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Can Mayawati do a Barack Obama?

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AIMING HIGH: Mayawati has been building a coalition that can break the ceiling.
AIMING HIGH: Mayawati has been building a coalition that can break the ceiling.

K.V. Prasad

Is Mayawati, who harbours the ambition of becoming India’s first Dalit Prime Minister, willing to emulate the charismatic Senator?

By late evening today, the world will know who the next President of the United States is and whether Senator Barack Obama’s two-year tapasya catapults him to Oval Office. Everyone awaits with bated breath the arrival of a charismatic African-American to one of the most powerful political offices of the world.

In about six months, the Indian electorate will be asked to give its verdict on who the next Prime Minister should be. The larger question is: are Indian voters prepared to consider the Bahujan Samaj Party president Mayawati’s quest for the top post? The similarity between her and Mr. Obama, if any, is the race factor that has a bearing on the U.S. elections and could be equated with the issue of caste that invariably determines the outcome in the Indian elections. But can Ms. Mayawati emulate the Obama strategy? Is she prepared to draw lessons from the Obama campaign?

Mr. Obama has faced a series of challenges over the last two years. That he has a way with words is well established. His ability to expand his voter base by drawing the otherwise sceptical American youth into the vortex of politics is the second of his two outstanding attributes.

Mr. Obama assiduously built his image as a politician who has a grip on the complex challenges faced by Americans in an increasingly globalised world. Exactly a year ago, the mood across the U.S. was unifocal — the tiring war in Iraq that was bleeding both the economy and the citizens. The political discourse centred around “changing course or staying the course” vis-À-vis the Iraq war. Today, it has been subsumed in the great economic meltdown.

When Mr. Obama was engaged in a bruising battle for candidacy with his senior Democrat colleague, Hillary Clinton, his opponents mounted a smear campaign highlighting his middle name — Hussein — and propagating that he practised Islam and in the process, they swung to the far right in their attacks.

Countering, the Illinois Senator and his campaign managers brought into focus the policies and failures of the eight-year-old Republican administration. This could not have been achieved without a highly trained professional staff whose core competence on policy issues is both accomplished and documented. Mr. Obama came across as a person who worked to build a coalition that reflects different shades of opinion and as one who rose above partisanship. He distanced himself from the usual tactics of swift-boat attacks and steered away from acrimonious debate. Subtly, Mr. Obama underplayed the race factor and projected himself as a person the Americans can trust the most.

In India, besides the caste issue, Ms Mayawati has been trying to build a coalition that can break the ceiling. Her successful experiment in Uttar Pradesh has emboldened the BSP to replicate the strategy on a national scale in the 2009 general elections. Given the Lok Sabha-centric electoral formula, there are obvious limitations to what Ms Mayawati can achieve on the national stage. She will need to rely on alliances to come to power in New Delhi. The political alignments which have changed since July, when the United Progressive Alliance faced turbulence, pitch-forked Ms Mayawati to centre stage of national politics. Now she is working towards realising her ambition of becoming the first Dalit Prime Minister.

But going by her trait, the BSP supremo does not brook any interference and runs the party with ruthless efficiency. It is difficult to negotiate with the BSP. Its unilateral announcement to contest all 80 Lok Sabha seats from Uttar Pradesh at a time when efforts to forge a third national alternative is under way, speaks for itself.

And, if one looks back at the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, the BSP manifesto offers no insight into what the party has to offer. On most issues, the manifesto is silent. Certainly, a party that hopes to take over the reins of the Central government cannot afford such an approach.

Of course, Ms Mayawati has begun articulating the party’s standpoint on issues of national importance, be it the India-U.S. nuclear deal or attacks against north Indians in Maharashtra, on which she wrote to the Prime Minister, but these are few and far between.

There is an important factor over which the Indian electorate, especially in urban areas, appears apprehensive — her seemingly brusque working style and the dichotomy of installing her own statues while appearing to be an iconoclast in taking on established power structures.

In essence, while the politics of the BSP and its leader may be rewarding in terms of increased representation, there is need to temper procedure and come up with policies that inspire the confidence of a nation and its people.


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