Are we witnessing the evolution of a new Mayawati? The spectacle of a beaming Behenji surrounded by a variety of fawning leaders remains one of the most abiding vignettes of last week’s political drama. Most pundits have acknowledged the significance of this as her enhanced national profile but, so far, there has been little recognition of the sharp break from the past made by the Dalit firebrand.
Those who have tracked her trajectory over the past three decades are astonished at the alacrity with which Mayawati has cast away her previous persona, which balked at hobnobbing with the leaders of other parties. This innate reluctance of the BSP supremo to jump onto a larger political bandwagon was regarded as a major handicap for her to spread wings beyond Uttar Pradesh. That she has so effortlessly slid into the unfamiliar role of spearheading a coalition of nearly a dozen parties has surprised even some of her closest associates.
It is interesting to recall that during most of her 30-year-long political career, Mayawati was first kept away, and then stayed away from cross-party dialogue. Her mentor Kanshi Ram pointedly did not include her in his frenzied perambulations across a wide spectrum of political leaders in the 1980s and 90s. For instance, in 1993, when he cut an electoral deal with Mulayam Singh Yadav with the help of industrialist brokers such as Jayant Malhoutra and Sanjay Dalmia in a five-star hotel room, his protégé was left at home.
Two years later, when Kanshi Ram engineered a coup from his hospital bed in connivance with the then Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao and BJP’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee to oust Mulayam from chief ministership, Mayawati did not have a clue. When he asked her whether she wanted to become chief minister of India’s largest state, she started weeping, thinking that illness had affected her mentor’s brain and he was babbling. The incident, related later by Kanshi Ram himself, underlines the vast difference in Mayawati today and in the past.
Growing in her new roles
As she grew into her role as Kanshi Ram’s successor, she did occasionally accompany him to his meetings with other political leaders but mostly remained a silent spectator. This may have been partly a gender problem. Despite the presence of several high-profile women leaders, the ambience of the Indian political jungle is not hospitable to women who are seen as interlopers.
But Mayawati’s inclination to plough a lonely furrow was also largely temperamental and political. Unlike Kanshi Ram, who loved to chat with politicians and journalists, she found it a complete waste of time. Not surprisingly, the ageing founder of the BSP was constantly berated by his protégé for allowing his obsession with the world of national politics to distract him from his own party and neglect his declining health.
In the late 1990s, the two had sharp differences over participating in the kind of coalition politics that Mayawati has sought out today. For instance, a few months before the 1998 parliamentary polls, they sent out conflicting signals on alliances. She told journalists that her party no longer believed in pre-poll alliances as it had been established that while the BSP voter base transferred to its allies, the latter were unable to return the favour. The very next day, her mentor announced the BSP’s participation in a new, secular front comprising Lalu Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar, Chandra Shekhar’s Samajwadi Janata Party and Ajit Singh’s Bharatiya Kisan Kamgar Party in Uttar Pradesh, and Shankersinh Vaghela’s Rashtriya Janata Party in Gujarat. It was only after Mayawati threw a tantrum that Kanshi Ram left out the UP parties from his list.
Subsequent elections proved Mayawati right and Kanshi Ram wrong. While the BSP grew in Uttar Pradesh under her stewardship, he led the party from one disastrous alliance to another in other states. This and his failing health finally forced Kanshi Ram to formally hand over his mantle to Mayawati in 2001, from when she has focused mainly on UP.
This is not to suggest that Mayawati has been entirely against socialising with other leaders. She did have a long queue of rakhi bhais — notably, Brahmin leaders such as Lalji Tandon, Kalraj Mishra and Murli Manohar Joshi — during her dalliances with the BJP to ascend the throne of Lucknow. Atal Bihari Vajpayee often entertained her at lunch like a fond uncle at his Race Course Road residence. Not so long ago, Mayawati and Congress supremo Sonia Gandhi would seize any opportunity for a tête-à-tête, even during chance meetings at airports.
But these encounters remained at a social level and the BSP leader stayed away from a deeper political engagement with any party.
It is therefore all the more intriguing to see the deliberate manner in which Mayawati has moved in the past few months to forge links with other parties, including from the Left Front with which she has had no truck so far. The fact that as early as May this year, she suddenly called on the ailing Marxist leader Harkishan Singh Surjeet in hospital should have rung a bell on what was to follow — her dramatic decision a few months later to send feelers to CPM general-secretary Prakash Karat, which led to the famous drive by him to her residence.
At home in the world
The other palpable change in Mayawati is her new expertise in handling the media. She no longer exhibits the hostility that made each press conference of the BSP leader a slanging match till a few years ago, with her hurling abuses at the “manuvadi media” and the latter retaliating with wild stories, including one about her ‘illegitimate child’. In sharp contrast, these days she orchestrates media events with great panache, manipulating her earlier tormentors with impressive ease.
She has even started engaging with the foreign media, whom she had avoided for all these years. Somini Sengupta of The New York Times and Emily Wax of Washington Post were granted a surprise joint interview barely a fortnight before the crisis erupted in Delhi. They were promised 10 minutes but ultimately spent as many as 45 minutes with the chief minister. Both correspondents came away quite impressed with what they described as “her sense of calm assurance and articulation skills” that were apparent despite the use of an interpreter.
The only change Mayawati still flinches from is speaking in English, a primeval fear that is at variance with her reasonable grasp of the language. Funnily enough, in her public speeches the BSP leader hardly speaks chaste Hindi and liberally sprinkles her oratory with English words and phrases. There is a lot of English even in her three-volume autobiography where some entire passages are quoted in their original script, with the English words written in Devnagari. In one chapter, Mayawati waxes eloquent on the superiority of the ‘ballot’ over the ‘bullet’; another chapter is titled ‘Inner-party Democracy — no problem at all!’, with all the words written in Hindi.
It is perhaps only when Behenji finally decides to eschew her dread of speaking English in public that her transformation — into the national leader that she so wants to become — would be completed.
Ajoy Bose is the author of Behenji, A Political Biography of Mayawati