Mayawati was Chief Minister twice and is on the roll for a possible third stint if the elections work out her way. Her success is not because she is a crass opportunist or an incurable megalomaniac as she is made out to be in the popular press, but because she is a careful strategist. Unlike many other Dalit leaders, she knows that one way of getting around the obstinate arithmetic of caste numbers is to fox the opposition with the chemistry of alliances.
It must be recognised that Mayawati thinks along class lines even though she gives the impression of being a caste-obsessed politician. She has gone off the beaten track and actively wooed the upper castes, including the Brahmins, because she knows that the Dalits have no immediate class contradictions among them. In fact, there are large areas of concordance between the upper castes and the Dalits for whom, in both instances, the common enemy is the aggressive OBC. True, the Dalits are mostly in villages and the upper castes in cities, but because contemporary politics has given an overbearing presence to OBCs in both these locales, a most unusual class alliance has emerged.
Brahmins, Baniyas and Kayasthas do not see the Dalits as antagonists as they do the rising ‘tractor capitalists’ led by Mulayam Singh. The Yadavs, Jats and Gujjars are competing against Brahmins and Baniyas for urban jobs. These traditionally privileged urban upper castes do not mind the Dalits for they are reconciled to reservations for them, and have been so for years. Their immediate combatants are the Mandal-energised OBCs. This may come as a surprise to many urban observers who have been bred on traditional textual renditions of Brahmin caste oppression.
It is here that Mayawati’s genius kicks in. She knows from intimate experience that it is the same cluster of OBCs that threaten and terrorise the Scheduled Castes in India’s villages. In fact, the Yadavs, Kurmis, Jats and Thevars are probably more cruel and rapacious in their relationship with the Scheduled Castes than the traditional upper castes were. I have been told by Dalits in western Uttar Pradesh that they would be happier in erstwhile zamindari areas of east UP because the Jats and Gujjars (the leading OBCs) are not the dominant communities there. This is the rationale behind Mayawati’s attempt to get traditional upper castes on her side for she knows that a deal of this sort would not hurt the Scheduled Castes as a naïve understanding might propose.
So what we have is a grand alliance that brings together urban and rural India like never before, and yet all of this is under the rubric of caste. In this lies the beauty and elegance of her scheme. It is like a classic one-two punch in boxing that totally disorients the opposition. Mayawati can think innovatively because she lives at ground level reality whereas her detractors only read about it second-hand. She knows grandstanding on purist themes would sound good to the literate classes but would be of little use in advancing Dalit interests. In this she is mohallas ahead of her competitors including the communists and her fellow travellers in Maharashtra and elsewhere. She has no time for preening before the UN commissariats in Durban, nor does she tremble before the ghosts of Gandhi and Ambedkar.
Mayawati’s moves have a Maoist touch to them though their stated ideologies were far apart. Like the Chinese leader, Mayawati too is a great strategist. She is constantly on the lookout for alliance partners and finds them in places where purists would not even deign to look. For those with long-term memories it may be recalled that Mao, too, was attacked by Russian and European Marxists for he allied with the rich peasants when it suited him and occasionally with landlords too — the somewhat impoverished ones.
Through all this, Mao never took his eyes off the ball. The poor peasants were always his most durable friends, just as the Scheduled Castes are for Mayawati. Many communists in the West berated Mao for his unorthodox peasant-Marxism, but he made the Revolution whereas his detractors did not. Likewise, there are many today who see only an opportunist in Mayawati, but she became Chief Minister twice and is readying herself for many more stints in that chair.
It is true that Mayawati learnt her basic lessons from her mentor Kanshi Ram, but she soon outstripped him as a strategist and tactician. She knew that her terms as Chief Minister were going to be tenuous leaving her little room to make a long-term dent on the uplift of the Dalits. Big things can hardly be done at such short notice.
Once again she thought out of the box. Time was short but she wanted to leave behind a legacy of her chief ministership that would be hard to overlook no matter which political high street one took. In a few months she set up Ambedkar’s statues all over UP. She may no longer be the boss anymore, but every time you see Ambedkar’s stylised icon you cannot help but think Mayawati.
Through hundreds of these concrete Ambedkar memorials, Maya-wati has solidified her reputation with Dalits in the cities and villages of UP. I know from my own field experience in rural UP that OBCs resent this constant in your face Ambedkar/Mayawati presence much more than the Brahmins, or other members of the upper castes, do. If I could sense it, I am sure Mayawati knows all about it and revels in her ability to haunt the OBCs as a perennial spectre and a looming éminence grise.
Brahmins and other upper castes are of little consequence in the villages but can tip the scales in terms of numbers and can also be useful if one could leverage on their social networks. Unlike many other Dalit hotheads, Mayawati does not demonise these so-called upper castes for she sees them essentially as toothless and effete tigers. Even so if their reputation, such as it is, can be mobilised to advance the Dalit cause, where is the harm?
Nowhere, in this very careful reasoning, does Mayawati ever betray her mass base which continues to be the Scheduled Castes, whether in urban Lucknow or in rural Mirzapore.
There will always be the very poor village-bound OBCs who would find Mayawati a possible alternative, and then there are the strays that the BSP can pick up from factional wars in the ranks of the Samajwadi Party and the BJP. She has, therefore, nothing to lose in her strategic pursuit to win over the upper caste bloc.
We must hand it to Mayawati that she is not blinded by caste passions. Her political strategy is premised on the belief that caste sentiments are fashioned by class interests. This is what allowed her to forge an alliance between traditionally antagonistic castes for she recognised that they had a common enemy in the OBCs. This truth, along with the political opportunities it presented, was much dearer to her than any elevated copybook morality. After all, her commitment is to the Dalits and not to the real estate brokers of ivory towers.
Dipankar Gupta is Professor, Social Sciences, Jawharlal Nehru University