BSP chief Mayawati took centre stage in national politics and won rare unanimous opposition support in Parliament on Thursday, as protests grew over derogatory remarks about her and atrocities against Dalits.
Thousands of people filled the main streets of Lucknow and elsewhere in Uttar Pradesh, demanding the arrest of expelled state BJP leader Dayashankar Singh for comparing Mayawati to a prostitute. They left after the authorities promised to arrest Singh within 36 hours.
The insult to Mayawati, a Dalit icon and four times chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, came at a time the central government has been struggling to contain protests over the beating of four Dalit men by self-styled cow vigilantes for skinning a dead cow in Gujarat.
Thursday’s demonstrations as well as Mayawati’s speech in parliament signalled that Uttar Pradesh was set to become the focal point of Dalit protest politics, with elections in the state just months away. Accounting for about 21% of the state population, Dalits are a key swing vote.
Implying a political backlash for the BJP, Mayawati said Dalits would never forgive the party for Singh’s comments.
“People from the weaker sections of society… respect me a lot; they treat me as a goddess and if you say bad things about their goddess, they will feel bad and are bound to protest,” she said.
In the Rajya Sabha, her speech bore the hallmark of a potential election pitch.
“It is a positive thing that the entire Parliament has condemned it. You have not only condemned vehemently, but boosted my morale and motivated me to fight for the cause of Dalits,” she said.
““In the name of cow protection, in the past one and a half years, first there were atrocities against Muslims, now we see even Dalits are not being spared. This is not just in Gujarat but across the country, especially in BJP-ruled states.”
The events of the past few days are seen as undermining the BJP’s outreach to Dalit, who have traditionally not voted for the party.
In parliament, home minister Rajnath Singh tried to douse the political fire, saying that not only physical violence but also verbal abuses equally insult and hurt a person.
“I felt ashamed when I was informed about this,” he said. On the Gujarat attack, he said four police officials had been suspended and a CID probe ordered.
But that did not mollify the opposition parties, almost all of which jockey for Dalit support.
Congress leader Jyotiraditya Scindia pitched the attack against Mayawati as BJP’s efforts towards a “Dalit-mukt India.”
Marxist leader Sitaram Yechury termed the attack on Mayawati as a part of a larger plan to find new avenues of attacking Dalits.
“I keep wondering that when it came to Dalits, there is diarrhoea of words and constipation of action. There are voluminous speeches but no action,” he said.
Even within the NDA ranks, the BJP stood isolated on the issue.
Its ally and RPI (A) leader Ramdas Athawale said: “It is important to protect the cow but who will save humans?”
Back in UP, police raided Singh’s Lucknow residence twice on Thursday but were told he is possibly on a tour of Ballia in eastern Uttar Pradesh. His mobile phone was switched off.
Singh’s younger brother Dharmendra Singh was taken into custody, police said.
BSP workers also gathered in large numbers at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi and shouted slogans denouncing the BJP. Besides, party MLAs also protested in the Bhopal assembly.
In Lucknow, Singh’s wife, Swati Singh, alleged BSP workers were harassing her and her 12-year-old daughter.
“A case must be registered for mentally harassing my daughter,” ANI quoted her as saying.
But angry BSP supporters justified their action, shouting slogans such as ‘gali ke badle gali’ (abuse for abuse).