New Delhi: Rahul Gandhi may have failed to prevent the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) from sweeping the Uttar Pradesh assembly polls last year, but his frequent visits to the state may be succeeding in spoiling the Dalit leader’s plans to focus on the five states set to go to elections this year.
Equally important, Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s son, who is being groomed as a future prime ministerial candidate, may have—with his very high profile interaction with Dalits—forced Mayawati to work at preserving her core constituency rather than striving to expand her base among the cross-section of castes that helped her win the state election.
Beginning with Karnataka next month, BSP has been hoping to increase its vote percentage in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi.
Since Monday, Mayawati has repeatedly accused Gandhi of practising untouchability. She claimed, first at an election meeting in Azamgarh, UP, that he used a special soap and went through purification rituals after visiting Dalit homes in the state. Despite the widespread outrage that followed her statement, she chose to repeat this, at election rallies in Hardoi on Tuesday and Muradnagar on Wednesday.
“This is clearly Mayawati’s attempt at fortification, thanks to her perception of threat to her citadel, that is the Dalit vote,” said Manjeet Chaturvedi, head of the sociology department at Banaras Hindu University. “The Congress has nothing to lose in UP but everything to gain in UP and the other states by forcing her to retreat to her basic political philosophy of anti-upper caste activism. Now, she can almost bid goodbye to her plans of spreading her appeal to the other castes.”
Despite active campaigning by Gandhi in last year’s polls in the state, the Congress party had slumped to its worst tally of 22 seats and BSP, with 206 seats in a 403-seat assembly, became the first single party to form a government on its own in the state since 1991.
BSP’s relations with the Congress party at the Union government soured not long after Mayawati’s ascent to power in UP since both parties were bound to compete for the same set of votes. For, after the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in north India from the late 1980s, the Congress had counted on the support of the majority of the socially and economically marginalized, a section that later switched to the pro-Dalit BSP in large numbers. BSP has emerged as a greater threat to the Congress since the last polls in UP, when it fielded candidates cutting across caste barriers. So, even as BSP continued to lend outside support to the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre and supported its presidential candidate, it geared up for the contests ahead.
In the Gujarat polls last December, BSP’s presence was seen as the reason that restricted the Congress party’s tally to 59 in a 182-member assembly, though it failed to win a single seat and secured just 2.62% of the votes polled. It did, however, divide the anti-BJP vote. Minus BSP, the Congress would have conceivably been able to contain the BJP below the tally of 117 seats.
Gandhi, a Lok Sabha member from UP’s Amethi, redoubled his efforts after the Gujarat debacle and stepped up pressure on the UP government by raising Dalit issues. In January, he visited Jhansi and later spent a night at a Dalit home in Amethi. Last month, he visited a village in Etawah district where five members of a Dalit family had been killed in caste violence.
Wherever he went, Mayawati followed, or tried to beat him to it by holding a public meeting before his visit. “Mayawati appears to have realized that she can not only not count on the upper caste voters who supported her during the last elections, but also she cannot take even her traditional votebank for granted,” said S.K. Dwivedi, a professor of political science at Lucknow University.
“She did this to safeguard her constituency,” said Vivek Kumar, a sociologist from Jawaharlal Nehru University. “She spoke in a language that her people would understand. She was not addressing the sophisticated class.”
Ambeth Rajan, a Rajya Sabha member of BSP, concurred, “This is politics, so choice of words cannot be disputed.” His comments came just a week after Mayawati invoked the law to get Bharatiya Kisan Union president Mahendra Singh Tikait arrested for publicly hurling a caste-based epithet against her.
While BJP’s state president, Ramapati Ram Tripathi, denounced her remarks against Gandhi, Shahid Siddiqui, a Rajya Sabha member of the principal opposition in the state, Samajwadi Party, attributed it to a feudal mindset. “As a people, we are yet to get rid of the feudal mindset which still regards the Nehru-Gandhi family as aristocracy. So, even Mayawati is forced to react when a Gandhi makes such well-publicized trips to Dalit homes,” Siddiqui reasoned.
Satyavrat Chaturvedi, a spokesman of the Congress, said: “Mayawati’s supporters have already started getting disillusioned by her rule. It’s natural that she shouldfeel politically insecure. Maybe, unlike the media, she realizes that the so-called rainbow coalition that brought her to power was more of a vote against the Mulayam Singh government than a vote for her.”
He said the Congress had little to fear from Mayawati in the other states. “Let’s face it. Mayawati is not a national leader. Her desperation shows she is struggling to retain supporters even in her own state.”