It’s all one skin and bone,
one piss and shit,
one blood, one meat.
From one drop, a universe.
Who’s a Brahmin? Who’s a shudra?
So sang Kabir, the Bhakti saint in the 15th century. But Mayawati is not singing any songs. Instead, she’s angry again, raging again, on the warpath again. She has brought a fearsome Jat patriarch to his knees. Perhaps for the first time in the history of caste relations in Uttar Pradesh, an upper-caste senior man has had to fold his hands and apologise to a younger dalit woman. The sheer power of the Dalit political machine was in evidence when Mahendra Singh Tikait, chief of the rowdy Bharatiya Kisan Union, was arrested by Mayawati for daring to make a ‘casteist’ remark. Mayawati is the Dalit ‘virangana’, who swept to power last year, in the 100th year of the 1857 outbreak, as if to say, remember the Dalit warrior heroines or viranganas who fought in that ‘war of independence’ but were never recognised by Manuvadi historians.
Now the Dalit virangana has another new target. Rahul Gandhi is nothing but an elite prince who has a bath in special soap and cleanse himself by lighting special incense after meeting a dalit, she shouted at a rally on Monday evening. “All he wants is the dalit vote.” Kabir sang songs of love, but is Mayawati becoming imprisoned in songs of hate and fighting a narrow-minded war?
It is precisely these nasty diatribes that are contributing to the political isolation of a virangana with prime ministerial ambitions. Sonia Gandhi recently declared that Congress workers would all go to jail if need be, under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi, only to save UP from Mayawati. During the Tikait episode, both the Congress and the BJP lined up against Mayawati. Her actions have almost achieved the unthinkable: the Congress and the Samajwadi Party (SP) inching closer together in an attempt to dislodge a ‘common enemy’. The Congress knows that it can’t resurrect itself in UP without rediscovering the Dalit vote. The SP knows that Mayawati remains its nemesis. So, while an Amar Singh may still not be invited to Sonia Gandhi’s high table, the fear of Mayawati is enough to send them scurrying for options.
But while her antagonists look to stitch up alliances, the fact remains that Mayawati is perhaps the only leader in the country today with a genuine political constituency. The Congress may question Mayawati’s arrest of Tikait, but the Congress forgets the social terror that used to hide in the green fields of UP for centuries. How on election day, Dalits, young and old, as recently as the 90s, would hide in the shadows of their huts in mortal fear of upper castes, and be prevented from voting. No law touched the UP Dalits in those days, no policeman would register an FIR if it was filed by a Dalit. It is this terrible age-old injustice that gives Mayawati her permanent unquestioned political constituency, a constituency which will die for Behenji, a constituency of which every other party is jealous.
Yet in her fourth term as Chief Minister, as head of a majority BSP government, Mayawati seems in danger of squandering the gains of the last decade of mobilisation, which that great organiser Kanshi Ram, had so painstakingly achieved. The BSP cadres is a wonder to behold. Silent, committed and invisible, the BSP worker is an unseen engine, slipping between villages, cycling down dusty streets, staging little nukkad plays, mobilising every day, every night, talking softly to those considered ‘polluted’ that they are as clean and as dignified as any light-skinned Brahmin. This cadre has been unhappy over Mayawati’s social alliance forged before the assembly elections. The sarvajan samaj, the Brahmin jodo campaign, or samta mulak samaj or Brahmin-dalit alliance brought Mayawati her majority mandate in last year’s assembly elections, but disappointed the cadre. Perhaps it is to win back that wondrous cadre that Mayawati has once again embarked on the politics of rage.
All her public utterances are now Dalit war cries. The film, Aaja Nach Le, was banned in some parts of UP because it has a song with the word mochi. Tikait was arrested for being ‘anti-dalit,’ Rahul Gandhi is ‘anti-Dalit’, Union minister Sriprakash Jaiswal is anti-Dalit, the Congress’s stand on Tikait shows that it too is anti-Dalit, the tag ‘anti-Dalit’ is almost like the paranoid Macarthy-era slogan of 1950s America, ‘anti-american’. By Mayawati’s decree, UP’s policemen will now have blue uniforms rather than white. It’s no coincidence that blue is the colour of the BSP and the Bahujan Volunteer Force or the private police of the BSP also wears blue. She reportedly plans to construct a 47-m-high statue of B.R. Ambedkar in Lucknow, higher even than the Statue of Liberty. She is about
to inaugurate the gigantic ‘Bheem Nagri’ festival in Agra to celebrate the birth centenary of Ambedkar to establish Agra as the Dalit capital of UP. The only forward-looking administrative measure seems to be the UPCOCA or the law on organised crime that has seen her government crack down on dons such as the recent arrest of Atiq Ahmad, MP from Phulpur.
Yet, aside from the festivals, statues and war cries, Mayawati’s administration still lacks a transformative vision for UP’s Dalits. Under BSP rule, white-collar workers among SCs and STs increased from 6 per cent to only 8 per cent. The share of SC workers in administrative and executive jobs remain unchanged.
The BSP’s impact on marginalised poor Dalits has been minimal. The Ambedkar Village Programme (AVP) started in Mayawati’s last government failed to uplift poor dalits as its benefits have been cornered by a small entrepreneurial section within the SC community and the schemes were badly implemented. As economist Ravi Srivastava writes, “During the periods that the BSP has been in power in UP, it has not put forward a transformative vision of UP’s development.”
Identity politics in the 21st century, in times defined by economic change, mobility and the free flow of ideas and information, is a supreme condescension to the voter. Vote for me simply because I am a Dalit or a Hindu or a Muslim may work in the first election, to secure an initial mandate. But the mandate fritters away if the demagogue fails to grow up and become a bridge-builder between communities.
Mayawati’s core vote-bank may be intact for the moment. But the miraculous promise of the last election when it looked as if she could transform the BSP from a party of the Dalits to a party of the poor from all castes, is suddenly looking as if it will not be fulfilled after all. Every upper-caste, however progressive and liberal, must never be allowed to forget his civilisational guilt.
From Delhi, to Haryana to Maharashtra, her rallies outside UP are impressive. The blue elephant of the BSP is painted on walls across India as that indefatigable cadre mobilises voters every day and every night, constantly defining ‘the political’ not as drawing room power play like the Congress and the BJP but as a ceaseless process of mass contact.
Yet her message is the same as it was a decade ago, her sarvajan samaj interregnum a mere interlude now because hatred has once again become her central theme. Last year Mayawati was the social reconciler, this year she is back to being the upper-caste hater, hater of everyone from Tikait to Rahul Gandhi. Alas, the dalit virangana has failed to learn the language of love from the Bhakti saint.
Sagarika Ghose is Senior Editor, CNN-IBN