The image of Mayawati swaddled in a giant currency garland at the silver jubilee celebrations of the Bahujan Samaj Party brought conflicting emotions.
Who could grudge the BSP this supremely deserved highpoint? There are not many parallels to the story of the BSP. A party of the socially deprived making the rough journey to the seat of power in the country's most populous State is remarkable in itself. When that party wins a majority of seats under the leadership of a self-made woman of Dalit background, then the feat becomes immeasurable.
Which is why the currency garland is disconcerting. It was a needless appendage to a momentous milestone. The Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister has much to celebrate and celebrate she must. But when she reduces the grandness of the occasion to a worship of currency notes, she detracts from her own implausible achievement.
True, her critics are the carping kind. They will ceaselessly disparage her even as they overlook the overabundance of her competitors' wealth. Perhaps there is also some merit in the view that the showmanship was a necessary signal to her core constituency, to tell Dalits that wealth is not the preserve of the ‘upper' castes. But 15 years have passed since Ms Mayawati first became Chief Minister. And it is three years since her party independently captured power. Surely, symbolism that once motivated and uplifted Dalits cannot indefinitely do so, and symbolism in perpetuity might even become an affront to their dignity and self respect.
My mind travelled to the early years of the BSP — and from there back to the present. It was the summer of 1988 and a horde of journalists, me included, had descended on Allahabad in U.P. to cover the by-election that set the stage for Vishwanath Pratap Singh to take on Rajiv Gandhi.
We obsessively followed ‘VP' on the campaign trail, and tracked down Sunil Shastri, the elusive Congress candidate. But there was a mysterious third candidate about whom we knew nothing. Then a strange thing happened. Almost overnight, the city was doused in the colour blue : little blue elephants covered every inch of the walls while bi-cycle riders carrying blue flags clogged the roads. The sight was truly something to behold. Kanshi Ram was the third angle of the triangular contest. But the BSP, formed four years earlier, was ideologically hostile to the ‘upper' caste media, and it took me many attempts to breach the barrier to the leader and his army of fiercely committed soldiers.
The effort opened my eyes to a whole new world. Over long stretches of conversation, we discussed institutionalised prejudices, the daily slights, and the media's refusal to even consider the Dalit point of view. I learnt why the BSP hated the word ‘harijan' : Are we orphans (they used a coarser word) that we need to become children of God? The words stung like arrows, and though aware of the purity of heart behind Gandhi's coinage, I pledged never to use the offending phrase.
Kanshi Ram lost the election but performed impressively, polling close to 70,000 votes in an election where he was up against a future Prime Minister.
Some three years later, the BSP founder introduced me to his understudy, a wisp of a girl with daring in her eyes. By then Ms. Mayawati was already a veteran of many Lok Sabha elections. Her vote trajectory was a harbinger of things to come – as much for Ms. Mayawati herself as for her party. Kairana, 1984: Third with 44,445 votes. Bijnor, 1985 : Third with 61,504 votes. Hardwar, 1987: Second with 1,25,399 votes. Bijnor, 1989: First with 1,83, 189 votes.
Ms Mayawati was as aggressive as her mentor was calm and reflective. Kanshi Ram was not a towering intellectual like Baba Saheb Ambedkar but he gave the BSP its philosophical underpinning. And what was the philosophy? One of his staunchest disciples, Ambeth Rajan, was fond of demonstrating it with the flick of his pencil. The standing pencil, with the Brahmins and other upper castes at the top, the OBCs in the middle and Dalits at the bottom, symbolised inequality at its worst. But the same pencil, laid flat on the table represented samta muluk (equal) society. But Mr. Rajan knew, as did Kanshi Ram, that what was possible in theory was not possible in practice. Thus was born the “opportunism” of the BSP. “Yes, we are opportunists. We will seize every opportunity that comes our way,” Kanshi Ram would say defiantly. It was a different matter that for the elitist media this deliberate “admission” became just one more stick to beat the BSP with.
Ms Mayawati was neither Ambedkar nor Kanshi Ram; she had no time for lofty intellectual pursuits. She was blessed with enormous native intelligence and she was cast in the street-fighter's mould. The two qualities made for a lethal combination. Inside the Lok Sabha as outside, she came to be known for her acid tongue. The more she lashed out at the manuwadis, the greater the motivational levels of the BSP cadre. Ms Mayawati's rabble-rousing skills made her an instant draw among Dalit voters, who thrilled to the guts and pluck of Kanshi Ram's heir. For Dalit voters, treated for years as a captive constituency by the Congress, the new, assertive BSP represented freedom, respect and a completely new way of thinking.
The confidence could be seen in the BSP's career graph. In just one decade, from 1989 to 1999, the party's strength in the Lok Sabha (out of 85 seats) went up from only two seats for a vote share of 9.93 per cent to 14 seats for a vote share of 22.8 per cent. In the 425-member U.P. Vidhan Sabha, the party's seat share rose from 13 for a vote share of 9.41 per cent in 1989 to 98 for a vote share of 23 per cent in 2002.
The decade also saw the BSP seize power through its stated policy of “opportunism.” In 1993, the BSP teamed up with the Mulayam Singh-led Samajwadi Party to stunning effect. Together, the SP and the BSP overthrew the Bharatiya Janata Party, then at the peak of its Hindutva glory. But soon, the applause died down. In June 1995, the Dalit-ki-beti became Chief Minister with the support of the BJP. The ideologically mismatched alliance shocked critics and friends alike. The BJP was the BSP's mirror opposite in terms of how it viewed the ‘upper' castes. Accusations of “opportunism” were again thrown at Kanshi Ram and his favourite pupil.
Yet in office, the BSP proved to be the BJP's nemesis. Between 1995 and 2003, the BSP aligned thrice with the BJP, and each time it grew at its partner's expense. Between 1996 and 2004, the BJP's Lok Sabha tally from U.P. plunged from 52 (of 83) seats for a vote share of 33 per cent to 10 (of 80) seats for a vote share of 22 per cent. Between 1996 and 2002, the party's seat share in the Assembly declined from 174 (of 425) seats for 32.5 per cent to 88 (of 403) seats for 21 per cent.
But the BSP was not content with this. Ms Mayawati had long ago convinced herself that her party had little to derive from pre-poll alliances. But post-poll alliances were fraught with tensions as could be seen from the repeated rupture of the BSP-BJP partnerships. The germ of a winning idea began here. The BJP-BSP alliance represented the fusion of ‘upper', OBC and Dalit castes. Rather than depend on an external ally, what if the BSP made this its own internal alliance? The implementation of the idea saw the birth of the ‘Brahmin jodo abhiyan' as well as the reaching out to other castes.
The new scheme of things saw Mayawati, the aggressor, turn into Mayawati, the community builder. The transformation was beyond belief. In building a caste coalition on its own terms, the BSP had come tantalisingly close to its founder's ‘samta muluk' vision. But the danger was that this could be strategy more than vision. Indeed, today, nearly three years after that fantastic peak, the BSP no longer looks that good.
In the 2009 Lok Sabha election, the BSP lost votes from almost all sections in U.P, including marginally from her own community of Dalit-Jatavs. An educated, socially-conscious community, the Dalit-Jatavs no doubt noticed that Ms Mayawati had allocated only as many seats to Dalits as there are reserved constituencies in the State. The BSP chief owed her success to them; they transferred their vote almost wholly to whoever she named. In return, they did not get even one seat more than their constitutionally sanctioned share.
The BSP is still the forerunner in U.P. Ms Mayawati's biggest advantage is her transferable vote bank. However, for this vote bank not to feel used and slighted, she must do more than wear currency garlands.