Ascetic prince, dalit duchess
Feb 21, 2012
Mayawati is a populist but her populism now seems distant... One
wonders how long she will continue as the dalit face of dalit
Uttar Pradesh is not just a geography, a state having the largest
number of parliamentary seats, it is also a metaphor for political
style. Its political characters are larger than life and none is
larger than Mayawati.
Mayawati is a creation of electoral democracy and its arithmetic. She
was raised within the electoral numeracy of Kanshi Ram, where
alignments were pragmatic. She has had alliances with the BJP and the
Congress, and yet as an electoral Machiavelli, she has a permanent
interest in herself. She understands politics as markets and knows
that she controls the formidable dalit market.
She speaks the language of exploitation as a genealogy building
exercise. She articulates the genealogy of reform from Swami Haridas
to Jyotirao Phule, from Bhimrao Ambedkar to Kanshi Ram only as a
backdrop. Hers is not a reformist story; it is a love affair with
power. Mayawati has converted dalit currency into the language of
power. While she is interested in the status of dalits, the
universalism of rights does not appeal to her.
She captures one aspect of the dalit style of politics — it is
particularistic, obsessed with itself and yet is pragmatic enough to
align with the Brahmin. She is singular in that sense, a monumental
figure who has constructed tributes to her own monumentality. She is
not waiting for a statue at Madame Tussauds. She has flooded Lucknow
with Roman replicas of herself.
She is formidable, yet it is the enormity of her presence that has
become a disadvantage. She appears historic but it is this very
history that puts doubts on her continuity. Let me put it this way:
Mayawati is a monument to electoral politics but her sense of
governance is abysmal.
She is a populist but her populism now seems distant. She looks like a
fixture — distant and imperious, waiting for acclamation rather than
election. As far as she is concerned, she has created history and her
politics is the reward for that. But history might be more cunning and
ironic than her.
One can articulate one's doubts by comparing Mayawati to Rahul Gandhi
and Mulayam Singh Yadav. Mayawati's dalit politics is particularistic.
It uses universal frameworks like rights and electoralism to make
particularistic gains. Dalits vote her in, but have little role in
governance. Her idea of governance has no sense of reform. In fact it
is normless and blatant in stating that what is good for Mayawati is
good for Uttar Pradesh. She is like an electoral oligarch
consolidating a market. Her dalit politics invokes Ambedkar but evokes
very little of his universalist or modernising vision. It is not
Ambedkar's voice we hear, but Mayawati playing his ventriloquist.
She is shrewd but jaded. She is more like a party boss computing
numbers and interest groups than the ideologist of equality. One
wonders how long she will continue as the dalit face of dalit
politics. The new generation might have a different memory. It might
see Rahul as a fresh possibility and not even recollect years of
While Mayawati practises her magic from a distance, Rahul is
traversing Uttar Pradesh, learning politics at the ground level. The
dalit hare can no longer watch the Congress tortoise with contempt
because the latter has discovered a speed it did not originally have.
Maybe politics is hormonal, catalytic — suddenly, Rahul feels
different. By constant presence, by walking the talk from village to
village, Rahul had emerged as an ascetic ideal, a well-intentioned
young man who deserves a chance.
There is no cynicism in his appearance. The Boy Scout has grown up and
has smelt the elixir of politics. His style is open. He has come to
learn, not to lecture. His modesty makes him a good listener. People
have begun to feel that he has empathy and that he works hard. An
ascetic prince might one day be preferred to the "Dalit Duchess".
There is a possibility that Rahul might for the time being be an
extra-curricular interest. I think the voter senses his commitment,
his dedication and his hard work. There is the making of a new
Nehruvian incarnation here, toughened by the tandoor of everyday
politics. Rahul can speak to many interests because his is a more
universalist perspective. He can talk of the poor, not just dalit
poor. He can talk development, not just casteist politics. Maybe
India, for all its particularism, is yearning for the competence of
the universal. Yet, his is a promise of a future victory.
The third style of UP politics is the OBC style and it's a hybrid one.
It is more content with electoral politics, more competent in blending
feudalism and populism, speaking the language of the dominant caste
and the emerging dialects of modernity. One sees it in the transition
from Mulayam to Akhilesh Yadav. Mulayam is old world; Akhilesh is
ready to speak new dialects, from computer talk to caste politics.
Electoral politics is a forgiving exercise and the old Samajwadi Party
constituencies might congeal into a winning arithmetic.
Mayawati might be singular but she is no longer the hegemonic
electoral figure she appeared to be. The electorate appears to be
nibbling at other possibilities, determined to keep politics open and
Suddenly, the possibility of three political dialects, three body
languages, and three styles of electoral rhetoric is making politics a
more open playground. Maybe the emergence of this is still new. The
politics of memory in the dalit mind might trump the politics of
possibility. But if Uttar Pradesh is a rehearsal for the future,
Mayawati better hear the warning bells.
A new generation and new combinations in politics might wreck her
old-style politics. It is a tremor of intent but earthquakes,
especially in politics, often begin that way.
The writer is a social science nomad
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