Mayawati's helicopter hovers. On the ground, buntings, flags, streamers and waving hands reach upward. The helicopter descends into a mammoth flash fiesta where only seconds before there were just a few thin lines of dozing cadres.
Waiting journalists (your columnist among them) blink in disbelief: But the rally ground was almost empty just now, where did the crowd come from?
Crowds and helicopter embody the Mayawati paradox. The face of the Dalit revolution who now brazenly flaunts state power. Ruling in the name of the poorest of the poor and herself - one of Indian democracy's proudest achievements - yet surrounded by commandos, armoured cars and a security apparatus that rivals the American president, complete with jammer vans and police trucks. Mayawati's vote share is set to decline in this election, yet from Sitapur to Gorakhpur to Barabanki, the crowds at her rallies have so far been jaw-droppingly stupendous. Amid swelling crowds, she remains an island, totally inaccessible to voters and to the media - a symbol of mass aspiration as well as of brute power and official hierarchy. AK 47s and Ambedkar define the Mayawati persona; she built the BSP movement by organising the poor, now she's built an iron curtain around her.
She's accused of massive corruption. Her so-called 'house' (the BSP calls it a museum) in Badalpur in her ancestral village in western UP is a grand mansion, reportedly equipped with a helipad, set amid sprawling lawns. The Rs. 5,000 crore National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) scam has already resulted in the death of four UP officials. Mayawati and her family are accused of owning huge properties across UP and the national capital.
The BSP cadres are full of fear, smarting from her stern measures, nursing its wounds from her whiplashes. She's changed 50% of her sitting MLAs, sacked over 20 ministers, including her faithful associate of 27 years, Babu Singh Kushwaha, and trusts nobody except a small coterie of bureaucrats.
Yet Mayawati has brought back unprecedented law and order to UP. She's smashed the mafias. The big dons from Atique Ahmad to Raja Bhaiya to Munna Bajrangi are either in jail or they have been chased out of UP. Notorious dacoits Thokia and Dadua have been gunned down in encounters. For the resident of UP, the lawless days of Mulayam Singh Yadav's regime are a distant memory. Mayawati's development record may not be as impressive as other chief ministers in their first terms, but driving through sugar cane country towards Saharanpur, residents say that western UP has far less electricity problems than it did in the past. The Mahamaya cash transfer schemes, two big schools for girls and boys and a super speciality hospital in Noida are talked proudly as showpieces for UP. Between 2003-2011, UP grew at 7.1%.
Today the Dalit is in a dilemma. Does he remain loyal to Mayawati, the symbol of the revolution or is his participation in the revolution being increasingly taken for granted? Mayawati has transformed the BSP into a party of the 'sarvajan samaj', from a party of Dalits into a party of all castes. The 'Brahmin jodo' strategy led her to a spectacular victory in 2007. Yet her alliance with upper castes has led to both economic and political displacement of the Dalits. Election tickets previously given only to SCs are now being given to Brahmins and other castes. In jobs, the post of a safai karamchari, once reserved for lower castes, is now even allotted to Brahmins, who promptly sub-contract it to the Dalits but pocket the salary. Jatavs have cornered the benefits of SC reservations, leading to disenchantment among the Balmikis and Pasis. Backward groups such as the Mallas and Kahars now want to be classified as STs, the SC category crowded out by competition.
Having created the social coalition of all castes, managing it and giving it a political identity has been Mayawati's downfall, making many aggrieved upper caste groups as well as backward communities want to "teach her a lesson" for first raising their expectations and then failing to meet them. The early Congress joined the Dalits and Brahmins under a larger vision of nation-building. Mayawati has failed to create a larger vision for her Dalit-Brahmin alliance and give it a sense of a common mission.
Travelling from Saharanpur to Lucknow, down to Bundel-khand, the social revolution across UP's villages is unmistakable though. Dalits can now enter police stations and address the local thanedar or even look a Thakur in the eye. In Yadav villages, dabang musclemen touch the feet of Dalit pradhans. Housing schemes have provided the Dalit with a dignity he never had previously. But the social revolution is equally truncated, stunted and left incomplete. Where Mayawati could have created the Dalit pantheon of Shahu, Phule and Ambedkar, she has chosen to reinstate herself and her own family as statues. She has rewritten her own history instead of a new Dalit history.
Destiny often tests a people's messiah. Are you listening to your voter? Too many AK 47s, helicopters, rule by bureaucrats and taking voters for granted could lead to the squandering of the Dalit legacy. Yes, Mayawati does represent a social miracle, but the Dalit miracle now needs to be taken to the next stage by giving the 'sarvajan samaj' true political meaning. Aggressive displays of State power cannot be a substitute for bridge building with all communities on equal terms, if one truly wants to lead UP towards a caste-free renaissance.
Sagarika Ghose is Deputy Editor, CNN-IBN. The views expressed by the author are personal.