The recent contretemps between Rita Bahuguna Joshi and Mayawati has been the most depressing sequence of events in post-general election politics. The gratuitous ugliness of it ought to make the observer of Indian politics despair.
Speechless: Rita Joshi visits her house soon after it was torched by miscreants. AFP
Joshi’s part in this squalid quarrel isn’t surprising. The daughter of the late chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna, she has had a political career of the sort that’s politely described as chequered. She has been in and out of the Congress; she has fought for elective office as an Independent, as a Samajwadi Party candidate and as a Congresswoman. Apart from winning the mayoralty of Allahabad, she has lost every other election that she has contested. But despite her recent electoral defeat in Lucknow, her political career has been on the upswing; she is the chief of the Uttar Pradesh Congress Committee (UPCC) and given the Congress’ resurgence in UP during the last general election, her star has been in the ascendant.
I was in Moradabad during Azharuddin’s election campaign when she addressed the Congress faithful at a political rally held in the grounds of the palace of a Muslim grandee. It was apparent from her speech that she had cast herself, in a long and ignoble Congress tradition, as a family loyalist. She urged the Congress workers assembled there to make sure that they assembled in their thousands for “Rahulji’s” scheduled stop in Moradabad. The turnout for Rahul Gandhi’s constituency visit seemed rather more important to her than the turnout in the general election.
I imagine that as a creature of 10 Janpath, Joshi was taking her cue from Rahul Gandhi’s strategy to aggressively project the Congress’ presence in UP when she made her infamous remark about rape. Trying to make the point that the UP government’s policy of giving financial compensation to rape victims was inadequate and demeaning, she is reported to have said: “Throw such money back at Mayawati and tell her, ‘if you’re raped, I am ready to give you a crore’.”
It’s hard to believe that any responsible political figure, leave alone a politician whose father was a UP Brahmin, could polemicize against a Dalit woman chief minister in terms as crass and offensive as these. It’s even harder to believe that the Congress party, whose erstwhile dominance in that state was based upon an electoral combination of Dalits, Muslims and Brahmins, would respond to Joshi’s speech with a pro forma expression of regret and disapproval without censuring or disciplining her. Sonia Gandhi was content to distance herself from the form of words used by her apparatchik, while her son was even more aggressive in his response, insisting that Joshi’s choice of words was unfortunate but that her critique was valid.
Rahul Gandhi’s willingness to write off Dalits in general and Jatavs in particular in UP by doing as little as possible to discipline Joshi, is of a piece with the Congress’ cynical willingness to find new electoral combinations in the Hindi heartland. So the UPCC chief’s willingness to appeal to a casteist electorate’s worst instincts is depressing, but unsurprising.
What’s rather more disheartening is the UP chief minister’s response to Joshi’s provocation. She was charged under several non-bailable sections of the law, including the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989, and remanded to judicial custody. Had Mayawati contented herself with this, with demonstrating the awful retribution that Indian law visits upon those who seek explicitly or by implication to humiliate or intimidate Dalits, she would have made her point, consolidated her reputation as a no-nonsense opponent of inflammatory rhetoric and stood out as a defender of the downtrodden.
But she didn’t. Newspapers and news channels reported that Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) goons set fire to Joshi’s home in Lucknow and ransacked it. A few days later the BSP member of Parliament allegedly behind this act of arson was rewarded with the deputy chairmanship of the Uttar Pradesh State Sugar Corporation. Instead of casting herself as the guarantor of the public peace in UP, the chief minister seemed to go out of her way to stand out as the embodiment of the lawlessness and state impunity that has characterized UP politics in recent times.
This is a tragedy, while the Congress’ provocation is merely a form of low farce, because Mayawati is a historical political figure, whereas Rita Joshi is a political creature and Rahul Gandhi is a fifth-generation dynast. Mayawati is the first Dalit chief minister of India’s largest state and the first Dalit ever to be seen as a credible candidate for the prime ministership of the republic. Instead of fulfilling her historic potential, she has chosen to fritter it away by allowing the media to assimilate her to the thuggish politics of her home state.
It’s unfair to expect Mayawati to set higher standards than Mulayam Singh Yadav or Amar Singh or Rita Joshi, but pioneering politicians from plebeian backgrounds owe it to the people they represent to set an example. Mayawati could have made an example of Joshi within the law; by seeming to step outside it, she has sold herself short, betrayed a political trust and given her enemies and the enemies of the bahujan samaj that she claims to represent, a weapon. It’s unfair to expect Mayawati to be India’s Obama, but not too much to ask, surely, that she not turn herself into UP’s Ahmadinejad.
Mukul Kesavan, a professor of social history at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, is the author of The Ugliness of the Indian Male and Other Propositions
Write to Mukul at firstname.lastname@example.org