The importance of being BSP supremo Mayawati
The Uttar Pradesh election results carry two significant messages, which may have a positive impact on political tactics at the national level. One is that the people of the state lost their patience with the typically fractious coalition politics. The other is that, as Chief Minister-designate Mayawati said after her party's victory, the common man rejected sectarian politics to rise above caste and religion.
Till now, parties like the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the losers in the state, had spent their time instigating their mainly caste-and community-based supporters against their putative 'enemies'. While the SP with its backward caste support base targeted the upper castes, the BJP, which championed the cause of Hindus, directed its ire at the Muslims.
In contrast, Mayawati's Dalit-based Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) focused its attention on forging a Dalit-Brahmin alliance, which brought together the former 'untouchables' of Indian society with the upper castes.
Her remarkable electoral success is based on this miracle of putting aside the centuries-old caste prejudices which prevent a Dalit and a Brahmin from even sharing a meal.
There is little doubt that, at the social level, such inhibitions still remain. But, at least on the political plane, the segregations of the past have been eliminated in so resounding a manner that its long-term beneficial impact on society will be inevitable.
What is noteworthy is that Mayawati began her career, like the SP and the BJP, by encouraging sectarianism, pitting the Dalits against the upper castes. Her slogan at the time was "Tilak, tarazu aur talwar, inko maro joote char" (beat with shoes the Brahmins, banias and Thakurs).
Yet, today, her rallying cry in the election was: "Hathi nahin Ganesh hai, Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh hai" (it isn't an elephant - the BSP's election symbol - but the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh). For good measure, she also mentioned other gods like Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh.
To underline her point, another of her slogans was: "Brahmin sankh bajayega, Hathi chalta jayega" (the Brahmin will blow the conch shell as the elephant marches on).
This is, of course, not the first time that there has been a Dalit-Brahmin electoral tie-up. The Congress's earlier support base also comprised the Brahmins, the Dalits and the Muslims, ensuring years of victories for the party.
But that combination in the years immediately after independence was based on the fact that neither the Dalits nor the Muslims had a credible party of their own at the time. The organisations set up by the Dalit icon BR Ambedkar had never stabilised while the Muslims were at a loose end after the Muslim League's divisive politics led to partition and the League itself virtually ceased to exist, except in Kerala in the far south.
As a result, the implicit assumption in the Congress's Brahmin-Dalit-Muslim combine was that the upper castes would be at the helm.
The importance of Mayawati lies in the fact that she has reversed this arrangement. It is now the Dalits who are in the driving seat, something which would have been unthinkable in this country in the earlier decades. It is this high status for the Dalits which has made her even more popular with them and helped her to further consolidate her influence on her main source of support.
In reaching out to the Brahmins, the traditional oppressors of the Dalits, she has also demonstrated her confidence in her own ability to make a success of this seemingly unlikely alliance.
Arguably, the Congress could not have dared to try this unique Mayawati-style electoral experiment because the Brahmins would have drifted away to the BJP, as they did during the Ramjanmabhoomi movement in the nineties when they suspected the Congress of being too pro-Muslim in its attitude.
If Maywati's tactical ploy has succeeded, the reason is that the Brahmins - at least in UP - have felt betrayed by the BJP and have no time for the Congress in its present weakened condition in the state.
The upper castes may have also felt that the BJP was more interested in using pro-Hindu sentiments to garner votes than in effective governance, a viewpoint which is articulated by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP).
Mayawati's no-nonsense image has helped her in this respect. Although her coalitional arrangements with, first the SP, and then twice with the BJP did not last because of her imperious ways as the chief minister, there was enough evidence to show that she was a tough administrator.
It is this reputation which has now helped her to sweep the polls because the people were deeply disillusioned by their experience under the SP's Mulayam Singh Yadav's coalition government because of the widespread lawlessness. Little wonder that another of Mayawati's effective slogans was: "Goonda raj chhati par, Button dabao hathi par", meaning that to end the reign of hoodlums, press the button on the voting machine on the symbol of the elephant.
The earlier rule of the BJP's Kalyan Singh was also disheartening for the electorate because of the communal tension and the destruction of the Babri Masjid. By again projecting Singh as the chief ministerial candidate, the BJP may have hurt its own chances, especially after the release of a virulently anti-Muslim compact disc, which the party had to subsequently disown.
In any event, the BJP has been losing ground in terms of the number of seats ever since it secured an all-time high of 221 seats in 1991. After that, its tally dropped to 174 in 1996 and then to 88 in 2002. In the 2004 parliamentary poll, the BJP won in 60 assembly segments. Now, it has dropped ever further to just 51 seats.
There is little doubt that this setback will be hugely disappointing for the party, which felt that its fortunes were on the rise after its recent successes in the Punjab, Uttarakhand and Delhi elections. In fact, it felt so elated that it wanted the 2009 parliamentary poll to be brought forward.
While the BJP will be able to ride out the present disappointment because of its presence in power in several states, the SP, whose influence is confined to UP, faces a dismal future. Till now, its number of seats was on the rise, from 92 in 1991 to 110 in 1996 to 143 in 2002. In 2004, the SP won in as many as 160 segments, more than any other party. But, now, it has experienced a sharp drop to just 97 seats.
The BSP, on the other hand, has seen its tally go up from a lowly 12 in 1991 to 67 in 1996, to 98 in 2002 and, now it has crossed the half-way mark in the 403-member assembly. It is a big jump because in 2004, it won in 97 assembly segments. Clearly, the Dalit-Brahmin combine, which was also joined by large sections of the Muslims, made the difference.
For the Congress, it has been a long downward journey. Its tally of seats dropped from 46 in 1991 to 29 in 1996, to 25 in 2002. In 2004, when it won power at the centre, the Congress won in 48 assembly segments in UP. But, it was a flash in the pan, for its total has now fallen to 22.
But a greater cause of concern for the party is that the outcome shows that heir apparent Rahul Gandhi's exertions made no impression on the voters.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at email@example.com)