Shoma Chaudhury, Executive Editor
MAYAWATI BELIEVED she was set to storm the walls of history. She should have: the walls of history need breaching. But churlishness and hubris are poor ammunition for those who would change the shape of the world.
Since her landslide victory in the assembly polls of 2007, Mayawati had begun to think of UP as her captive nursery. The playfield that would subordinate itself to her ambition and launch her as the first ‘dalit ki beti’ prime minister of India. A few days before verdict 2009, a close aide told a Lucknow journalist that Behenji felt she was going to win 45 to 50 seats in the state. She just got 20.
Between this expectation and reality — between the 50 and the 20 — lie difficult Mayawati traits. For the first 24 hours after the results, she locked herself away and refused to come out. A retreat into creative introspection? Not quite. On the second day, she summoned a press conference and announced her debacle had been engineered by a completely improbable “secret understanding” between the Congress, SP and BJP, all determined to trip the ‘dalit ki beti’. When waiting journalists tried to question her, she cut the conference mid-way and flounced off in a huff. (She has subsequently sent a letter to her conspirators, pledging unconditional support to their government.)
History is not made by those who do not have a correct measure of themselves and the world. Paranoia, self-absorption: this can never be promising stuff. In the days since her press conference, Mayawati has demanded the mass resignations of over 150 party and government officials — ministers, bureaucrats, chairmen, vicechairmen and directors of scores of government bodies. (While the media has reported this purge widely, no one has commented on the essential impropriety. These officials were government employees, not BSP minions. They had been given red-beacon cars and other facilities enjoyed by ministers and were paid Rs 25,000 each out of the state exchequer. They were meant to conduct the business of the state, not the business of the BSP. But Mayawati does not seem to understand the distinction between the state and herself. She had tasked them to ensure her victory. This sacking was the price of their failure.)
There are other measures Mayawati has taken though, in the last few days, that bode better for her. She has gone back to basics. She has instructed district magistrates and police officers to submit monthly reports. Announced surprise personal visits to check on government schemes. Asked party functionaries to visit a dalit locality at least once a month. (Unfortunately, this new zeal for governance appears entirely partisan. Nettled that brahmins, Muslims and OBCs have not voted for her, Mayawati has dissolved all her famed bhaichara committees set up to build bridges between dalits, OBCs and upper castes. For the moment, the idea of a sarvajan samaj — a society for all headed by her — seems shelved, though it is the absence of governance that has derailed her social engineering, not the engineering itself.)
Mayawati believed she could lead the country. There are urgent reasons why she slipped in her own state. Is she willing to read the signs?
Still, these measures bode well for Mayawati because the truth about the gap between 50 and 20 is that, driven by premature ambition, Mayawati had forgotten what Mayawati stands for. She is an electric figure precisely because she represents the collective distillate of a thousand years of oppression. That is the source of her power; that is what she draws her frisson from. If she is to breach the walls of history, she has to fulfill the potency she has been invested with. She cannot dissolve her symbolic self into a story of individual greed. She has to pull her entire community out of the bowels.
It is true that to begin with, dalits seemed to revel in Mayawati’s personal exaggerations. The more diamonds she wore, the more helicopters she bought, the more black cats that surrounded her, the more wealth she amassed, dalits felt vindicated. Mayawati was the Shah Rukh Khan of dalit politics; they lived out their fantasy through her. They did not want her to be like them: damaged, barefooted, destitute, neglected. But vicarious identification can only go so far. Like a Hindi film, fantasy lasts only three hours. There is always the reality to return to.
A week before election results were announced, TEHELKA visited UP for a cover story. The signs of Mayawati’s impending crisis were everywhere. Two years into a majority government, she had done nothing for the state. People across the spectrum were angry and sullen. “Behenji is too busy erecting statues in memory of herself,” said a driver, “while we have nothing to eat.” (62 percent of UP’s entire housing budget has been spent on four square kilometers of Lucknow.) An angry domestic help in a squalid dalit shanty said, “Behenji lives in a palace, but can you smell the stink in the drain outside my hut?” Another sweeper said, “My son goes to the Nagar Nigam for a job, they want a bribe of one lakh. How can you say this is a government meant for dalits?”
MAYAWATI HAS not lost her dalit vote yet, but these results show the first danger signs of impatience. The BSP has 20 Lok Sabha seats, one up from 2004, and has come second in 48 other seats. But it has lost some key strongholds: Unnao and Barabanki to the Congress, Mohanlalganj to the SP. It also lost Badohi, a reserved constituency, in a recent by-election. But Mayawati could not divine these signs because like some imperial monarch of a past era, this ‘daughter of the downtrodden’ has cut herself off completely from the society she has emerged from.
After her watershed victory in the assembly elections, she did not tarry to nurture or consolidate her state. Handing over the reins to a small coterie of predominantly brahmin advisers, she began to launch her greater campaign on the ramparts of Delhi, buying and selling candidates across the country. Less selfish well-wishers would have told her this was an act of impossible hubris, a gross tactical mistake, but who can get Behenji’s ear? She is inaccessible to her own party members and ministers and is completely insulated from the media. In fact, there is little she can glean from the media. After a leading English daily sacked the editor of its Lucknow edition at her behest and other publications faced a sudden squeeze on advertisements, the local media has collapsed into fearful self-censorship. Within her own party, not one minister dares to speak to the media without her authorisation. (At a recent election rally, she tutored her unlettered audience to distrust the media. “The media will tell you I am spending too much money on building parks and statues, do not believe them,” she intoned in the peculiar monotone that has come to be her signature. “The media will tell you I am favouring brahmins over dalits, do not believe them. They will tell you my government is doing nothing for your welfare, do not believe them…”)
Self-deception cannot be sound political strategy. If Mayawati was listening, people would have told her it was suicidal to give tickets to criminals when she had been voted into power by an electorate frustrated by the Samajwadi Party’s jungle raj.(Every single mafia candidate she put up has been defeated this election.) They would have told her it is short-sighted not to have a manifesto; short-sighted not to seek out policy experts; short-sighted not to have a vision on how to fix Uttar Pradesh. Short-sighted not to have robust development plans that would improve the material life of her compatriots.
Mayawati’s first act is over. 2009 is the intermission. Now, she needs to move from fantasy to content
It is politically incorrect to criticize Mayawati in the elite intellectual circles of Delhi. But this faux chivalry is itself an elite construct. It smacks of the delight Delhi’s elite had in Lalu Prasad Yadav’s buffoonery; it suggests people can expect no better from the lower castes. But Bihar felt differently. Psychological well-being — that important ingredient of identity politics — can be a tenuous thing. Bihar’s backward castes rode the Laloo story for 15 years, but when they saw that he had entirely subordinated his symbolic self to individual greed, they spat him out. UP might do it sooner to Mayawati unless she reconfigures her story.
Verdict 2009 has had only one real theme: the end of arrogance. Wisdom and vision are not the preserves of the elite; they are wrought out of the hard lessons of life. The Bundelkhand farmer wants to know why he does not have drinking water in searing 45 degree heat. The Poorvanchal farmer wants to know why each year his land is flooded and his children die of kalazaar. The old of Azamgarh want to know why all of their young are in jail. And the young? The young want to know why they are being left out of the march of history.
Mayawati is one of the most remarkable stories to emerge from contemporary India. Her journey from being a government clerk’s daughter to becoming the leader of potentially one of the most formidable electoral forces in the country has been a rugged, crafty and courageous one. But clearly, the first act is over. 2009 is the intermission. Now, she needs to move from fantasy to content. If she does that, she might yet storm the walls of history. As the Congress knows, UP should come first. Delhi always follows.