Mayawati, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh and leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which can claim the distinction of being among the few political entities on the move, turned 52 on Tuesday. Few can miss the political underpinnings beneath the medley of cutting cakes, announcements of developmental packages and promises of further splitting up the state. A consummate strategist of the present day electoral politics, Mayawati is here to stay.
It is premature to predict where her strident march is going to lead Mayawati after the 2009 general elections. But it will certainly not be audacious to claim that whatever stage of that march she may be in, Mayawati will not be far removed from the nerve-centre of coalition politics, with its contrary pulls and tensions and the charm of winning the magical numbers.
The BSP, if its luck holds out, will be a key protagonist — a possibility that can give the Congress little pleasure. With her electoral strategy of teaming up with upper castes, the BSP leader has hurt the Congress more than any other party in the recent assembly polls in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh. She will continue to do so in future unless both parties, the Congress and the BSP, can reach a seat-by-seat agreement to prevent one from breaching into the other’s territory.
To add to the Congress’s worries, the BSP has a track record of swinging electoral alliances with the Congress’s main adversary, the BJP. The BSP may shore up the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and play hardball with the Congress, if it is stacked with numbers.
There is more gloom in store for the ruling party. The Left Front, which pulled off a stunning electoral feat in the last general elections, and has been propping up the UPA-led government at the Centre since then, will need nothing short of a miracle if it has to repeat its feat. In a situation of volatile numbers, the BSP may step into the Left’s shoes and become an indispensable crutch to keep a government at the Centre going; that is if the BSP can replicate its winning UP formula in the six states it has set its sights on: Delhi, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Punjab. Uttar Pradesh, of course.
So far the going looks good for Mayawati. She has none other than a shrewd tactician like the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) chief Chandrababu Naidu take a leaf out of her book. At one of his party conclaves, Naidu spoke like Mayawati, addressing the concerns of the upper castes for the first time.
Like all political leaders, Mayawati would love to wear the Prime Minister’s mantle. Whether or not she will be in a position to push for that crucial seat, however, is still in the realm of speculation. Indeed, it is far from the domain of the possible, but then we might do well to remember that Chandrashekhar in the early 1990s, managed such a feat even in the absence of numbers. What is real is that the BSP looks robust enough and its leader Mayawati intelligent enough, to redefine Dalit politics and take it to a new level.
When she became the CM of UP this time round, Mayawati’s critics tried to play down her success by dismissing it as nothing but symbolic. But symbols in every society are powerful idioms of assertion and change. They are part of any upward mobility and even transformation. One reason why many Dalit leaders prefer flashy clothes and glinting jewellery, decorate their homes in ways that might appear ‘garish’ to many, is to drive home a point and drive it loud enough so that nobody misses it: They have cut through the swathes of taboos, oppositions and moved to the echelons of power. In a way these too are symbols, however much they rankle the well-heeled, of their defiance and of resistance.
Parliament wore a similar defiant look after the Mandal agitation and the assertion by Other Backward Classes (OBCs). More and more non-middle-class, non-English speaking elected representatives entered the Lok Sabha. The language of discussions changed, as did the personalities of leaders. The BSP is taking ahead this transformation.
The assertion of Dalits, the most wronged of all castes, is a step in this changing of status quo — and not, of course, in the way Maoists or Marxists predict in their party manifestoes, through revolution. They do so through mechanisms that are available to them through democracy. The state and the government have at their command the levers, which they can work to give the Dalits their due share in the system. Despite the inherent and entrenched caste prejudices in the social structure, the autonomy of the state can be used in favour of the Dalits.
Dalit-Brahmin or Dalit-OBC alliances are not going to drastically alter the social or psychological mindset of the people who have to share space with each other.
Dalits have been at the receiving end of dominant OBCs for decades. Brahmins, even to this day, are cagey about sharing food or water with Dalits. Even in Mayawati’s ‘sarvajan’ UP, a Dalit candidate can win only from a reserved constituency. In the last UP elections, the BSP fielded only four of its total of 93 Dalit candidates in general constituencies. None of the four candidates could win. The Brahmins and the OBCs clearly did not vote for them.
Does that mean Mayawti’s strategy, as some of her critics within the Dalit movement often point out, will strengthen the Brahmins and not Dalits? Some of these critics describe Mayawati’s strategy as ‘counter-revolution’, a ‘betrayal’ of the Dalit ideology. But on the ground there is a different story. So far, Mayawati’s strategy has boosted the confidence of Dalits and empowered them. They now want to see Mayawati in that hot seat of power. The BSP’s growing clout at the national level provides the Dalits with an opportunity to make up for the education they have lost out on. It provides them with better mobility and visibility. The Justice Sachar committee report revealed not only the shockingly low levels of education, employment opportunities and participation in governance among Muslims; it showed that if there was one community sinking faster than the Muslims — it was the Dalits.
Mayawati’s detractors may criticise her for opportunism, but for an oppressed group that is always an electoral minority, the key lies in keeping everybody guessing. An empowered BSP means empowered Dalits. It does not mean an end to casteism. But it does provide the Dalits with visible space, which they can use to ensure a better future for themselves.
(Monobina Gupta is a senior journalist based in Delhi)