Monday, March 22, 2010

[ZESTCaste] The method in the madness of Mayawati

Posted: Sun, Mar 21 2010. 9:04 PM IST

The method in the madness of Mayawati

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, the response
she and her BSP had wanted to evoke

Capital Calculus | Anil Padmanabhan

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

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.

Also Read | Anil Padmanabhan's Earlier Columns

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


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