Editor’s note: This article, originally published in Firstpost Print on 4 May, is being republished in view of Mayawati’s recent personal attack against the prime minister Narendra Modi. It provides the context for understanding what this election means for Mayawati and why she is tuning up the rhetoric in the last leg of a long election.
It was late on a winter night in 2010, way too late for Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati to be up. But she was. She had roused her entire staff and was huddled in a corner of her bed, the very picture of fear and foreboding.
The reason? A strange, feeble buzzing sound. A bomb? A fire, gnawing at a wall? A listening device gone rogue?
Within minutes, all senior security officers had been summoned; an operation was launched to identify the source of the sound that had spooked the chief minister. The operation, as a senior police officer on duty at her residence, told me, was brief: The sound came from a short-circuit in the electrical wiring that was fixed in minutes.
The fear, though, did not go away. The staff were now scared of telling Mayawati about the glitch as that would translate into a mass sacking at the state’s Public Works Department.
Enter the bureaucracy, respected and reviled in equal measure for its devious ingenuity. A large cockroach was found and sacrificed as the perpetrator of Mayawati’s troubles that cold night.
For those who know Mayawati, the story is eminently believable. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader is, even by the bizarre standards of Indian politics, among the handful of leaders feared by officers of the state machinery whenever she presides over it. She is a strong leader, but one seized by perpetual paranoia. And it’s not without reason.
Ever since her rise as the sole leader of the BSP, Mayawati has been the focus of more curiosity than any other leader in the state. A single woman, a Dalit at that, relatively young and yet wielding enough power to dream of the highest office in the land. For her supporters, Mayawati is the miracle they have waited for.
With the Lok Sabha elections more than half done, Mayawati will soon face the unforgiving gaze of destiny. The Bahujan Samaj Party had hoped to fashion a single political leadership for Dalits across the country. Win or lose, that dream is well-nigh dead.
Born and brought up in Delhi, Mayawati was well down a predictable path to entry into the middle-class, with a bachelor’s in education under her belt and preparations for the civil services examination underway. Then, BSP founder Kanshi Ram anointed her as an understudy in his pursuit of social and political justice for the Scheduled Castes.
In those days of the heady eighties, the emergence of the Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti (DS4) and Backward and Minority Community Employees Federation (BAMCEF) had injected an evolved strain of radical Dalit activism into the politics of the Hindi heartland. The young Mayawati took smoothly to the role of BSP rabble-rouser. This was the antagonistic phase of the BSP, suffused with anti-upper caste slogans like Tilak, Tarazu aur Talwar, Inko Maro Joote Chaar that rent the air.
The BSP was still a marginal force in the electoral battlefield, but Kanshi Ram had established himself as the voice of Dalits in Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati in tow. In 1989, she won a by-election to the Bijnor Lok Sabha seat.
It was from the ruins of the Babri Masjid that Mayawati’s political fortunes took wing. Finding himself completely sidelined in the 1991 Assembly elections, Uttar Pradesh strongman Mulayam Singh Yadav was fighting like a cornered cat. Former prime minister VP Singh’s Janata Dal was still the strongest opposition while Yadav was totally marginalised in former prime minister Chandra Shekhar’s Janata Dal (Socialist).
Things began to fall in place for Mayawati. Yadav seceded, founded his own Samajwadi Janata Party (SJP) and joined hands with the BSP. The combination they added up to in terms of their social base was formidable. Additionally, Mulayam had emerged as champion of the Muslim cause on the back of his having protected the masjid in 1990. The 1993 Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh surprised everyone, with the SP-BSP combination mopping up enough seats to stake claim with the help of the Janata Dal and Congress. Mulayam benefited from the Scheduled Caste vote that Kanshi Ram brought over; the politics of caste began mutating slowly into the arithmetic of elections and the BJP’s isolation was complete. Bang in the middle of the Ram temple movement, the core mission of subsuming castes into the ‘Hindutva’ fold had been rudely interrupted. This forced the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological parent of the BJP, to hurriedly induct Dalit icon BR Ambedkar into this pantheon of leaders worthy of being remembered every morning (pratah pujyaneey). A bunch of sadhus from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) soon landed up for lunch with Dom Raja of Varanasi to underscore the Parivar’s Dalit credentials.
But something more had changed, too.
In this election, Mayawati, too, emerged as a leader in her own right. And she was behaving like one, holding meetings with legislators and ministers in the government, and issuing instructions to the BSP rank and file, albeit in the name of Manyawar (honourable leader) Kanshi Ram.
Kanshi Ram, however, remained unconvinced by Mayawati’s political acumen, and made no attempt to hide his disdain, even in public. For instance, he had once expressed his appreciation for top BJP ideologue KN Govindacharya for coining the term ‘social engineering’ and wanted to meet him. When a journalist asked if he was interested in meeting Govindacharya personally or let his party’s general secretary Mayawati meet the BJP ideologue on his behalf, Kanshi Ram quipped, “She does not have the stature to meet Govindacharya. I want to meet him.” Mayawati, sitting right next to Kanshi Ram, looked suitably embarrassed but took her mentor’s comments in her stride.
It wasn’t time. Yet.
The turning point came on 2 June, 1995, when Mayawati was holding a meeting of BSP legislators at a state guesthouse on Meerabai Marg in Lucknow to communicate her decision to pull the rug from under Mulayam’s feet. As the meeting progressed, Samajwadi Party goons led by a group of legislators descended upon the guesthouse and attacked Mayawati with clear intent to cause bodily harm. Mayawati escaped the attack, but two things happened. One, It embedded a permanent paranoia in Mayawati (of the kind described at the beginning of this article) and, two, it catapulted her to instantaneous fame as the defender of the Dalits.
The next day, Vora sacked the Mulayam government and later invited Mayawati to be sworn in as chief minister with the backing of the BJP which was eager to be seen a Dalit-friendly party. Mayawati had become the youngest chief minister of the nation’s most politically relevant state. For the legions of her Dalit followers, it was a dream come true. There was no holding back now.
She inexorably eclipsed her mentor Kanshi Ram in popularity, even if her first two stints as chief minister lasted no more than a few months each. In 2001, Kanshi Ram did not surprise anybody when he named Mayawati as his successor and BSP president, a post she has held ever since.
By 2007, Mayawati had recast the arithmetic of 1993, bringing the upper castes into her support block with the help of master tactician SC Mishra, the man who once defended OP Singh, the SSP of Lucknow at the time of the guesthouse attack (currently DGP of UP). This time the victory was sweeter than in 1993 because this came on the back of the support of Brahmins, the vote bank of the BJP. The ‘Hindutva’ mission had now receded deep into the background. And because Kanshi Ram’s health did not permit him to be fully active, and the victory belonged to his heiress alone. Mayawati had broken free, not just of Kanshi Ram but of his Scheduled Caste support.
A page had been turned in India’s electoral history.
The BSP took a major turn, too, all for the emergent cult of the new great leader. Mayawati had expanded her exclusivist Dalit base and cultivated a strong constituency within the upper castes, particularly Brahmins, who make a significant part of the electorate.
With new formula came new slogans — Hathi Nahi Ganesh Hai, Brahma Vishnu Mahesh Hai (not just an elephant but Lord Ganesha incorporating the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh).
Mayawati proved she was more than just an election-winning machine, turning out to be a better administrator than Mulayam. Her first full term, from 2007 to 2012, is remembered especially for two achievements: firm control on law and order, and the construction of parks, monuments and other public projects in the state capital and financial capital Noida.
The public projects too were appreciated even if they attracted criticism, as they flaunted the party symbol, the elephant, as well as statues of Kanshi Ram and even Mayawati herself, with her trademark handbag hanging from a wrist.
The Mayawati cult was set in stone now. But, as often happens, the cult soon began to overtake the cause.
Mayawati was accused of institutionalising corruption and favouritism. Accepting cash donations on her birthday, January 15, became a big event, with supporters presenting her with garlands of high-value currency notes. ‘Crore Competency’, one news magazine headlined one such picture of the BSP supremo.
Gone was the simplicity that Kanshi Ram made a virtue of; Mayawati flaunted her riches. Gone also was the commitment to the Dalit cause at all costs. Her immediate family members emerged as influential backstage leaders while her larger Dalit family continued to languish.
All this was not going to impress voters. In the 2012 Assembly elections, a substantial section of upper castes, OBCs and non-Jatav Dalits deserted Mayawati, bringing back the SP. Mayawati’s BSP still had enough inner strength to absorb this blow, but worse was to follow.
The SP wave was only a precursor to the Modi triumph of 2014. As the BJP-led alliance won an unbelievable 73 of the state’s 80 seats, the BSP was reduced to zero. Suddenly, and out of nowhere, the “Hindutva” mission was front and centre of Uttar Pradesh’s politics underscored by the installation of a incumbent priest-politician of the Gorakhnath Math following the saffron-wash of the 2017 Assembly election. The BSP managed to win only 19 out of the 403 seats, behind SP, as the BJP won 312—the first clear mandate in the state in decades.
Caste alliances could cut both ways. Her vote bank was no Kanshi Ram flock; it had proved migratory just as the upper castes had been in 2007.
Cult followings can be fickle, Mayawati discovered. The dark clouds on Mayawati’s horizon had no silver lining. It was thus that as she stared at a bleak 2019 she had no option but to fall back on mentor Kanshi Ram’s 1993 formula: a tie-up with sworn enemy, the Samajwadi Party, now led by Mulayam’s son Akhilesh. While both parties have tried to give their forced friendship the perception of strength (mahagatbandhan or grand alliance), the hard fact is this: both have reduced themselves to half the parties they once were. Irrespective of how many seats she wins in this election, her dream of becoming the national Dalit icon is an idea whose time has gone. For this she has herself and her ‘I’ cult alone to blame.
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Cracks in cult of Mayawati: Return to Kanshi Ram’s alliance formula shows BSP chief’s larger-than-life… – Firstpost