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Colour the rainbow

Even if Mayawati loses power, she can craft a larger coalition of most backward caste communities to add to her Jatav support base, writes Ajoy Bose.

india Updated: Mar 04, 2012 23:22 IST

Mayawati may or may not be able to hold on to power in Lucknow this week. But she has already managed to transform her core Jatav support base into a political vanguard that is likely to play a decisive role in the politics of Uttar Pradesh for many years to come. This keeps the BSP supremo very much in the game even if she were to, for the moment, lose the reins of the state administration.


A distinctive feature of the BSP election campaign this time has been the unprecedented full throttle display of self-assertion across the state among Jatavs who are nearly two-thirds of the Dalit population in Uttar Pradesh and around 15% of the its total electorate. This is evident from the way packs of Jatav teenagers swaggered around villages and towns butting into conversations between venerable local upper caste residents and visiting media. It was palpable in the body language of young women of the community as they thrust their chest forward while declaring that they can now hold their heads high. There was electricity in Mayawati's rallies as tens of thousands of supporters shrieked and waved their hands to demonstrate their total identification with their leader, party and election symbol.

The Dalit leader herself appeared overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of her flock. In a surprising departure from her routine drab schoolteacher recital from a written script, Mayawati has been interacting with the crowd at her election meetings in a manner she has not done for a very long time. She laughed and joked with her audience about the free publicity given to the BSP party symbol by the Election Commission when it ordered the covering up of the stone elephants. At Saharanpur, she threw away the prepared script in the middle of her speech and told the crowd that she knew that the local BSP candidate was unpopular. "But remember you are voting for your Behenji, not for him. Don't worry, I will fix him after the elections," she asserted sending the crowd into a flutter that Behenji knew everything.

A brief encounter with Mayawati at her Mathura rally was revealing. Her face was all aglow with the crowd response and both her eyes and diamond ear rings glinted in the afternoon sun. Asked whether she was winning, she smiled mischievously and pointed a finger at the giant crowd. "Ask them," was all that she was ready to say. When asked about the difference between this time and the last time she hit the election trail during the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, she came up with the same response.

The fact of the matter is that even in 2007 when Mayawati recorded her incredible victory, this kind of feverish excitement was missing. She was still to acquire an iconic status and her supporters not so young and vociferous. In 2009, the mood in her camp was actually downcast amidst rumours that a coterie of Brahmin advisers had hijacked Behenji. The fact that the BSP supremo has managed to not only reclaim but galvanise her once demoralised core constituency is no mean achievement. That she has done so in the face of a concerted poaching bid by Rahul Gandhi to steal her constituents away is even more creditworthy.

A significant difference in Mayawati's election speeches this time is that instead of asking her audience to vote for ‘our party', she has now replaced this with ‘your party'. Indeed, there is good reason to believe that over the past few years, the vast majority of Jatav supporters of the BSP have turned into stakeholders of the party. They now have a proprietary relationship with the BSP and its elephant election symbol. The terms ‘chamar', ‘jatav' and ‘hathiwallah' have become almost interchangeable across Uttar Pradesh. Many of them even introduce themselves as belonging to the ‘hathi' party. A group of women in a village in Hassanpur district of western Uttar Pradesh nodded in agreement as one of them declared, "I don't think we have a choice in the matter anymore. The other day, some us were shooed away when we went near a Samajwadi Party office and told that hathiwallahs had no business to be there."

The near-complete solidarity of the Jatavs with Mayawati and her party is politically significant not just because of the large number and even spread across Uttar Pradesh of the community. The Jatav, particularly those in the more prosperous western part of the state, is also perhaps the most politically conscious and upwardly mobile social group in the region. There has been interesting academic research done recently by historian Ramnarayan Rawat to suggest that despite facing social discrimination at numerous levels, the Chamars or Jatavs of Uttar Pradesh have throughout history shown great skill in creating their own political and social organisations. There has also been a recent study by a group of Dalit scholars and economists led by Devesh Kapur of Pennsylvania University of how the Dalits led by Jatavs in Uttar Pradesh have considerably improved their living and working conditions leading to social, economic and political empowerment.

Significantly, the swiftly improving economic and social status of the Jatav in western Uttar Pradesh has made him a role model for less privileged Jatavs in other parts of the state and also held out the same promise to other Dalit groups although a few like the Pasis have traditional hostile relations with the Jatavs. At the same time, there are myriad most backward caste communities including Muslim groups who too dream the same dream. Now that she has her political vanguard in place, Mayawati has a great opportunity to craft such a larger coalition. Perhaps it may not be that bad if a spell outside administrative power propels her into this vital political mission.

Ajoy Bose is the author of Behenji: A Political Biography of Mayawati. The views expressed by the author are personal.