January 18, 2012, 9:00 AM IST
Politics Journal: Mayawati Banks on Dalits and Muslims
By Jyoti Malhotra
Click on the website of the Bahujan Samaj Party, headed by the chief
minister of Uttar Pradesh and Dalit leader Kumari Mayawati, and the
moving scroll on the masthead gives you a fair idea of the party's
sense of self.
"Capture this 'Temple of Power' For Your Emancipation," says one
slogan, emblazoned on a picture of Parliament House in Delhi.
"Political power is the master key using which you can open all the
doors of your progress and self-respect," says another, imprinted on a
group of women, presumably all voters that the BSP has already scooped
into its tent.
Below the slogans is the ubiquitous strap line: Sarvajan Hitay,
Sarvajan Sukhay (For the rights and prosperity of all the people.)
This last is a reference to Ms. Mayawati's rainbow coalition of castes
that she pulled together before the state elections were held in 2007,
with such stunning success, capturing 206 seats out of 403 in the
As UP prepares to go to the polls again over seven phases through
February and early March, Ms. Mayawati is gearing up for the most
important political battle of her life. At stake is a state often
considered the wind vane of Indian politics, with 80 seats in the
federal parliament. How the ballot boxes come in when counting is held
on March 6 will heavily influence the remaining life of the
Congress-led government until general elections are held in 2014.
All eyes are on UP, not only because of its huge population of 170
million people. All the key players are expected to make or break
their larger political reputations in this state, whether Rahul Gandhi
of the Congress, Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party or Ms. Mayawati
of the BSP.
Even Priyanka Gandhi, Rahul's sister and Sonia Gandhi's daughter but
otherwise a determined stay-at-home mother, has descended upon the
poll map, although she has decided to limit herself to the territory
covered by her mother and brother's federal constituencies in Rae
Bareli and Amethi, respectively.
The Bharatiya Janata Party is such a distant fourth in UP that its
irrelevance is compounded by the fact that it is unlikely to stitch up
alliances with any of the state's more powerful parties.
In UP these days, much is being made of the so-called "Muslim vote,"
with every party scheming on how to get the state's 20% Muslim
population on board. But in the permutation and combination that
drives the political math, the other big voting chunk falls under the
label of "Dalit" or "Most Backward Caste" votes.
As India's main Dalit leader, it is obvious Ms. Mayawati has more than
an edge in this department. But in a repeat of 2007, Ms. Mayawati is
once again planning a rainbow coalition of candidates for 2012, with
the Dalits again at its nerve center.
That is why Dalits top her list of candidates with 88 seats, with
Muslims a close second with 85 seats. The upper castes have together
got 117 seats, of which Brahmins have got 74 seats (down from 86 in
2007), while the backward and most backward castes have got 113 seats
between them (in 2007, they had 120 seats).
Interestingly, the Congress is taking a leaf out of Ms. Mayawati's
copy-book, even though it could probably teach the rest of India a
thing or two about caste stratagem, considering it was the first to
target (as long ago as the 1960s) both Muslims and "Harijans" – as
Dalits were known for decades, or "people of God," a term employed by
That is why in this UP election, old caste formulae are being revived
– albeit with a difference. The Congress seems to have come to the
painful conclusion that Rahul Gandhi's charm is not about to win it
more than 40-50 seats. Moreover, party officials admit they may have
left it a little too late to plunge deeply into the bewildering ocean
of backward, most backward and other backward castes.
Still, you could give the Congress a few marks for trying. For over a
year, young Rahul has veered off the beaten track in UP and stayed
overnight in Dalit homes and shared their food, often to the
accompaniment of Ms. Mayawati's taunts.
Rahul and the rest of the Congress have ignored the opposition jibes
about his rediscovery of India. But having failed to unleash an army
of local leaders on the ground, they are hoping that the targeting of
the state's Muslims and its Dalits will make for at least a
last-minute partial miracle.
On the Muslim front, reports from UP continue to be mixed. Many are
talking about the Peace Party, led by a former doctor called Mohammed
Ayub, which is also hoping to target the state's Muslims.
As for the Dalits, a Congress leader told IRT that two of the party's
best-known, north Indian Dalit faces – P.L. Punia, member of
parliament from Barabanki in UP and a former chairman of the National
Scheduled Castes commission, and Ashok Tanwar, member of parliament
from Sirsa in Haryana and a former student leader with enormous
grass-roots political experience – had been asked to identify and
mentor a hundred Dalit leaders in UP.
"The Congress knows that the Most Backward Castes will stay with
Mayawati, but we hope to wean away some of the Backwards from the
edges," the Congress leader said.
Meanwhile, Ms. Mayawati's 2007 magic seems to have considerably faded.
And despite her dismissal of both Rahul Gandhi as well as her more
serious opponent, the Samajwadi party, the truth is that somehow both
have got under her skin.
The BSP's website, in the Hindi news section, liberally displays
stories from the UP Hindi language press. But note the selection: Out
of 15 top posts, the Congress party was being targeted in 10,
including Rahul being directly named in three of them, while in
another post, Samajwadi party leader Akhilesh Yadav's drinking habits
were being discussed.
Clearly, the gloves are off as the campaign in UP gets well and truly underway.
Jyoti Malhotra is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi. She
writes for India's Business Standard daily and for Pakistan's Express
Follow India Real Time on Twitter @indiarealtime
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