In a political career of over thirty years, three attributes of Mayawati stand out: A level of ambition that is unusual even for a politician, the ability to take big risks and a propensity for the big gesture.
The ambition fuelled a clear-headedness first seen when she flounced out of her parents’ house in Delhi armed only with seven years’ savings from an aborted career as a schoolteacher.
The reason: they wanted their law graduate daughter to be a bureaucrat, while she had met her mentor Kanshi Ram and was sure Dalit politics was her thing.
Ambition drove her to position herself relentlessly as Kanshi Ram’s successor.
After his sudden death, his followers fought over his legacy; she moved clear by organising a massive rally in Lucknow.
Slogans on city walls that proclaimed Kanshi Ram would finish Bhim Rao Ambedkar’s incomplete agenda were quickly painted over to say she would carry forward Kanshi’s life work.
The big risks came later: As she prepared to take on Mulayam’s Samajwadi party in the 2007 assembly election, she stunned observers by getting Brahmins, at the other end of the caste spectrum, into her Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).
This flew in the face of even Kanshi Ram’s stated position, but she managed the situation neatly by declaring that her successor — incidentally, to this day, unnamed — would be a fellow Chamar.
She was quick to call the BJP a cobra, but not averse to taking support from the traditionally upper caste party to rule the state.
Later, an alliance with Congress was a flop and then the “communal forces” she had pledged to purge approached her.
She deserted Congress, presented the BJP with an innovative power sharing arrangement, then proceeded to implement her agenda even though her party was the junior partner.
The grand gestures? A senior BSP leader recalls how in 2008 he was summoned to the CM’s bungalow.
Mayawati demanded to know which vehicle he was using to visit rural areas.
When he told her it was a motorbike, she signalled to one of her staff. The man emerged with a bag full of cash. “This is `7 lakh, go and buy yourself an SUV,” Mayawati told him.
Of course, this pales in comparison with the multi-crore, massive Dalit memorials and temples in Lucknow and just outside Delhi that she built — replete with statues of Kanshi Ram and herself.
Now, she is one of a handful of Third Front PM aspirants. But her BSP is something of a diminished force in UP and elsewhere, and she will need all her formidable political instincts in order to prevail.