Watching the Mayawati show of opulence through the prism of mainstream television last week, undoubtedly, revolted our middle-class sensibilities. Going beyond the initial reaction, it is more than apparent that there was a method to the madness of the wily politician, the most iconic living representative of Dalits in the country.
The predictable attacks on the Uttar Pradesh chief minister by her political rivals, threats of scrutiny by income-tax authorities and the revulsion of the urban middle class were precisely, I believe, the response she and her Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) had wanted to evoke.
While the middle-class angst may not have gone beyond the family drawing room, some of Mayawati’s political rivals were far from circumspect in their condemnation of the BSP chief for accepting garlands made of currency notes from her admirers.
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What it did was to fit into the stereotype of caste politics portraying Mayawati as the victim, even while her Dalit base, bearing the grudge of being historically disempowered, would have been injected with a dose of feel-good factor at the display of ostentation and camaraderie towards their leader.
But why now?
In the 15th general election, held in May last year, Mayawati entered the electoral contest as the clear top dog (if I may use the slang to describe the opposite of an underdog) in Uttar Pradesh. After all, she had surprised everyone by first setting up an unbelievable alliance between the Brahmins and the Dalits and then making it click to manage a majority for the BSP on its own in the 2007 assembly elections.
Not surprisingly, therefore, pundits in general and Mayawati in particular were convinced that, post-general election, BSP was going to be a key player in the electoral arithmetic of any future coalition at the Centre; there was even talk of Mayawati emerging as a prime ministerial candidate in the event of a dead heat.
With the advantage of hindsight, we know that this didn’t pan out. The Congress, which was virtually written off, surprised everyone in Uttar Pradesh. It won 22 seats, up from nine in the 2004 general election and two more than what was managed by the BSP.
Clearly, the rainbow alliance cobbled by Mayawati was not working any more. The Brahmin vote, once the Congress had revived, was swinging back to where it has always tended to belong. Worse, Rahul Gandhi’s much-publicized visits to Dalit homes was a signal that the Congress was taking the battle to Mayawati.
She has been quick to figure that her principal rival is the rejuvenated Congress and not Mulayam Singh Yadav, the politician representing other backward classes (OBCs) as the Samajwadi Party (SP) chief. The Muslims, who account for nearly one-fifth of the vote in UP, had become disaffected with the SP and were now lining up behind the Congress.
This obviously set the stage for Mayawati to consolidate her vote bank ahead of the showdown in 2012 when UP, the country’s most populous state that elects 80 members to the Lok Sabha, will go to the polls.
The easiest way to do this is tap into the deep-rooted anger among Dalits. At the receiving end of caste discrimination, they have in the last three decades begun to witness an alteration in their circumstances with the ascent of the BSP and the progressive loosening up of the Indian economy.
Economic opportunity and grass-roots political activism has probably done more for this community than affirmative action in the six decades since the country achieved independence in 1947.
I believe, from casual conversations with scholars, that the Dalits are among the first migrants to move to cities to take advantage of the economic opportunities that the new growth process has generated. The push factor is enormous: Mostly landless and socially exploited, they have nothing to lose but their chains.
So Mayawati has done two things: One, she has back-pedalled on her very public acknowledgment of the Brahmins associated with the BSP. Second, she has used spectacles such as the construction of life-sized statues of her and, now more recently, the use of a Rs5.20 crore garland, to inject a feel-good factor among her Dalit base and at the same time solicit a backlash from her opponents. The Supreme Court’s intervention in the unveiling of statutes and the sharp censure of Mayawati would have only reinforced the feeling of victimization among the BSP cadre.
It is too early to say whether this would work for the BSP in the 2012 assembly elections in UP. A lot would depend on how the Congress succeeds in its consolidation efforts and also whether Mayawati is able to effect a turnaround in governance—as Nitish Kumar seems to have managed in Bihar.
But viewed this way, it is easier to understand the actions of Mayawati. They are the machinations of a political mind and not the random antics of someone besotted by power.
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org