category,” Surajpal, an 18-year-old Dalit singer told the audience before launching into a song. “After winning the elections, they will be the same people who will run a campaign to remove reservation.”
Like the BSP’s political rallies, the jagratas, which are typically held from 10 pm to 1 am, are designed to encourage large numbers of women to attend. The areas they are held in are well lit, with separate enclosures for men and women, and members of a trained group known as the Bahujan Volunteer Force are deployed to ensure attendees’ security. Mehra explained that Mayawati believed it was important to target women voters because, more than men, “they are the ones who are drawn more into pooja-path”—religious matters. “They need to be made more conscious that Dalits are not Hindus,” Mehra said. “Since the event is at night, there are very clear cut instructions to all partymen that any indulgence will not be tolerated.”
Each time Mehra made a reference to the Hindu epics, he made sure to emphasise that the conclusions he was drawing were not his own, but were to be found in “their own holy texts.” Before one song, he said, “Their Lord Ram went into exile but who did he kill in those 14 years? Our Dalit rulers. Tataka, Maarich, Bali-Sugreev, Shambuka. Still he is god. No one talks about it. It is a way to erase Dalit history for convenience.”
The party also unrolled an extensive plan to disseminate literature, commissioning around 150 new Dalit writers to produce small books that were sold at rallies, tea shops and local bookstores for between Rs 2 and Rs 50. These books spoke glowingly of the BSP mission, and of Dalit identity. They also included interviews with Mayawati, biographical stories of Ambedkar and articles attacking the BJP and the SP. One young Dalit and BSP volunteer commissioned by the party told me that the aim of the books was to counter the “manuwadi and corporate media” narrative about Muslims and Dalits. “It also develops cultural capital for young Dalit men and women, who are fast emerging as literate because of regular access to schools,” he said.
Portraits of Mayawati, videos of her speeches and interviews, and other clips about her life were disseminated on social media with the help of young Dalit students, many of them enrolled at the doctoral level in institutes such as Gorakhpur University and Jawaharlal Nehru University. The aim, the young Dalit writer told me, was “to tell people that she is the only one challenging Modi on the national front.”
Of all the available mediums, the party employed WhatsApp most extensively, owing to its relative ease of use. “Facebook and Twitter are used by the elite,” the young writer told me. “But WhatsApp is accessed by all young men, even in rural areas.” According to one young BAMCEF member, between every four villages the party would typically form ten WhatsApp groups. A group of young designers, many of them based in Delhi, was hired to create digital posters and compile short campaign videos for circulation. Apart from these, campaign songs, by amateurs as well as by professionals such as Kailash Kher, were hugely popular on these groups.
Mayawati also reached out to young voters to counter the impression that she was opposed to youth politics—formed by moves such as her 2007 ban on student elections in Uttar Pradesh. A BSP MLA explained that she once told him that young Dalits should focus primarily on their own economic empowerment. “First they should get jobs and then devote themselves to Dalit politics,” he recounted. But now, Mayawati realised that these voters, increasingly literate and urbanised, were gravitating towards the BJP. Yogi Adityanath, a BJP MP from Uttar Pradesh, has led many efforts to win over young Dalits and members of the other backwardclasses, appointing them in leadership roles in branches of the youth organisation Hindu Yuva Vahini. According to the BSP MLA, many of these young voters “want to associate with an upper-class, upper-caste party because of the social-mobility factor.” To counter this, the BSP and BAMCEF floated several outfits focussed on young Dalits, such as the Samta Sainik Dal, Bharat Mukti Morcha, Bahujan Mul Niwasi Samaj and Bhim Army. “They should feel empowered when in confrontation with Hindu outfits on the ground,” the young BAMCEF member said.
EVEN AS THE BSP’S CAMPAIGN gathered momentum, Mayawati overhauled the entire organisation. The blame for the 2014 defeat, she reasoned, had to lie in large part with the thousands of office bearers across the party’s large and intricate structure.
Mayawati gained the organisational experience and administrative control that allowed her to plunge into such a comprehensive revamp in the 1980s, when she almost single-handedly raised the party structure in Uttar Pradesh. Kanshi Ram had dedicated his political career to breaking into Punjab, which has the highest proportion of Dalits of any state. He also gave attention to Madhya Pradesh, Haryana and Maharashtra, but assigned Uttar Pradesh to his protégée, who had grown up in Delhi but had family roots in Badalpur village, in Ghaziabad district. “There was no base in UP, since Dalits and Muslims voted for Congress traditionally,” one of the BSP’s founding members told me. “But since Mayawati was highly ambitious, he handed UP over to her to contain her energies, without any great expectations.”
Kanshi Ram and Mayawati shared one of the most complex and fascinating relationships that Indian politics has known. He was a visionary Dalit leader, who believed firmly that the oppressed castes could only be empowered if they seized political power. He often repeated a famous quote by Ambedkar: “Political power is the master key that can open all locks.” In the late 1970s, before she met him, Mayawati was a young schoolteacher who had suffered caste and gender discrimination throughout her life. In her book A Travelogue of My Struggle-Ridden Life and BSP Movement published over four volumes, she wrote that “while travelling as a child in a bus with my mother, people would ask our caste and when they found out that we were Chamars, they would get up and change their seats.” At home, her father, though encouraging towards her, was partial to her brothers. She wrote, “my brothers were admitted to good public school and got private tuitions. I was enrolled in a dysfunctional government school.” As a young woman, she encountered the writings of BR Ambedkar, which drew her towards the Dalit movement. She decided that she would fight caste oppression by gaining a position of influence in the Indian Administrative Service.
In 1977, at the age of 21, Mayawati came to Kanshi Ram’s attention after she made a fiery speech at a programme held in Delhi’s Constitution Club on ending the scourge of the caste system. The chief speaker was Raj Narain, a Janata Dal leader who shot to prominence that year after defeating Indira Gandhi from Rae Bareli, traditionally a Congress bastion, in the general election. During his speech, Narain repeatedly referred to Dalits as “Harijans,” or children of god—a term favoured by Mohandas Gandhi but deeply resented by many Dalits as euphemistic. When Mayawati’s turn to speak came, she grabbed the microphone and rebuked Narain, accusing him of insulting an entire community. “Does the term Harijan not connote a caste?” she recounted saying, in her biography. “In my view, this conference, convened in the name of removing caste barriers, appears more to mislead the Scheduled Caste people.” According to her book, after her speech audience members shouted slogans in her support, such as “Down with Raj Narain and Janata Party” and “Long live Dr Ambedkar.”
When news of Mayawati’s speech reached Kanshi Ram, he was intrigued. Even today, there are very few women in leadership roles in Ambedkarite groups. Four decades ago, a 21-year-old economically independent woman who was politically aware and assertive of her Dalit identity was almost unheard of. Soon afterwards, he paid an unannounced visit to her house. Over their first conversation, he explained to her that, rather than the civil service, politics would give her the power she sought to fight caste oppression. He persuaded her that she could attain her goals if she joined him in his “mission”—a word he used often, and that BSP cadre still use to describe their work.
Worried by his daughter’s absorption in political activity, and her increasing closeness to Kanshi Ram, Mayawati’s father warned her that she would either have to leave the movement or their home, reasoning that an unmarried girl would have no choice but to obey his diktat. Undeterred, Mayawati stormed out of the house with her savings from her schoolteacher job, and took up residence in Kanshi Ram’s modest one-room quarter in Karol Bagh next to the BAMCEF office in Delhi. “It was clearly a bold yet determined step,” Shahid Siddiqui, a journalist and former BSP leader, told me. “There was no political party waiting for her induction. She was no Indira Gandhi with a political legacy to inherit. She was not a Jayalalithaa, who joined AIADMK ten years after its formation. She was not even a Mamata Banerjee, who was a long-time Congress worker who split it later and made Trinamool Congress with several defectors.” Mayawati, he said, “took the risk and worked doggedly to build a new party from scratch.”
As much as the story of Kanshi Ram and Mayawati’s relationship is one of a mentor grooming his protégée in politics, it is equally the story of how the protégée overcame the restrictions of the relationship, and emerged as the more successful politician. To do what she did, Mayawati had to struggle through innumerable challenges, including fighting against some ways, both overt and subtle, in which Kanshi Ram sometimes subjugated her.
A former senior party leader who, in 1984, visited Kanshi Ram at the more spacious Humayun Road residence he had by then shifted into, recounted that Mayawati was not given a room there in which to conduct her work to build the party in Uttar Pradesh. While Kanshi Ram held meetings with powerful, affluent men in his drawing room, Mayawati held hers seated on a durri in the courtyard, usually with Dalit men from remote rural areas whom she was inducting into the party. (According to the leader, Kanshi Ram kept the fridge in the house locked, and kept the key with him. He instructed Mayawati and others to serve cold drinks from the fridge only to those who met him in the drawing room.) Sitting on the floor, Mayawati would meet at least five district coordinators from the party every day, gradually spreading her reach to every district of Uttar Pradesh.
In 1984, Kanshi Ram’s activities in Punjab and Madhya Pradesh suffered a setback. They were overshadowed by extraneous events: Operation Bluestar in Punjab, and the Bhopal gas tragedy in Madhya Pradesh. Mayawati, meanwhile, continued her work on Uttar Pradesh at a relentless pace. (According to the former senior party leader, she began to sit on a chair while those who came to meet her sat on the floor.)
Mayawati also showed herself to be more skilled than Kanshi Ram at translating political work into electoral results. She contested the Kairana Lok Sabha constituency in Muzaffarnagar district in 1984, a Bijnor by-election in 1985, and a Haridwar by-election in 1987. Though she did not win in any of these elections, her vote tally grew steadily, from 44,000 in Kairana to 125,000 in Haridwar. She won her first election, from Bijnor, in 1989. Kanshi Ram would win his first seat only in 1996, from Hoshiarpur in Punjab.
Through these years, as Mayawati built up the party structure in Uttar Pradesh, Kanshi Ram’s efforts in other states fizzled out. With this, she marked herself out as the practical politician, in contrast to the ideologue Kanshi Ram. “For BSP, Kanshi Ram was Karl Marx, the ideologue, and Mayawati was Vladimir Lenin, the administrator who implemented his vision,” Siddiqui said. Her successes gave Mayawati the towering stature that she now enjoys, as well as the unshakeable control she wields over the entire party.
She deployed her administrative acumen in the aftermath of her 2014 loss. In January 2015, more than seven months after she dissolved all the party’s committees, she reconstituted them. The strategist explained the party’s organisational structure to me, as well as the campaign tactics Mayawati adopted for the 2017 election.
The BSP has seven types of committees: booth committees, sector committees, assembly committees, district committees, division committees and state committees—from the highest to the lowest level. Each zone has between 25 and 27 assembly constituencies, each of which is overseen by an assembly committee. Each assembly committee oversees around 30 sector committees, each of which, in turn, oversees around ten booth committees. The party deploys 50 members for each booth, to work on the ground.
Each assembly committee has a president, general secretary and a treasurer. The president is entrusted with the formation of booth committees in collaboration with sector committee in-charges. For this assembly election, of each booth committee’s five office bearers, the two key positions of president and secretary were assigned to a Dalit and a member of the area’s dominant caste. “That way no committee can be casteist,” the strategist said.
Booth secretaries were instructed to visit people for important occasions, such as birthdays, weddings and deaths. Through these interactions, the party sought to cultivate “mehsoosiyat”—roughly, empathy. The strategist estimated that “with five booth office bearers, we will get at least 150 votes per booth confirmed and at no booth will BSP get zero votes.”
According to the mobiliser, in both 2015 and 2016, the party spent the months from January to May forming these committees. The months from June to August were used to review the committees, and replace non-active members. The last three months of both years were used to finalise the committees, and obtain approval from Mayawati. One BSP candidate from eastern Uttar Pradesh told me, “In the last two years, all committees have been scrapped twice and rebuilt from scratch based on Behenji’s assessment.”
Also in these years, the BSP held elaborate programmes to mark six events: the birthdays of Mayawati, Kanshi Ram, Ambedkar and Shahuji, and the death anniversaries of Kanshi Ram and Ambedkar. The party used these events both to mobilise its base and to assess its strengths on the ground. Party leaders who organised particularly large and successful rallies gained an edge when it came to ticket allotment.
The BSP’s allotment of tickets has long been the subject of considerable controversy. Over the years, several party members have accused Mayawati of selling tickets to bidders, rather than assessing candidates on their strengths. In the last few months, several BSP rebels have alleged that party tickets were being sold, citing prices ranging from Rs 2 crore to Rs 10 crore. The politician Swami Prasad Maurya, an OBC leader who left the BSP in June for the BJP, told me, “Mayawati has been selling Kanshi Ram’s legacy. She is a dalaal and made the party into a business.”
BSP leaders I spoke to did not deny the involvement of money in the ticket-allotment process, but told me that Maurya was upset because Mayawati denied tickets to his family. One BSP worker said, “This accusation is funny since Maurya was the middleman who used to negotiate ticket rate for BSP”—a charge that Maurya denied when I spoke to him. A former principal secretary pointed out that the BSP has enjoyed far less corporate patronage than most parties: a few Uttar Pradesh corporate groups, such as Jaypee and Wave, have been close to both the Samajwadi Party and the BSP during their respective rules, but larger national conglomerates, such as Reliance, have not supported the BSP.
A Lucknow-based activist who works closely with the state government told me that the BSP office, which is closed on most occasions, is equipped with a note-counting machine. Another party rebel alleged, “You go to the office, submit the notes and get a receipt. A few days later, your candidature is announced.”
Others spoke of the BSP’s efforts to collect money directly from its supporters. The strategist said that the BSP had always followed a practice of “one note, one vote”—whereby it has sought both electoral and financial backing from its supporters. To explain this strategy, he quoted from Mayawati’s book, in which she wrote, “Bahujan samaj has to become giver not taker unlike the traditional social order.” Her goal, he said, was to collect Rs 1,000 crore. “She also supports at least 1,000 BSP cadre on the ground,” he said. “Where will the money come from?” According to the former principal secretary, Mayawati’s efforts at collecting funds are aimed at securing the party’s future. “She does this because there have been at least two splits in the party in the recent past,” he said. “She uses it as security money for the party.”
The strategist told me that candidates were allotted tickets based on a wide assessment of their merits. Their financial strengths were important, he said, but tickets were not distributed to the highest bidders. “There is a reason we form all these committees,” he said. “For each assembly seat, four nominations are sent by the district committee to the zonal coordinator.” These nominees are then ranked by the district coordinator, as well as by two other office-bearers at the district level. “Based on these, the four candidates are interviewed by the zonal coordinator,” he said. This coordinator draws up a shortlist based on the interview, as well as “their mass following, their financial backing and their position in the caste arithmetic on the ground. Then, “a final round of interview takes place with Mayawati.”
The party’s preparations, particularly its fundraising efforts, hit a temporary bump after Narendra Modi implemented his demonetisation plan in early November, effectively rendering all its cash stocks worthless. But the organisation quickly marshalled its wide support base to solve the problem. The strategist told me that it had a target collection amount of R40 crore for its campaign—around R10 lakh from each assembly constituency. He explained that they relied on the large number of party workers who are daily wagers to convert the money. “In one day, if one person is allowed to change R4,000”—a limit later reduced to R2,000—“if 5,000 of our workers stand in the queue, we get R2 crore. This means R80 crore in 50 days, which is double the money we anyway require,” he said. “BJP spent R135 crore officially in Bihar elections. Why does no one ask who are their donors?”
In the first week of January, Mayawati announced the BSP’s list of 403 candidates: 87 tickets went to scheduled-caste candidates, 97 to Muslims, 106 to OBCs, 66 to Brahmins, 36 to Thakurs and 11 to others. The high number of Muslim candidates—it increased to 99 after Mukhtar Ansari and his kin were later accomdodated—confirmed that Mayawati saw Muslim voters as key to her chances of winning. Nominating so many Muslim candidates was also a clear signal of Dalit-Muslim solidarity after the 2014 election, when, for the first time in the history of Uttar Pradesh, not a single Muslim candidate was voted to the Lok Sabha.
As an electoral strategy, the Dalit-Muslim formula has only seen partial success—most significantly, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen has used it to maintain a presence in Telangana, and to expand into Maharashtra. No party has ever won a state election with this approach. If the BSP does, it will forever alter the politics of the marginalised in the country.
TO THE BJP , the prospect of a voting bloc of Dalits and Muslims—two groups that are naturally disinclined towards supporting the party—is deeply worrying. As per the 2011 census, Dalits constitute 20.7 percent of the population of Uttar Pradesh and and Muslims 18.5 percent. Together, they make up 39.1 percent of the population—a proportion that, if translated into vote share, is usually enough to ensure a comfortable electoral majority.
To counter this prospect, BJP workers, with the help of RSS cadre, began to hold small meetings in Dalit bastis across the state. Among the messages that the party sought to spread at these meetings was that Ambedkar was anti-Muslim, and that, therefore, Dalits should vote for the BJP, and not the BSP, which was wooing Muslims.
The BSP responded swiftly. “To dispel the myth, the BSP cadre from booth committees mobilised in turn to hold closed-door meetings,” a BSP worker based in Lucknow told me. At these meetings, BSP workers explained to Dalits that the BJP’s claim was untrue, and pointed out that Ambedkar had been elected to the constituent assembly for the first time, in 1946, with the support of a Dalit leader of the Muslim League, Jogendra Nath Mondal. “If the Muslims had not helped Ambedkar, we would have neither got reservation nor dignity in the Indian constitution,” he said.
At its events, the BSP emphasised that the Muslim community has generally enjoyed security under Mayawati’s rule. The Muslim party coordinator cited a famous example from 1995, when the party shared power with the BJP. During this time, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad attempted to whip up communal fervour around the Shri Krishna Janmabhoomi temple in Mathura, said to be situated at the birthplace of Krishna, adjacent to which was a mosque that the organisation wanted demolished. Mayawati received well-deserved praise for ensuring that the situation did not boil over. “Even when the Liberhan Commission report on Ramjanmabhoomi dispute came out in the last regime, there were no incidents of violence,” the coordinator said. Under Akhilesh Yadav’s rule, too, Uttar Pradesh saw violence, in Muzaffarnagar, which left, according to the official count, 60 people dead and more than one lakh displaced—most of them Muslims.
After the BJP’s 2014 win, western Uttar Pradesh saw the rise of pro-Hindutva groups such as the Narendra Modi Sena, the Janeu Kranti Sena and the Hindu Bahu Beti Bachao Sangarsh Samiti, which worked at sustaining religious polarisation with the help of the Bajrang Dal, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and local RSS units. This created a deep sense of insecurity in the community, which is thought to form a core voter base for the Samajwadi Party.
Among the biggest challenges the BSP faces in winning Muslims over is one of perception: it has formed an alliance with the BJP twice in the past—once in 1994, and then in 2002—leaving many Muslims permanently suspicious of it. To counter the negative impression created by this assocation, the party, on 14 October, released an eight-page booklet titled, “Muslim samaj ka sachcha hitaishi kaun, faisla aap karein” (Who is the real well-wisher of the Muslim community, you decide) and distributed it in Muslim-dominated areas. It listed 13 points pertaining to its association with the BJP. “We did not compromise with the ideology, principles and did not implement BJP and RSS agenda,” the booklet stated. “No new tradition could be started in Ayodhya, Mathura and Kashi.”
The booklet accused the current Samajwadi Party government of supporting the BJP in an underhanded manner. “BJP always became stronger when there is SP government in UP,” it said. “In 2009, BSP was in power in UP and BJP could win only 9 seats”—in fact, the party won ten. “In 2014 when SP was in power, BJP won 73 seats”—in fact the party won 71. These claims are in line with rumours in Samajwadi Party circles that the central government has assured Mulayam Singh Yadav that it will back him to become country’s next president, succeeding Pranab Mukherjee, who completes his tenure this year.
The BSP has been adding Muslim leaders to its ranks. The party has enlisted the support of over half a dozen influential maulanas from top Muslim seminaries, including Imran Hasan Siddiqui, the president of the Al Imam Welfare Association, Maulana Faryad Hussain, the president of the Bareilly-based Sunni Ulama Council, and Maulana Salman Nadwi, the dean of information and preaching at the Lucknow-based Dar-ul-Uloom Nadwatul Ulama. In recent months, the party won over four prominent Muslim MLAs—three from the Congress, one from the SP. One of these leaders told me, “If we have to save our lives, community and identity, this is the only option left in UP.” A number of Muslim leaders, such as Mohammad Islam, who were associated with BAMCEF in the 1980s, have also been roped in for campaigning and contesting in the upcoming election.
The BSP campaign has drawn significant support from young, educated Muslims, including professors from reputed centres of Muslim scholarship such as Aligarh Muslim University, Jamia Milia Islamia and Nadwa University, and members of groups such as the Aligarh Muslim University Old Boys’ Association. These supporters participated in the Bahujan Quami Ekta Mushayras—programmes held across the state featuring recitals of Urdu verses, spearheaded by Naseemuddin Siddiqui’s son, Afzal.
Another challenge the BSP faces in winning Muslim votes is that it has never described itself as “secular”—the label used by parties such as the Congress and the SP to appeal to Muslim voters. Kanshi Ram famously said, “We are neither secularists not leftists, we are opportunists.” A founding member of BAMCEF told me, “He said caste was always a bigger problem and to fix that the BSP needs allies.” He added that the BSP’s connection with Muslims was initially strained because sections of the community were prejudiced against Dalits. “Elite, upper-caste Muslims, who were once the ruling class, initially found it below their dignity to ally with a Dalit party,” the leader said.
The BSP, too, has overlooked oppressed sections of Muslim society. One Pasmanda Muslim leader said that he felt the BSP’s focus on upper-caste Muslims to the exclusion of groups such as the Pasmanda Muslims, could prove to be a flaw in its strategy. “Muslims also have distinct caste hierarchies,” he said. “The Pasmanda politics has not been taken note of in BSP’s strategy.”
Further, several Muslim leaders told me that Mayawati would have to overcome the patriarchal mindset of many in the community. One former Muslim politician said, “Muslim patriarchy is not behind other patriarchies. It is a fact well known that the Darul Uloom Deoband, one of the largest Islamic schools of thought in India, situated in Saharanpur, was opposed to British rule and participated in the 1857 mutiny because they did not accept a woman—the Queen—as their ruler. The Muslim community’s opposition to Mayawati stems from this patriarchy.” This bias limits her ability to connect with voters, he pointed out. “As a woman, she can neither roam around with a skull cap, unlike Mulayam, to pretend to be a well-wisher of the community, nor can she enter most places of Islamic worship.”
At the same time, according to the former politician, Mayawati has also become unapproachable. He said that he knew several well-respected Muslim poets who wanted to support the BSP, but didn’t know how to reach Mayawati. “She is impenetrable and that is what she needs to work on if she wants to win these elections,” he said.
One Muslim BSP leader argued that the party has failed to put forward strong Muslim leaders. “Mayawati has been holding press meetings every day to say that voting for the SP this elections will only benefit BJP,” he said. “But these straightforward explanations do not stir up the Muslim community.” He believed that the appeals to the community needed to be more emotional. “They need to get more Muslim leaders with good oratory,” he said. “Look at Azam Khan”—of the Samajwadi Party—“who has done nothing for the Muslim community in the state, but he survives only on the basis of his emotional speeches.” Some popular Muslim leaders, such as Masood Ahmed and Ilyas Azmi, have parted ways with the party over the years, while some current leaders, such as Munqad Ali, have not been given campaigning duties yet.
Ahead of the 2017 election, many analysts have suggested that an alliance between the BSP and the Congress could prove victorious. Though some discussions were held towards this end, they fell through before making any substantial progress. According to one Congress MLA, Mayawati only offered the party the chance to contest 20 seats, far fewer than it wanted. The BSP strategist told me that after the 2016 West Bengal state assembly election, when the Communist Party of India (Marxist) performed poorly after allying with the Congress, Mayawati was not convinced that the Congress vote would transfer to the BSP. The Congress went on to ally with the Samajwadi Party, after being assured of contesting more than 100 seats.
Even Asaduddin Owaisi, the president of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, who has had some success in stitching together an alliance of Dalit and Muslim voters in Telangana and Maharashtra under his party banner, was turned away when he approached the BSP to form an alliance. “We would have agreed for an alliance even if she was giving us one seat,” one senior AIMIM leader told me. According to a BSP coordinator, Mayawati felt that she would put off her Brahmin support base if she agreed to such a partnership, because Owaisi is seen as a radical Islamist leader.
These fine vote-bank calculations apart, Mayawati is also known to have a general distaste for fighting elections as part of coalitions. This is in part because her first three stints as chief minister were cut short by differences with her allies—the Samajwadi Party and the BJP. “Kanshi Ram was always in favour of coalitions, Mayawati never,” the Muslim BSP leader said. The Delhi professor close to Mayawati recounted that she once told him, “Kanshi Ram said that he wants to show the political parties that the bus can run, so he took on coalition partners as co-travellers. But now that the bus is continuously running, we don’t need more passengers but our people who have faith in us.”
Some BSP ideologues believe that the party’s success or failure at building a Dalit-Muslim alliance will have repercussions far beyond the upcoming election. “It is a final test to see whether this kind of alliance is possible in India or not,” the senior professor said. “The Dalits will vote for this alliance. The question is whether Muslims would or not.” If Muslims reject the idea, he argued, “Dalit voters could see it as a sign that their political fortunes don’t lie with the BSP.” This “would mean that polarisation on the basis of religion is here to stay. The failure of this alliance would give a new lease of life to the BJP’s project of Hinduisation of Dalits.”
IF WINNING OVER a large section of the Muslim electorate is a relatively new challenge for the BSP, it faces a more familiar, but nonetheless daunting, challenge in wooing Brahmins. The community was key to Mayawati’s successful 2007 political strategy, but cracks had appeared in the bloc even during her five years in power. And with other parties aggressively wooing Brahmins now, the BSP faces a formidable challenge to regain the community’s support.
Mayawati’s 2007 strategy relied on the fact that though Brahmins were at the top of the caste hierarchy, they had reaped few political rewards since Independence. By inviting them into the BSP fold, Mayawati intended not only to gather enough numbers to win a majority, but also to send a signal of Dalits’ rising influence. She deployed canny electoral strategies to ensure that the alliance was successful. For instance, she recognised that Brahmins were unlikely to vote for a Dalit candidate, but that her core Dalit vote was “transferrable,” and would back her candidates irrespective of their castes. So she fielded Brahmins in constituencies such as Atraulia, whose population, according to the party’s estimate, is 18 percent Dalit and 15 percent Brahmin—ensuing that they secured enough of a vote-share to win.
Mayawati’s finely tuned tactics saw the party win 30.4 percent of the vote, its highest share ever, giving it 206 out of 403 seats. It was a heady time. In 2007, Newsweek listed Mayawati as one of the world’s top women achievers, and, two years later, ahead of the general election, featured her on its cover and described her as a potentially greater threat to “the established order than the US president was.” Kanshi Ram had taken ill during the early 2000s, and observers had predicted the end of Mayawati’s career after his death, in 2006—but her 2007 victory demolished such speculation, and placed her securely at the helm of the party. “It is proven that her political instincts have always been more acute than Kanshi Ram’s,” Ajoy Bose, her biographer, told me. “She is a doer. She thinks in straight lines to find the shortest distance between point A and B. She is not a visionary like Kanshi Ram, but she is definitely a successful tactician.”
One Lucknow-based political analyst who has been close to Kanshi Ram and Mayawati argued that the 2007 electoral alliance also allowed Mayawati to assert control over the party. “While the Brahmin alliance was needed for a majority government, it was also a strategic move for Mayawati to prove that she was the one who would continue to call the shots and stay in the long run,” he said.
The effects on the ground of the BSP’s victory were dramatic. A Dalit BSP worker told me, “I am not exaggerating. They used to call me Ramua, but after Behenji’s 2007 government they started calling me Ramji.”
Even after the win, the party continued its efforts to build links between Dalits and Brahmins. The chief executor of Mayawati’s plan, Satish Chandra Mishra, one of the party’s three top leaders, formed bhaichara committees in every assembly constituency. Every constituency was divided into 25 sectors, each with a committee comprising 300 Brahmins and 100 Dalits. Influential leaders from the village level were part of these meetings, and would assure Dalits that, come what may, they would get equal access to village resources. Dalit leaders were asked to participate in symbolic gestures, such as sitting next to and eating with upper-caste men. To tackle the Dalits’ wariness, the committees encouraged a practice whereby every time there was a wedding in a Brahmin family the first invitation would be sent to a Dalit family, and vice versa.
One political analyst cited an Uttar Pradesh saying, that “any village that has even one Brahmin house always has a crooked pathway,” alluding to the cunningness associated with the community, which may have agreed to an electoral alliance, but was not ready for actual social engineering. It proved difficult to sustain the Brahmin community’s link with the BSP. “It was the Brahmin appeasement that led to the fracture of the social engineering project,” the young BAMCEF member said. “The project wouldn’t have lasted anyway because it was a project for power-sharing based on votes and tokenism, and did not really penetrate deep to change things at the grass-roots level.”
Once in power, Mayawati rolled out a plan to dot the state with symbols of Dalit empowerment, and monuments to the icons of oppressed communities. She constructed at least 20 massive parks to commemorate Ambedkar, and built lifesize or larger statues across the state of herself, Kanshi Ram and other leaders of oppressed communities, as well as of elephants—the BSP’s symbol.
The move caused an uproar in the state, and nationally. The upper-caste members of her alliance claimed to be offended specifically by statues of the Tamil icon Periyar, who had openly burnt pictures of Rama as a protest against the Hindu caste hierarchy.
The parks and statue projects came to be seen as symbols of wastefulness, and of corruption. But some bureaucrats from the state that I spoke to offered a slightly more nuanced view of Mayawati’s idea. One former principal secretary, who worked closely with Mayawati during these years, conceded that “she started the culture of big projects,” which involved considerable bribery, and that contractors today continue to have to pay “big chunks of commission as bribe.” But, he added, “unlike the SP government, where the only purpose behind constructing big parks is money-making, there is no doubt that her projects were memorials with a strong motivation to symbolise Dalit self-respect and pride.”
Another former principal secretary said, “The only difference between SP and BSP government is that with SP there is a multi-window corruption and the commission can go up to 65 percent in a government project. In the BSP government, there is a one-stop window, where the commission rate is fixed at ten percent. Five percent goes to the party and five percent to the people in power.”
Mayawati used government contracts as a way to please her support base. The former principal secretary who worked closely with Mayawati told me, “Just like all tenders and contracts are given to ‘Y’ category in the present government”—a referrence to the Yadav community—“in her regime it was an unsaid rule that all government contracts below Rs 10 lakh should given to Dalits.”
Other ways in which Mayawati favoured Dalits included distributing government land to them and aggressively implementing the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. These moves were widely resented by upper-caste landlords and others. In early 2010, when several media reports emerged indicating the practise of untouchability in government schools, Mayawati ordered that Dalit women cooks be appointed in all government schools to prepare midday meals. In July, however, several upper-caste children refused to eat the midday meal prepared by a new Dalit cook in a primary school in Mairakhpur village, in Ramabai Nagar district. That same month, a mob attacked the school and damaged property. Soon, unconfirmed reports started floating in that more than 1,500 upper-caste children had been pulled out from government schools across the state.
Mayawati tried to strike a balance between the two communities, or at least to appear to do so. Though the government issued a statement that no Dalit cooks would be removed, they were never appointed to more than 17 percent of the available positions, according to a government audit.
But despite Brahmins’ deep discontent with the BSP, by the party’s assessment the main cause of Mayawati’s loss in 2012 was not a massive shift of the Brahmin vote, but one of the Dalit vote. “It was the Jatavs, her core supporters, who were unhappy with her sarvajan policy, who pulled out their support,” the young BAMCEF member said.
This has left Mayawati and the party facing a delicate balancing act ahead of the 2017 election. “It is an unsaid understanding that Brahmins are coming together under a Dalit party,” the strategist said. “So there is no way they will change its constitution or assume the leadership of such a party. They are our allies and the Dalit voters on the ground are being briefed in every possible way about this alliance.”
Even so, as a nod to the inclusion of Brahmins, the Bhim jagrans, conducted in 2015, were put on hold in 2016 so as to not alienate the upper-caste voters. It was the sort of hard-nosed move for which Mayawati has become famous. Several of her former male colleagues spoke disparagingly of such tendencies, calling her an “opportunist” and a woman with “no emotions.” One BSP MLA, however, said, “She says emotions block thinking. She works like a political scientist, and that is why she takes tough decisions.”
ON 20 JULY, Daya Shankar Singh, the vice president of the BJP’s Uttar Pradesh unit, at a press briefing in the district of Mau, described Mayawati as “worse than a prostitute” and accused her of selling tickets. The remarks were condemned by political parties across the board, and the finance minister, Arun Jaitley, apologised to Mayawati on the floor of the parliament. Singh was expelled from all his BJP positions and the BSP filed a case against him under the SC/ST atrocities act. “The incident turned the tide towards the BSP, which was seen as dormant in national politics,” a BSP candidate for the election told me. “It not just invoked empathy but also exposed the casteist and misogynist nature of the BJP, the BSP’s core competitor in the state.”
This gain in political capital, however, was squandered soon afterwards, when BSP workers thronged the streets of central Lucknow and shouted, among other slogans, “Daya Shankar ki behen, beti ko bahar nikalo”—bring out Daya Shankar’s sister and daughter. “That dissolved all the sympathy that was generated for the party,” the candidate said. The BJP also sought to outmanoeuvre the BSP by appointing Daya Shankar’s wife, Swati Singh, as the head of the women’s wing in its state unit.
The political jousting obscured the fact that Singh’s comments were of a piece with the way politicians, bureaucrats and even journalists have tended to view and speak of Mayawati over the decades. Their language often constitutes a form of violence against a figure who is thrice disadvantaged: as a woman, a Dalit, and an outsider who entered politics with no clout. In her biography, Mayawati described her struggle with “the ‘Manuwadi’ system in this country in which the male is the pivot, which heaps scorn on women, humiliates them and creates stumbling blocks if they want to move forward.”
Such oppression also commonly translates into physical violence. Lata Devi, a 40-year-old labourer of the Chamar caste—the same as Mayawati’s—whom I met in Sitapur district, explained to me how vulnerable women like her were. “In India, a Chamarin is way further down in the social hierarchy than a Chamar,” she said. “A Chamar can be humiliated and discriminated. A Chamarin is not just humiliated and discriminated, but can also be raped to be shown her place.”
Her remarks are echoed by research. Analysing the long-term effect of violence on over 500 Dalit women, Aloysius Irudayam SJ, Jayshree P Mangu Bhai and Joel G Lee, in their comprehensive 2011 book, Dalit Women Speak Out—Caste, Class and Gender Violence in India, wrote that “the brahmanical patriarchal discourse of honour and blame stigmatizing Dalit women victim-survivors, fear generated by the threats of the perpetators, and the impunity with which much of the violence occurred” all led to the “destruction of their reputations and sense of dignity, and the disintegration of their social relationships and interactions.”
Mayawati did not only face violence from her opponents—a fact that is indicative of just how commonplace such violence is. At least two former BAMCEF and two BSP leaders—all men—claimed to me that they had slapped Mayawati before quitting the organisation. People within and close to the party also told me that Kanshi Ram, who had a reputation for violence, had also on several occasions been physically aggressive towards Mayawati. A few senior leaders claimed that on a number of occasions, in the party’s initial days, Kanshi Ram threw her out of his Delhi house in fits of anger, and only let her return after they negotiated with him on her behalf.
But perhaps the most horrifying violence Mayawati has been subjected to, at least going by reported accounts, occurred on the evening of 2 June 1995, the day before she was to be sworn in as the country’s first ever Dalit woman chief minister. (Kanshi Ram was in hospital at the time, undergoing treatment for a blood clot.) A day earlier, she had pulled out of an alliance with the Samajwadi Party, and staked a claim to form the government with the support of the BJP. At around 4 pm, a mob of 200, including Samajwadi Party legislators and other members, broke into the state guest house in Lucknow where Mayawati was staying with several of her party colleagues. They broke open the main door and beat up BSP legislators. A few of the attackers made for suites 1 and 2, where Mayawati had locked herself in with several BSP legislators. Pounding at the door, some yelled, “Chamarin ko bill se bahar nikalo” (Drag the Chamar woman out of her hole).
The mob switched off the water and electricity connections, and tried breaking down the door. The attackers hurled threats at her, laden with casteist abuses, and described violent acts that would be committed against Mayawati once she was dragged out. A traumatised Mayawati stayed locked inside with the other legislators until around midnight, when, after intervention from the governor’s office and the central government, security forces reached the spot and the situation returned to normal. Mayawati was sworn in as chief minister the next day.
A senior woman journalist and activist who interacted frequently with Mayawati during those years told me there was more to the politician’s trauma than the fear of violence. “Mayawati recounted that she was undergoing heavy periods that day,” she said. “Since she could not access pads when she was held hostage with several men in the same room, her clothes were stained. She said that she would never forget that incident because of the humiliation caused to her that day.”
The guest-house incident remains one of the ugliest episodes in Indian political history. But, in the long run, it did little to intimidate Mayawati or crush her ambitions.
Nevertheless, she continued to face slurs and abuses from her rivals and others. In 1997, two years after the attack, Mulayam Singh Yadav was slapped with related criminal charges. (Today, more than 20 years later, the case is still pending before the Supreme Court.) He appeared unconcerned about it. At a political rally in the city of Mainpuri that same year, in reference to allegations that he had attempted to rape Mayawati, he said, “Is Mayawati so beautiful that anyone should want to rape her?”
It is not only men who have targeted Mayawati with misogynist comments. In 2009, Rita Bahuguna Joshi, a former upper-caste Congress leader who recently switched to the BJP, said, in the context of Mayawati giving compensation to rape victims in the state, “Someone should rape Mayawati and then give her Rs 1 crore compensation. She will then know what it feels like.”
Mayawati has also been attacked for the fact that, like other unmarried women leaders, including Mamata Banerjee and the late Jayalalithaa, she too has cultivated an image of a politician with no family or other attachments. According to the senior woman editor and author, her decision to cut her hair short and wear the salwar kameez instead of the sari is intended to underline this image, and suggest that she devotes every waking hour to politics. As recently as 2014, Shaina NC, a BJP spokesperson and fashion designer said that she was confused about whether Mayawati was a “he” or “she,” suggesting that because she didn’t conform to the expectations of a woman politician—to be draped in a handloom sari, and speak in a delicate voice—she was somehow less of a woman.
Mayawati’s reception in parliament by fellow MPs, too, exposed the caste, class and gender oppression that she faced. “Her rough and ready ways in the House raised eyebrows and provoked criticism and traditionalists in Parliament who felt that she was the typical example of the deteriorating standards of parliamentary debate,” Ajoy Bose wrote in his book. “Mayawati’s oiled and plaited hair and casually dressed appearance reportedly affronted or amused other more ‘sophisticated’ women members of the Parliament, most of whom came from royal houses and aristocratic families. They even complained that she sweated too much and asked a senior MP to advise her to use a stronger perfume!” Such reactions throw some light on Mayawati’s opposition to the women’s reservation bill in its current form, and her demand for representational quotas for all sections of society within the proposed 33-percent reservation of seats for women.
According to several people close to Mayawati, the constant reminders of her caste, and the prevalence of the vicious stereotype of Dalits being unhygienic, had a long-term impact on Mayawati. The former BSP MP Jugal Kishore, who moved to the BJP early this year, told me that she makes everyone take off their shoes before entering her office. “She says the dirt from the shoes will spread infection,” he said. “Why is a Dalit woman worried about it?” Another leader told me, “She always uses the mobile toilets she travels with and nothing else.”
Even the media, whose role it is to write about politicians neutrally, has long displayed significant biases against Mayawati. Though many of these are aired only in private and not in papers and magazines, they could well influence the way she is viewed and depicted by publications and channels. One veteran upper-caste male journalist told me, with no trace of irony, “Mayawati is a very good administrator, but she is casteist.” Some journalists in Lucknow display a form of linguistic chauvinism, where the dialect of Hindustani spoken in the Awadh region, which includes Lucknow, Kanpur and neighbouring areas, is considered superior to Mayawati’s dialect, which shows influences from western Uttar Pradesh and Delhi. “She doesn’t have the manners to talk to people,” a senior editor said. “Keeps using tu-tadak with everyone”—a reference to a less formal way of addressing people in Hindi.
Perhaps in response to these biases, Mayawati has over the years retreated to a large extent from the media, though she has made sure not to foster an overtly hostile relationship with it. Most of her press conferences are one-way affairs, with her delivering her message and leaving—though a recent newspaper snippet suggested she had begun to be more affable. One journalist said, “When we ask her questions, she says, ‘Food is served. Eat it.’” (Many media professionals look forward to her press conferences because the food on offer is non-vegetarian, unlike at the Samajwadi Party’s press conferences—“even on Tuesday,” one upper-caste journalist told me, referring to the common practice among Hindus in north India to abstain from non-vegetarian food on Tuesdays.)
As part of her efforts to keep her guard up against the media, she began to read out prepared speeches. The party strategist recounted that she once told him, “When the media manipulates my statements, I can either use my time to explain myself, or I can use that time to build the party, now that even Saheb”—Kanshi Ram—“is not there. You should know that since I started reading my speeches the media has not been able to misquote me even once.”
But as she retreated, she grew increasingly remote from her own party members, as well as from the public. “It is hard to believe that she is the same Mayawati who used to go in endless cycle rallies from village to village,” a senior BAMCEF leader said. “She does not even meet her own party members very easily.” Kishore said that Mayawati had, “stopped attending weddings in party workers’ families. The only weddings she has attended of late are those of close associate SC Mishra’s three daughters.” Three other former BSP members voiced the same complaint to me.
Many have reacted to Mayawati’s reticence by circulating rumours and frequently bizarre myths about her. “Mayawati does not like the birds chirping,” said one male Lucknow-based editor. Another elderly male Lucknow-based editor spoke condescendingly about Mayawati’s reputation for occasionally having met officials and signed files at her chief minister’s residence, dressed in her nightclothes—a practice that was most likely a result of her obsessive work habits. “Mayawati was told that Queen Victoria only wears gowns, so she only wears gowns at home,” he said. (Mulayam Singh Yadav publicly refers to her as “Maharani.”)
Some have indulged in salacious gossip about her sexuality, too. “She only likes fair, young Brahmin men,” one high-profile Lucknowite told me—adding a vicious layer of casteism to the kind of unverifiable rumours that typically surround women politicians in India.
A woman social worker I met in Banda district excoriated those who indulged in such rumours. “When Mulayam Singh kept two wives at the same time, no one said a word,” she said. “But everyone wants to know what Mayawati does with Kanshi Ram or other leaders.”
But even as she privately grappled with the biases of those around her, over her several stints in power, by most accounts, she learnt to govern with a firm, efficient hand. “Mayawati is known for her 365-24-7 meetings,” a BSP leader and former professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University told me. One close aide and bureaucrat told me, “We were made to call up legislators at 3 am to discuss the next day’s schedule. We have often opened up the CMO”—chief minister’s office—“in the middle of the night to send Behenji’s orders via fax for their immediate implementation by the district magistrates. She sleeps only for four or five hours. She is neurotically busy, a workaholic.” Even though the party had acquired an early reputation for nepotism, according to the BSP worker in central Uttar Pradesh, this was due more to Kanshi Ram than to Mayawati. After he fell ill, he said, her style of functioning improved.
Like Jayalalithaa and Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati operates with an army of bureaucrats as her trusted lieutanants instead of political leaders from her party. “This is to stay away from the constant scrutiny of their leadership by virtue of being a woman from within their parties,” Albeena Shakil, a Delhi-based women’s-rights activist, told me.
These bureaucrats obtained a close view of Mayawati’s deep commitment to pleasing her core support base, and her often innovative methods. The former principal secretary who worked closely with her told me that, in January 2008, he approached her with a proposal to introduce English education in government schools at the primary level—at the time, the language was taught only from class 6 onwards. At first, Mayawati rejected the idea outright. “In the UP secretariat, bureaucrats figure out ways to approach different political leaders,” he said. “In her case, you can’t push her too much because there is always this suspicion about what your own personal material interest is in the scheme you are proposing.” To persuade the chief minister, he said, he pulled out the 2001 census report, which indicated that the literacy rate among the state’s Dalits was 43 percent, far below the national average of 54.7 percent. He then explained, with figures, that most Dalit children go to government schools, and that they would benefit most from such a plan. Mayawati approved, and signed off on the project that same day. “She always does what appeals to her vote base, whether it is this, or the tight control on law and order,” the bureaucrat said.
In another far-reaching measure, Mayawati improved basic accessibility to roads in at least 400 villages across the state. Upper-caste villagers often denied Dalits access to main roads, restricting them to lanes within malin bastis—ghettos usually situated to the south of settlements because, according to PC Kureel, a former BAMCEF leader, “it was believed that air blows from north to south” and “upper-caste people did not even want to breathe the air that had first been used by Dalits.” Unable to reach main roads, Dalits struggled to travel outside their villages. To combat this problem, Mayawati ordered that separate roads be built to directly link the bastis to roads outside their villages.
The close aide and bureaucrat told me of an incident from 2008 when Mayawati travelled by helicopter to a village in Mathura, where a new drain was to have been constructed two months earlier. Though this was meant to be one of her famous surprise checks, the collector of Mathura had been tipped off about her visit—quickly, he had a drain freshly constructed. According to the bureaucrat, who accompanied her on the visit, “Mayawati kicked the drain and found it freshly constructed. The villagers were watching. Before climbing into her chopper she said, ‘Tu toh gaya’”—you are gone. The collector was transferred that evening. The villagers rejoiced. “This is how she cultivates mehsoosiyat in her core vote base,” he said.
Mayawati earned considerable respect for her control over law and order through measures such as the “KVBL formula.” The acronym refers to Karam Veer and Brij Lal, two Dalit police officers who held the ranks of Director General of Police during her last tenure as chief minister. According to the policy, to ensure that the police force functioned objectively, the officers saw to it that all station-house officers were posted outside their home districts. The SHOs were warned that they would be held accountable for any incident of communal violence in the areas under their charge. According to several current and former officers, they were also issued another, ominous, warning, that if they failed to maintain the peace, their personal belongings would be impounded. These steps created a tremendous sense of accountability among the police force—and helped ensure that there were no riots during Mayawati’s years in power.
Apart from being a skilled administrator, Mayawati showed a flair for wielding power in awesome ways, in the process often making enemies that would make other politicians quail. Most prominent among them was Raghuraj Pratap Singh, popularly known as Raja Bhaiya. The descendant of a feudal family, Singh wields enormous influence in the Pratapgarh region, and has more than 48 criminal charges against him, including ones of illegal possession of arms, murder and abduction. He was rumoured to feed his enemies to pet crocodiles in a large pond inside his sprawling estate.
Singh has survived for more than 20 years in the state’s politics with the patronage of several prominent politicians, including the BJP’s Rajnath Singh. He has been appointed cabinet minister multiple times, including, most recently, as food and civil supplies minister under Akhilesh Yadav, the state’s current chief minister.
After she came to power in 2002, Mayawati ordered Singh’s arrest under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act. It was an unthinkable move that left other parties gobsmacked, since the law had, until then, only been used against Muslim extremists. Singh spent almost a year in jail, and was released in 2003, after Mulayam Singh Yadav came to power. According to some Thakur leaders close to him, Singh has often boasted that he would “teach the Chamarin a lesson.” A senior BJP leader told me that Mayawati’s actions were seen as an unforgivable affront because “a Chamarin got a Thakur arrested and humiliated. The social ladder was turned completely upside down.”
The move appears to have won Mayawati favour with many voters. Among them is Ramdeen, a middle-aged Dalit man I met with his family at one of Mayawati’s rallies in October, in Lucknow. “What Behenji did for us as a Dalit ki beti, no one ever did for us,” he said. “She put behind bars those who would prey on us and our daughters left, right and centre.”
AT AROUND 4 PM on 8 October, a day before the tenth death anniversary of Kanshi Ram, a large number of trucks and tempos blocked several of Lucknow’s main roads. In one open tempo carrier, a 20-something woman, her sari draped in the seedha palla style popular in rural Uttar Pradesh, stood at the front of the cargo bed, ahead of a group of people, enjoying the cool wind on her face, until it blew the sari off from the top of her head. It was a sight straight out of a Bollywood film.
As the vehicle neared a traffic light, she raised a placard which said, “Chal gundo ki chhaati pe, mohar lagega haathi pe” (Get on the chests of the goons, put the stamp on the elephant). The tempo stopped in front of the Ambedkar Memorial Park in the posh Gomti Nagar locality.
There were roughly 25 people in the group, all from the town of Lalganj in Mirzapur district. They lined up and entered the park, which has an Ambedkar stupa, a museum, a gallery and an 80-foot pyramidal structure called the Drishya Sthal.
The name of the young woman who was sloganeering was Padmawati. The other women with her were Prabhawati, Kalawati, Durgawati and Premwati. “Most women in our village are named after Mayawati,” Padmawati said. They took out food packed in cloth, paper, and plastic boxes, made themselves comfortable on a lawn and started eating.
“Do you like this place?” I asked.
“This is our pilgrimage,” Padmawati said. “Did you see, no one stopped us from entering?”
“Where else are you stopped in Lucknow?”
“People say we come to see Lucknow and not attend Behenji’s rally. But who lets us enter all these malls?” she said, and pointed to a few malls visible outside the park. “Earlier, we were not allowed to go to the temples because we are achhoot,”—untouchable, she said. “Now we can enter some temples but cannot enter the malls because we are gareeb”—poor. She walked over to an artificial stream, called the Bhim Ganga, which sprang from the top of the pyramid and flowed through the park.
Padmawati had several empty soft drink plastic bottles, and she filled water in all of them. Several visitors to this park take bottles of this water home with them—the stream seems to invoke the same devotion that the Ganga evokes among Hindus, who store the river’s water for use on ceremonial occasions. “Yeh humara tirath hai, aur Behenji jitni baar bulayengi, hum utni baar aayenge. Yahan humein koi nahin rok sakta”, Padmawati said (This our pilgrimage. We will come as many times as Behenji calls us. Nobody can stop us from coming to this place).
At political rallies in contemporary India, attendees are typically paid money and given food packets. Residents of villages and small towns are sometimes tempted with the idea that they can visit a big city. Attendees are also usually compensated for the loss of wages for the days they are away from home. In the three decades that the BSP has been active, however, while money and corruption have become as intrinsic to its existence as to that of any other party, there has always been large number of supporters who pay for their own train tickets, pack their own food, and travel to see Mayawati speak. As many attendees told me that day, this was not a “khareedi hui bheed”—bought-over crowd.
“Behenji has made so much money,” I said to Padmawati. “She has houses, wears diamonds, throws big birthday parties, what has she done for you?”
The question provoked her. “But when Netaji”—Mulayam—“threw a birthday party in Rampur this year, sitting on a chariot, no one talked about it,” she snapped.
“But they say that no one can meet Behenji.”
“So do you think village people like us can meet Akhilesh, Rahul Gandhi, Netaji and Modi? All big leaders are found in rallies only. She is also found there. Now, she will not go out to distribute laddoo-puri from village to village.” Like Padmawati, almost all the women I met that day were rational and argumentative. I have only met other such women political cadre at Left party rallies.
Suspicious now, Padmawati asked me, “Kaun jaat ho?” What is your caste?
“Brahmin,” I replied.
“That is why,” she said pointedly.
The day after I met Padmawati, according to the party’s estimate, more than 15 lakh people gathered to commemorate Kanshi Ram’s tenth death anniversary at the “eco garden” named after him. Outside the garden, small shops were set up, selling Dalit literature, campaign material, food, water, ice cream. It was like a mela.
Mayawati appeared two hours after the scheduled time. She began her address by thanking everyone for making it by using their “own small resources.” The audience applauded.
Despite her many past successes, and her often radical strategies, Mayawati is often criticised today for not having sufficiently reinvented her politics. As proof of this, people point to, among other problems, the BSP’s lack of leaders other than her. “She knows that a BSP MLA, MP do not exist on their own,” the party strategist said. “They are nothing without the party. She sends people to the Rajya Sabha and gets them to resign based on her calculations. Not because of their leadership skills.”
Unlike Akhilesh, who came to power in 2012 after promising to distribute free laptops, and who is promising free smartphones in the upcoming election, Mayawati has never announced any universal welfare schemes. The BSP also does not release manifestoes before elections. “We don’t make fake promises,” the strategist said. “We can only deliver according to our resources. The constitution written by Babasheb is our manifesto and that is what we follow in our development policies.”
To the criticism that Mayawati has grown increasingly autocratic and unapproachable, the former senior party leader said, “India is democratic only for elections. Which party has inner-party democracy—Congress, AAP, CPM? BSP is no different.”
Padmawati, too, defended her leader when I asked her about this. “So what if we can’t access Mayawati?” she said. “We can access the police and the government. Isn’t that more important?” After the rally in the gardens ended, as she left with her fellow villagers, Padmawati told me, “If Behenji has reached there, we will at least reach that place in our dreams. She has given us hope and dreams. That was unknown to a Dalit woman before her.”
Correction: The print version of this story mistakenly described Mulayam Singh Yadav as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh during the demolition of the Babri Masjid. The chief minister at the time was Kalyan Singh.The Caravanregrets the error.