It was a massive show of strength by Uttar Pradesh's ruling Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) at Sitapur, 85 km from Lucknow, as Chief Minister Mayawati launched her election campaign on Wednesday — the first of 62 rallies she will address over 29 days.
If Ms. Mayawati roundly blamed all her political opponents, she gave top billing to the Congress: she blamed the Centre for virtually everything that she could not deliver to people in her five-year rule, while describing its efforts to give reservation to the minorities within the OBC quota as a conspiracy to divide society.
As we drove into Sitapur, a seemingly unending line of people — the men largely in trousers and shirts, Ambedkarites all, the women in their colourful best made their way to the rally. There was no jostling, no blocking of traffic, only the occasional slogan. After days of being at the receiving end of the Opposition onslaught against the BSP and its leader, its silent supporters suddenly appeared as if from nowhere, filling every inch of the ground, climbing on trees and rooftops.
On stage, local leaders held forth, describing Ms. Mayawati as the “Iron Lady,” spewing venom against the opposition: one speaker listed the many rags-to-riches stories of the Yadavs who had become construction magnates under the Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh's rule. Occasionally, the speakers shouted out the first line of a party slogan — and on cue, the crowd roared back the second line. The favourite? “Vipaksh ki chaati par, batan dabao haathi par” (Stand on the opposition's chests; press the button next to the elephant.)
Then the whir of the helicopter was heard. The party faithful were on their feet and as Ms. Mayawati strode on to the stage, slogans rent the air again. She waved to the crowd, and then sat down on a wide sofa, her hands outstretched on either side. Then the first — and only speaker — permitted to speak before her was announced, a Muslim, who addressed her as Vazir-e-Alam, before breaking into a song about the love and care his community had received during her rule, ending with: “Oh Muslims, demand your rights/ How long will you be pushed around/Come into the comforting shade of the BSP.” It's a carefully calculated gambit to lure away a substantial part of the 18 per cent Muslim vote, which has been gravitating to her main rival — the SP.
Then Ms. Mayawati rose to speak, reading from a written text for the next 50 minutes. If the Congress was the chief object of her ire, she didn't spare the other rivals, attacking the SP for lawlessness during Mr. Singh's rule and the BJP for fomenting communal tension and corruption, citing the mining scams in Karnataka during B.S. Yeddyurappa's reign there. She only faltered a bit while accusing the Centre of manipulating the Central Bureau of Investigation to tarnish the BSP's image on poll-eve in the National Rural Health Mission scam. “The way the investigation is being done reflects the Congress' anti-Dalit mindset. The Congress can't tolerate the fact that the daughter of a Dalit is Chief Minister.”
Her rally, she said, had drawn five times as many people as those who attended Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi's the day before in the same district. “Don't get carried away by the manifestos of the Opposition parties. Beware of the Congress in particular — its stakes are high, but has virtually no support base.”