On the face of it, the uproar in the mainstream media and political parties over currency note garlands around Mayawati’s neck conjures up a picture of a beleaguered leader. Yet, in keeping with the many paradoxes that have marked her career over the past three decades, far from being pushed into a corner by the rising storm of criticism, the firebrand Dalit leader is actually stronger today in her bastion Uttar Pradesh than ever before. Indeed, there is good reason to believe that if assembly elections due two years later were to be held in the state today, the chief minister could romp home for a second term in office.
This is quite a turnaround from the dismal future that was being painted for Mayawati by political pundits less than a year ago when she did far worse than expected in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls. Political obituaries or, at least, beginning of the end prophesies being made glibly some months ago do not appear all that valid anymore. Having fallen on her face through her over-reaching prime ministerial ambitions, she has swiftly picked herself up in characteristic style even more determined to succeed.
Despite the blip in the Lok Sabha polls where she managed to win only 20 seats in UP, although with a still credible 27 per cent of the vote, her strike record in by-elections for both assemblies and legislative council seats since she came to power in 2007 is far more formidable. Of the 15 assembly by-elections held since the 2007 assembly polls, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has won as many as 12. Significantly, all these seats have been snatched away from the opposition including some in her main political rival Mulayam Singh Yadav’s traditional stronghold central UP.
The BSP’s success rate in legislative council elections since 2007 is even more remarkable. It has won 34 out of the 36 legislative council seats that are elected by local bodies. This shows that there is considerable support for Mayawati and her party in local power centres as well as at the assembly level.
There are those who dismiss the BSP’s strong showing in assembly and legislative council by-elections on the plea that these always tend to favour ruling parties. However, recent setbacks in by-elections for ruling parties like the CPI(M) in West Bengal and Janata Dal (United) in Bihar are only two of the many examples disproving any such pet theory. Mayawati’s political opponents who seek to minimise her extraordinary electoral success at the local level, attributing this to sheer money and muscle power exercised, are therefore only fooling themselves.
Significantly, relentless media campaigns against Mayawati first on statues of herself and other Dalit leaders and now on the currency note garlands appear to have worked in her favour, polarising her support base of Dalits and poorest backward castes to cling even more fiercely to Behenji’s apron strings. Even in the past Kanshi Ram, along with his protégé, had used confrontation with the establishment as a means to mobilise their core constituency. Mayawati had considerably diluted the use of provocative gestures and symbols as a political weapon in recent years particularly after winning power in UP in 2007. Clearly, she has had a rethink on her conciliatory political style that had made her more acceptable to the establishment but may well have had made her suspect in the eyes of Dalits and poor backwards for selling out to upper caste lobbies particularly the Brahmins who dominate the intelligentsia.
This, however, does not mean that Mayawati has entirely abandoned her social engineering enterprise that had served her so well in the 2007 assembly polls when her Dalit base had combined with Brahmins to oust Mulayam Singh Yadav from power. Although there is a definite cooling off between the Dalit leader and Brahmins, indications are that another upper caste, Thakurs, is considering a tactical alliance with the BSP for the next assembly polls. Always on the lookout for greener pastures, the Thakurs have quickly seized the vacuum left by the Brahmins in Mayawati’s social engineering pool, now that Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party (SP) looks far less attractive after the departure of his Thakur friend, philosopher and guide Amar Singh.
The fact of the matter is that much of Mayawati’s current political dominance in UP stems not so much from any intrinsic strength but more from the palpable disarray among her political opponents. The SP and the BJP, two of her main challengers in the state over the past two decades, are both pale shadows of their former selves. While the SP’s votebank has been considerably depleted by the departure of Muslims and Thakurs, the once mighty BJP has become increasingly irrelevant with the collapse of the Ayodhya issue and the perennial squabbles among its state leaders.
The Congress should have taken advantage of this lack of substantive opposition to Mayawati and resurrected itself in UP after two decades of marginalisation. Yet, despite a surprisingly good performance in the 2009 parliamentary polls and Rahul Gandhi’s focus on the state, the news from the ground is not very encouraging. The Congress has not only failed to win most of the assembly and legislative council by- elections, it has not even come second in most seats slipping to third or fourth position in a majority of them.
“The soil in Uttar Pradesh is ripe for the Congress. Sadly, we are yet to grow the roots to dig deep into it,” confided a party leader.
Ajoy Bose is the author of Behenji: A Political Biography of Mayawati
The views expressed by the author are personal