Uttar Pradesh Congress president Rita Bahuguna Joshi’s remarks against state chief minister Mayawati on Wednesday evening have ballooned into a major political battle for the Dalit and Brahmin vote banks.
It took a violent turn within hours when Joshi’s house in Lucknow was set on fire late on Wednesday night, despite the presence of a police party nearby round the clock.
In the speech at Moradabad, 150 km west of Delhi, Joshi, 60, daughter of former UP chief minister H.N. Bahuguna, said: “UP’s director general of police spends lakhs flying by helicopter from place to place... giving paltry doles of Rs 25,000-50,000 to rape victims... you should throw this money at Mayawati’s face and tell her that if she is raped, I will pay her Rs 1-crore compensation.”
She was referring to a welfare scheme by which Dalit women, whose rape has been established, are given amounts ranging from Rs 25,000 to Rs 75,000 as compensation.
The Congress quickly distanced itself from the comment.
“Whatever happened in UP is very unfortunate. The Congress president has expressed her deep pain and anguish,” said spokesman Janardan Dwivedi. “Joshi could have expressed herself without using the words she did,” he said.
But the uncalled for provocation gave Mayawati, whose core Dalit votebank had moved partially to the Congress in the recent Lok Sabha elections, just the opportunity she needed to win some of it back.
She started by having Joshi arrested later on Wednesday night in Ghaziabad for her remarks. Then came the attack on her Lucknow house.
Addressing a press conference in Lucknow on Thursday, Mayawati used Joshi’s comment to attack Sonia Gandhi.
“The Congress has not taken any action against Joshi. This indicates that what she said was at the instigation of Sonia Gandhi,” Mayawati said.
Mayawati, however, condemned the attack on Joshi’s house. “BSP workers were not involved,” she said, adding Congressmen may have been behind the attack.
Joshi’s fate now hangs in balance, but Sonia will decide after hearing her version of the story.
The Congress president has also reportedly asked Parliamentary Affairs Minister PK Bansal to make a statement on the issue in Parliament. The UP issue, which derailed proceedings on Thursday, is likely to come up again on Friday.
“The Congress stands for the highest standards in public debates… the party regrets the personal element” in Bahuguna Joshi’s remarks on Mayawati, read a carefully drafted press statement issued by the party, which alternated between offence and defence.
It is hoping that its efforts at controlling the damage, along with Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi’s aggressive wooing of Dalits, will control the fallout from the UPCC chief’s gaffe.
Meanwhile, a section of UP Congressmen are hoping for a double bonanza. They are counting on sympathy for Joshi among Brahmins (she is one) to hasten the consolidation of the Brahmin vote behind the party. The Brahmin vote is currently split between the Congress, BSP and BJP.
The Congress, trying to put Mayawati on the backfoot, said in the statement: “The credibility and fairness of the Mayawati regime would also be on test in the way it deals with arsonists who… set Smt Joshi’s house on fire.”
This no-holds barred political battle is expected to get more intense.
Joshi later explained: “I was simply drawing the people’s attention to the fact that Mayawati’s doles of Rs 25,000 to every Dalit rape victim was quite ironical as the state police chief spends lakhs on the helicopter rides takes to hand over that paltry amount to the victim. One cannot compensate the loss of a woman’s honour with money.”