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 machinery.
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 ways.”
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.