In the pink of health
By now, miles of newsprint and hours of airtime have already been devoted to deconstructing Mayawati. You have heard all that you possibly could about her historic victory, her political acumen, her earthy charisma and her iconic hold over the Dalit community. You even know that strawberry pink is her favourite colour.
So why am I spending another weekend talking about an over-saturated subject? Because, even more than her well-documented achievements, it’s the reaction of people that has been fascinating, contradictory and, in some cases, downright disgusting. And in many ways, the schizophrenia of India’s response to Mayawati is a symbol of the country’s larger battle within.
As far as I can tell, there have essentially been two extreme responses to Mayawati’s ascent in Uttar Pradesh.
The first is the panic and thinly disguised contempt of the yuppie, English-speaking, America-educated urbanite. He’s shrewd enough to never acknowledge it in public, but in private conversations will openly lament the future of India if “such politicians” continue to grab centrestage. Mayawati’s hard-nosed Hindi, unapologetic aggression and shimmering salwar- kameez make him nervous. If his scathing (and often deeply personal) criticism of her makes him sound like a horrible snob, he isn’t even slightly embarrassed. He worries that when Mayawati declares that she is aiming to be Prime Minister within the next decade, she means it. He knows he may not even be a milestone in her political journey from Lucknow to Delhi, and can’t bear being that irrelevant. He has made his millions on Wall Street and wonders how “someone like her” would fit in at the White House. He believes he is beyond social prejudice, but is likely to have been born into an “upper caste” and thus never experienced discrimination. The burgeoning growth rate is primarily what defines his dreams and possibly what blinds him to an India that is both changing and challenging class hierarchies.
This is the sort of Indian citizen who has contempt for all politicians and only wants to see dapper city slickers in Parliament — the sort who lug their laptops, know their wine from their whiskies and are eloquent in English. And now, he’s alarmed that the rest of India is tearing down the barricades, making its way inside his No Entry clubs and turning all the old rules on their head. He feels like a man without a passport in the New India that Mayawati represents. As social churning jumbles up existing equations and gives birth to a new elite, he may well get left behind on the periphery, if he doesn’t make peace with how dramatically his country is poised for change.
Log on to the Internet, and you will be stunned to discover how many bloggers — anonymous, or otherwise — have worn their obvious bias on their computer screens. Some even write about wanting to “leave India if Mayawati ever became Prime Minister” — all this without a trace of irony or shame. Their delusion is not just offensive; it’s positively frightening.
At the other end of the spectrum is the equal and opposite response. This is the world of the eulogy writers. In this corner of India, Mayawati has been romanticised and revered to a degree that makes her sound almost
unreal. Of course she is a dramatic and powerful symbol of Dalit assertion and so it’s not her voters I’m writing about here. I’m talking about the awe-struck observers and commentators who believe that she must be evaluated by a different set of parameters than other politicians. You only have to look back at some of the breathless editorials and columns of the last fortnight. Perhaps worried that any circumspection could sound dangerously like caste bias, most of the media have stayed away from past controversies and awkward questions. Not many are willing to revisit the Taj Corridor controversy that cost Mayawati a stint in power. How many editorials have commented on the mass transfer of more than a hundred bureaucrats within a day of her taking over as Chief Minister?
What about the whiff of vendetta politics as business decisions made by the previous government come swiftly under the knife? And how many writers are actually willing to examine the more complex dimensions to Mayawati’s persona? Yes, she is a powerful grassroots politician who has given the marginalised a voice and an identity. But in her personal working style, is she in danger of embracing the very feudalism her party has fought against? Is the BSP a one-woman shop? Is Mayawati autocratic, dictatorial and unwilling to share power within the party?
Now that the dust has settled and the celebrations are winding down, will her government now be measured by actual performance rather than symbolic value?
Yes, many of the criticisms that have tailed her career, apply just as much to other parties and politicians. Mulayam Singh Yadav’s government made no apologies about promoting a cartel of personal friends when it came to business or pleasure. It’s only natural that the next government will come along and undo some of that. That said, the real assimilation of Mayawati into mainstream politics will happen only when we are able to critique her without fear, favour or prejudice. And besides, as she has shown in election after election, she hardly needs our supercilious generosity.
Now that she is Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh for the fourth time, this then will be Mayawati’s real challenge. She has built an unlikely camaraderie between the Brahmins and the Dalits of one state. Can she now reinvent herself further? Can she shrug off the clichés that have defined her and emerge into a politician who Indians dare not scorn, but need not be scared of either. Will she now set an agenda for governance and development? Will the security of success make her more willing to share power? Now that she has every political party lining up at her doorstep, can she finally afford to be a little less abrasive? She has already created a successful coalition across antagonistic castes. Can she now bridge the divide across classes? In many ways where she goes from here may define how India resolves her own contradictions.
Barkha Dutt is Managing Editor, NDTV 24x7