Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati has every reason to get mad at the sweeping allegations made about her by recent WikiLeaks revelations quoting secret cables sent out by the US embassy in New Delhi to Washington. Amidst the palpable delight among the chattering classes at this new stick to beat their favourite whipping girl, what is being conveniently overlooked is that the source material used for the salacious ‘Portrait of a Lady’ penned by a junior US embassy official in October, 2008 appears to be entirely based on casual conversations with unnamed Lucknow journalists.
The colourful accounts of Mayawati sending a jet plane to Mumbai to fetch her favourite sandals, making an errant minister do sit-ups and employing eight cooks and two tasters in her kitchen have virtually no authenticity, particularly since none of the concerned hacks printed the information they shared with the American embassy in their own publications.
The BSP supremo is well known for her personal eccentricities, splurges and imperious ways. But it is also true that Mayawati has, for more than two decades, had an openly hostile relationship with the media, particularly those based in Lucknow. In fact, BSP workers in the city attacked the offices of a prominent Hindi daily in the winter of 1995 after it published a particularly scurrilous story about the unmarried Dalit leader having an illegitimate daughter. Although local journalists have become more discreet after Mayawati’s decisive victory in the 2007 assembly polls, they can hardly be regarded as unbiased or objective sources of information.
Interestingly, barely two months before the US embassy cable on her, two Delhi-based correspondents of The New York Times and The Washington Post went to Lucknow to do special profiles of the lady. They were, surprisingly, granted a rare interview with Mayawati and also met a large cross section of people in Lucknow and nearby rural areas, including Dalits. Both the articles were appreciative of the political distance travelled by the Dalit woman leader while simultaneously reflecting allegations of corruption and authoritarian behaviour by her detractors. However, what the two correspondents, professional journalists as they were, did not do was print Lucknow media-inspired gossip that they had no way of cross-checking.
It is possible the absence of the same professional discrimination by the US embassy had something to do with Washington’s annoyance at that time with Mayawati for almost scuppering the India-US nuclear deal. Moreover, the fact that such secret cables were never supposed to never see the light of day gave their authors a certain licence that the journalists did not have. Unfortunately, however sensational and uncorroborated, the information wearing the garb of WikiLeaks revelations allows the print and electronic media to go to town against select targets without fear of defamation.
Indeed, this is turning out to be a major drawback of WikiLeaks which spews out classified US embassy material, some providing useful insights but a lot more unreliable stuff based on hearsay. Sometimes, the documents seem downright dubious as in the case of a cable dated May 29, 2007 claiming that Mayawati’s close aide Satish Mishra had declared her corrupt and authoritarian. It is quite unbelievable that a few weeks after Mayawati’s historic election victory, of which Mishra was a major architect through his Dalit-Brahmin alliance, he would choose to rubbish his leader to an American diplomat.
Ajoy Bose is the author of Behenji: A Political Biography of Mayawati. The views expressed by the author are personal.