‘One day, she will fulfill Babasaheb Ambedkar’s dream!” claimed Bahujan Samaj Party founder, Kanshi Ram, with a hint of pride, pointing to the woman who had just served us tea. We were at his Humayun Road residence in Delhi on a lazy winter afternoon in the early 1990s. I almost did a double take before faintly nodding at the salwar kameez clad lady who had stayed mostly silent during our animated conversation on the role of caste in politics. Mayawati still hadn’t quite burst on the national stage and although she had won her first election as an MP, there was very little one really knew of her. A few years later, she became chief minister of Uttar Pradesh and transformed herself into a politician of substance not to be trifled with.
I was reminded of that early encounter with ‘Behenji’ when I watched a joint press conference last week between the Samajwadi party leader, Akhilesh Yadav and the BSP supremo. When Yadav expressed the hope that the next prime minister would be from UP and then deliberately turned in Mayawati’s direction, one couldn’t help but wonder whether Kanshi Ram’s words would prove prescient. Is Behenji really a serious candidate to be India’s first Dalit prime minister?
At one level, that question must seem rather absurdly fanciful: the BSP, after all, doesn’t have a single MP in parliament, Mayawati has lost three consecutive elections now in her Uttar Pradesh bastion (two Vidhan Sabha and one Lok Sabha), she has met with little success in expanding her party into new frontiers and her once rock-solid vote share too has taken a slight hit, revealing her to be primarily a sub-caste Jatav leader today than even a universal Dalit icon. Moreover, she and her family remain mired in multiple charges of corruption and disproportionate assets. She has also acquired the reputation of being an erratic, transactional politician, someone who will make or break alliances based on short term convenience.
And yet, at another level, Mayawati is still held up as a powerful symbolic figure of social mobility, her father once a humble postal employee in a dusty western UP town. She is also a sharply polarizing figure, reflective of the deep fault-lines that underline our society. If for the Bahujan Samaj multitudes she is an inspirational figure, for the country’s upper class, upper caste metropolitan elite, Mayawati’s failings represent the darker side of Indian politics: a neta who is seen to have looted the state exchequer for personal benefit, who has built her own statues, who flaunts her designer bags and jewelry and brazenly accepts garlands of notes on her birthday. An elitist disdain is visible in some of the criticism: how many Brahmin-Bania politicians are lampooned for being weighed in gold and silver at election time? And what of the cut-out culture and endless self-promotion by other contemporary netas or, indeed, the serious corruption charges that swirl around so many of them?
The caricaturing of Mayawati as venal autocrat does not fairly or fully represent the complex persona of a politician who, after all, has completed a quite remarkable journey from the margins of society to the heart of Indian politics. As a three time chief minister of UP, she is seen as a tough, no-nonsense administrator, especially strong on law and order: as bureaucrats will often grudgingly admit in Lucknow, ‘Mayawati sabko ‘tight’ rakhti thee!” And while the corruption charges are grave, there is another reality of a relatively successful ‘doer’ chief minister cutting through red-tapism to fast track major infrastructure projects like the Yamuna Expressway between Noida and Agra.
In 2019 though, the Mayawati being projected as a potential non-Congress, non-BJP leadership alternative is neither a heroic figure nor a symbol of social change but quite simply, someone who may be a strategic option for the ‘anyone but Modi’ brigade, especially in the crucial battleground of the Hindi heartland. One of prime minister Modi’s more successful calling cards during the 2014 wave election was his image as the chaiwallah from the nondescript town of Vadnagar who was making the great leap to 7 Lok Kalyan marg. His is the classic modern day Indian fairy-tale story, the meritocratic ‘kaamdar’ who has battled his way against the dynastical naam-dars. When pitted against the Rahul Gandhis of the political universe, it gives the prime minister a distinct edge in perception as the non-privileged neta .
By contrast, a Mayawati’s life offers an even more compelling narrative as someone who has battled caste, gender and income inequities to conquer India’s most populous and complex state. The ‘gareeb Dalit ki beti’ is a storyline that is difficult to combat even for a master political communicator like Mr Modi who has consistently played up his modest origins. In a fractured polity where caste identities still shape voter choices, ‘Behenji for PM’ is the kind of sloganeering that can unite Dalits and create the basis for a broader coalition of those social groups who are fearful of the rising tide of political Hindutva, especially in Uttar Pradesh. The urban middle class may remain deeply skeptical, even angry and alienated, at the idea of a ‘tainted’ BSP leader as a prime ministerial option, but in the gallis and mohallas of an Uttar Pradesh beyond the traditional caste elites, Mayawati’s prime ministerial ambitions are an election X factor whose appeal cannot be under-estimated.
Which might explain why an Akhilesh Yadav has chosen to bury twenty five years of Yadav-Dalit animosity and thrown up an early trial balloon to test the political waters. Other opposition leaders with an eye on the top job may not bite the bait just yet, but in a ‘national’ election where localised alliances could play a key role, don’t be surprised if the ‘haathi’ (elephant) of the BSP looks to ride on the Samajwadi party cycle to re-shape political equations in Delhi via Lucknow. The demure, short-haired lady I first met all those years ago has evolved into a feisty political warrior who maybe ready for a serious tilt at the big prize her mentor had once prophesized for her.
Post-script: Mayawati, much like Mr Modi, is an imperious political figure who doesn’t like being questioned. So on the one rare occasion when I was able to interview her, I remember a sudden flash of anger when I raised the question of corruption. “You mediapersons are all upper caste Manuwaadis!” she retorted. She wasn’t entirely wrong: most newsrooms, like the rest of society, have negligible space for Dalits in positions of power and influence.
(The writer is Senior Journalist & Author. Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)