Wednesday, February 8, 2012

[ZESTCaste] For Mayawati, a do-or-die battle

February 9, 2012
For Mayawati, a do-or-die battle
Smita Gupta

Dalit leader's alienation is a classic tale of a leader losing touch
with the masses

As the serried ranks of dalits, men and women, stoic determination on
their faces, silently marched into Sitapur, 85 km north of Lucknow on
February 1, from where Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati launched
her election campaign, the scrunch of dry leaves beneath their feet
was only occasionally interrupted by the cry of: "Koi nahi takkar
mein, kahan pade ho chakkar mein" (There's no one in the contest, why
are you getting confused).

For Mayawati's core dalit supporters, this is a do-or-die battle, as
the electoral arena gets increasingly hostile for the Bahujan Samaj
Party (BSP), with a resurgent Mulayam Singh-led Samajwadi Party (SP)
assiduously whipping up resentment among the straining-at-the-leash
upper castes, working to create a coalition of all those who want the
bahujan project to crumble. As U.P.'s two premier parties remain
locked in mortal combat, it is becoming increasingly clear that the
BSP's "plus vote", a product of the party's incredibly successful
sarvajan (all communities) experiment of 2007, is slipping away.

The reasons for the alienation are not far to seek: in the five years
since Mayawati swept the polls in the State, leading the BSP to an
absolute majority after a gap of 16 years, the queen of dalit hearts
has grown into a remote empress. Party insiders told The Hindu that
she rarely emerged from her citadel on the fifth floor of the State
secretariat — known reverentially as the pancham tal — in Lucknow or
her heavily guarded official residence on Mall Avenue. Neither was she
able to keep as sharp an eye as she had done in the past on the party

Unlike in her earlier three stints as Chief Minister, she allowed a
coterie of key ministers and officials to run the show. "They assured
her that all was well," says a former minister, "and she bought it
till it was too late, and she began to throw out ministers, even
denying half her sitting MLAs tickets." If she had taken punitive
action against her ministers half-way through her term, rather than on
poll-eve, adds a senior civil servant, "no one could have stopped her
from returning to power with an absolute majority as, by and large,
her administration has been superior to that of her predecessor."

Mayawati's is a classic tale of a powerful leader losing touch with
the masses: she depended entirely on a trio of political leaders,
Satish Mishra, Naseemuddin Siddiqui and Baburam Kushwaha and a group
of officials led by her Cabinet Secretary Shashank Shekhar. Mishra has
lost his hold over the Brahmins, as his visit last week to Allahabad
and Varanasi demonstrated, with his own community giving him a frosty
reception; Siddiqui was more of a lathaith (strongman) than the
party's Muslim face, as a police officer put it; and Kushwaha was
sacked for corruption, taking the support of the Kushwaha community
with him. Much of her energies, government sources say, was reserved
for keeping the peace among her favourites.

In the process, Mayawati not only became inaccessible — she stopped
touring the State, making surprise inspections of districts as she was
earlier accustomed to doing. In January 2011, when she finally decided
to take sameeksha baithaks (review meetings) in the districts, she was
shocked at the hostility she had to face, recalls a BSP leader: "In
some places, people lay down in front of her car, and she had to
impose a virtual curfew during her tour."

A key complaint against the Mayawati regime that the SP has been able
to successfully use against it is the "misuse" of the Scheduled Caste
(Prevention of Atrocities) Act against the upper castes in the rural
areas. In Lucknow, a senior bureaucrat says, "To be fair to Mayawati,
she had given instructions that a close watch should be kept on
complaints filed under the Act, but the comfort of numbers meant she
left the running of the administration to her key aides. She felt
invulnerable." A telling comment on the difference in the style of
administration comes from Sunil Singh, a driver, whose father is a
government peon in the state capital. "My father has a drinking
problem," he says," but I recall in Mayawatiji's earlier regimes, he
was forced to be punctual. This time, he was back to his bad old

As Mayawati slackened her hold on the administration, the rot entered
the party organisation as well, with corruption entering the ranks of
its "life force," the BSP's powerful coordinators, known in party
circles as the "superpowers." In the BSP, the district coordinators
manage and monitor the party's MLAs, reporting on them to Behenji — as
the chief minister is known to the party cadres — and even suggesting
whether they should be pulled up, replaced or dropped. In Gonda, for
instance, the popular BSP sitting MLA Zaleel Khan has been replaced by
a newcomer, Sagheer Usmani, confides an unhappy party worker, because
the coordinator was "persuaded to do so by the SP." Mr Khan is
contesting as an Independent, he says, and will cut into the BSP's
votes. Surprisingly, the story is repeated by local Muslim
shopkeepers. The MLAs, on their part, had almost no access to the
chief minister, making it difficult for them to present their cases.
Incidents such as these have meant that while the BSP's core vote
remains intact and raring to go again, the party workers are no longer
as enthusiastic about mobilising votes as they were in 2007. Her
famed caste-based bhaichara (camaraderie) committees are still
functioning, but not as effectively as earlier.

The irony is that even though her own vote base is intact, and a
majority view across communities is that Mayawati's administration was
superior to that of her predecessor both in terms of governance and
crime control, the tide is turning against her, largely because of the
way caste interests are playing out in the State. A section of
educated urban voters, especially among women, feel her record has
been far better than that of Mulayam Singh — she put several notorious
mafiosi behind bars, they say. A young woman Muslim lawyer in
Allahabad says, "I come from a Congress family, but I am voting BSP
again: Mayawati has made the State safer for women."

But that may not be enough in 2012.


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