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First among equals

First among equals
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First Published: Fri, May 23 2008. 11 59 PM IST

Mayawati at a rally in New Delhi in February 2008
Mayawati at a rally in New Delhi in February 2008
Updated: Fri, May 23 2008. 11 59 PM IST
Behenji | Ajoy Bose
Mayawati is undoubtedly the most interesting politician in India today. A leader with roots in Uttar Pradesh, whose appeal extends to many other north Indian states; a shrewd politician who draws on a social rather than a territorial constituency; and of course, as the title of this book by journalist Ajoy Bose suggests, a behenji, who appeals to the emotion of her supporters and opponents alike.
Mayawati at a rally in New Delhi in February 2008
Politically baptized by Kanshi Ram, founder of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Mayawati was dismissed by her adversaries as “an unguided missile that has explosive intent, but no sense of direction”.
Yet, she became the chief minister of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, four times. Her rise to power is attributed to her firm grip over a strong Dalit community, although in the 2007 state assembly elections her victory was largely due to her own social engineering ability to mobilize voters of socially disparate classes.
The strategy to form “a wider coalition of different segments in Indian society”, conceived originally by Kanshi Ram, catapulted Mayawati to centre stage. There are, as the author suggests, three distinct phases in this strategy that played havoc with Mayawati’s opponents in the 2007 election.
First, the slogan ‘Brahman jodo’ (integrate Brahmins, or the upper castes) was a masterstroke, which yielded dramatic results. To translate that slogan into reality, Mayawati’s first major step was the induction of former advocate general Satish Chandra Mishra into the party. By organizing Brahman mahasammelans (Brahmin gatherings) at regular intervals, Mishra helped the BSP make significant inroads among Brahmins. In these mahasammelans, Mayawati repeatedly assured Brahmins that “the BSP is against Manuwadi, or the Brahminical discourse for lower castes, and not against Brahmins”. The upper-caste vote was a critical factor in BSP’s victory.
Behenji: Penguin, 288 pages, Rs499
The second supportive factor was certainly the concerted effort by party workers to build an organizational network, spread widely across the state, the parallel of which can be found in West Bengal where the Left Front, supported by a well-entrenched organization, still proves invincible.
It is common knowledge that unlike other political parties, the BSP began its electoral drill almost two years ago by choosing candidates for most of the constituencies.
Divided into 25 sectors (with 10 polling booths in one sector), each constituency is looked after by the party’s high command; and each booth, with roughly 1,000 voters, is the responsibility of a nine-member committee comprising at least one woman to motivate and mobilize women voters. Besides organizational backing, Mayawati, also known as a “Dalit ki beti”, brought tangible benefits to the Dalit community in rural and urban Uttar Pradesh.
But, her story is not all fairy tale. Bose’s comprehensive portrait of the politician also pays attention to the controversies surrounding her—including the corruption charges against her. Reflective of “the absence of any kind of moral code in Indian politics when it comes to money”, Mayawati seems to have conformed to the pattern notwithstanding her claim that “the sources of her wealth are contributions from her followers who want to see a ‘Dalit ki beti’, rich as well as powerful”. Bose contends that this explanation is not persuasive enough, because considering “the Uttar Pradesh chief minister’s rising political clout, it is unlikely that any government agency is to seriously trouble her in the near future”.
Is behenji going to become India’s prime minister? The author responds by drawing on her “secure bastion in the country’s largest state and emotional stronghold over a countrywide group like Dalits”. There is no doubt that the BSP will perform better in the forthcoming Lok Sabha polls, though it is doubtful whether it will have enough seats in the Lower House to claim the premiership.
The reasons are not difficult to find in view of the pattern that has emerged in India’s recent political history: As long as the two pan-Indian parties, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, remain numerically strong in the Lok Sabha, regional parties, including the BSP, may find it politically appropriate not to insist on unrealistic demands.
But Bose also points out that if Mayawati succeeds in winning a sizeable number of Lok Sabha constituencies, the possibility of her becoming the prime minister cannot completely be ruled out.
A paradox that Bose misses about his subject: Though Mayawati has given a sense of identity and importance to the marginalized poor of Uttar Pradesh, she seems to be disinclined to democratize the BSP. It is one of the most individual-centric parties in the country. The choice of candidates during elections is always made by leaders in the upper echelons of the party hierarchy.
Bidyut Chakrabarty is a professor of political science at the University of Delhi.
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First Published: Fri, May 23 2008. 11 59 PM IST
More Topics: Mayawati | Kanshi Ram | BSP | Upper caste | Dalit |