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Who’s afraid of Mayawati

As the UP chief minister begins her election campaign, a 3-city HT-Cfore survey reveals how and why the urban middle-class recoils at the thought of Maya as PM.See graphic

india Updated: Mar 22, 2009 00:22 IST

In a society where women depend on men, Mayawati is a self-made political climber. She defies other categorisations too. She is richer than many snots and studs, but she won’t play cocktail hostess. What hurts drawing room types is that they cannot connect with her socially. She is not their school friend or boardroom buddy. And yet she’s full of bragging rights. She has beaten them at their own games. But not by their rules.

It is not because she is Scheduled Caste or a woman that puts off the drawing room set. Prima donnas perform in their soirees, as do many from the Scheduled Castes. They look good and speak well, but most of all they are connected, or, the second best, eager to be connected. Mayawati could easily have walked into such parlours. But, so far, she has chosen not to. That is what rankles.

Mulayam Singh Yadav operates through Amar Singh, and Meira Kumar is classy on her own. Lalu Yadav’s children went to boarding schools for an education, and he went to Wharton on a junket. They are all connected — first hand or second hand — to the so-called elite. If there are some who are not in touch yet, there is still time. If and when they become politically powerful, the doors will open. Their past will be forgotten, their table manners forgiven. But they must want to belong.

Mayawati doesn’t, which explains her recoil effect. When others woo her they must go to her home. If a lunch is to be staged, she must be the host. Mamata can go to Jyotibabu, but Maya won’t go to Jaya. She has never been to Wharton, but one day Wharton will come to her. If the Congress boasts three figures on its posters, the BSP carries only her image. She erected statues of herself where there should be schools, made parks instead of houses, boasted, preened and aggrandised herself in a way that set new standards for political megalomaniacs. They all wish they could have done the same, but lack her gall. No wonder they hate her for it.

It is not what Mayawati has done, or not done, that is remarkable. It is just the scale on which she operates that is eye-popping. But if after all this she had only condescended and said she wanted to belong, built connections with the select and showed deference to their cultural codes, she could do what she does and more, and be loved for it. Parties revolve around personages, and ideologies butter delusions. But by being brazen about things that others do in the shade, she shines a mirror on their hypocrisy. Pink may not go with stout heels, but she combines the two anyway. She dresses like a woman but stamps on men like a man.

It is her ‘between’ status that is so confusing, even dangerous, to some. She is a behenji but without a husband, and not missing one either. She is a small town natural, but with big city dreams. She has enough English for a comeback, when you least expect it. Though most see Dalit in her, she fields Brahmans on her ticket. In 2007 she named the baddies one by one and won on law and order. But now, some of them such as Dhananjay Singh and D.P.Yadav are riding shotgun with her. She dodges protocol, but does not seem to care. You see her without a manifesto, and then you see her with one.

What her supporters find attractive about her is precisely what the sitting elite hate. When Mayawati transgresses gender roles, caste stereotypes, and standards of propriety she endears herself to those who are looking for another kind of leader. She is one of them, but smarter, better. They live vicariously through her and she has room enough for that. She can provide more shade than a thousand flower pots.

When Mayawati trumped in 2007, the traditionally favoured class wanted to get on her good side. She had neutered the OBCs and mocked at caste-only reservations. This was the opening they were waiting for. But Mayawati looked away. She had her own cronies, unshaven and vernacular, but who were happy with less. She could do a Narendra Modi and become a drawing room pet. But she would rather cuddle pooches of her own.

(Dipankar Gupta is professor of sociology at JNU)

First Published: Mar 22, 2009 00:19 IST