For Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader Mayawati, it's always been tough going. She's not blessed with Sonia Gandhi's elegance or pedigree by marriage, she can't hope to acquire Sushma Swaraj's vermilioned saas bhi kabhi bahu thi
appeal; nor can she invent for herself Jayalalitha's enviable complexion and empress-like air. With an unattractively hoarse voice and a penchant for pink silk salwar kameezes, she has, for too long, been the object of fun—or flak—in the media. She rarely makes the headlines, and when she does, it's usually for all the wrong reasons.
And yet, today, far from the media spotlight, in the country's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, where assembly elections are due in 2007, the verdict is out: Mayawati is the next chief minister. And these responses are not coming just from her Dalit voters who, of course, remain enduringly loyal. The signs are all there: on March 31, a BSP workers' meeting at Lucknow's Ambedkar stadium drew more people than many political rallies. This was three days after the BSP became the only party which did not face cross-voting in the RS/legislative council elections. Also, it polled an impressive 86 first preference votes—with just 67
B.D. Chaturvedi, a lawyer in Faizabad, says: "The Brahmins, marginalised in state politics since 1989, see the BSP as the only party which can help them regain their old glory. The only other political choice, the Samajwadi Party (SP), represents our rivals, the Thakurs." Ambarish Gupta, a wealthy businessman in Varanasi, was born into a traditional Congress family, but shifted allegiance to the BJP in the 1990s like many of his fellow Banias. But shortly after bombs shattered the serenity of his city on March 7, he was saying, "The Congress and the BJP are finished in UP. Mayawati is our only hope to restore law and order in the state."
Swayamprakash Singh, the Thakur ex-pradhan of Banbirpur on the Lucknow-Barabanki Road, says, "Anti-social elements in my party, the SP, are increasing...the common man is the victim of the state's growing gun culture. In neighbouring Sultanpur, Gonda and Faizabad, the BSP's influence is growing." Already, there are netas who have figured that there's a change brewing. Like Thakur leader and powerful mafioso, Brij Bhushan Saran Singh, BJP MP from Balrampur (he earlier represented Gonda), who's all set to join the BSP. His wife, Ketaki Singh, has already shifted allegiance. Finally, talk to the civil servants: a senior upper-caste IAS officer in Lucknow told Outlook
, "The BSP is on a winning streak. Mayawati has played all her cards right...the upper castes are no longer opposed to her."
So how exactly did Mayawati break down upper-caste resistance to her? Well, she started in 1995 by giving Brahmins and other upper castes party tickets. Then, last year, she travelled across UP, touching 26 districts, relentlessly wooing the Brahmins. By the time she reached Lucknow, on June 9, '05, to address a Brahmin maha sammelan flanked by ex-state advocate general and now Rajya Sabha MP Satish Mishra and student leader-turned-Lok Sabha MP Brajesh Pathak at the Ambedkar stadium there, the state's other political parties had begun to take notice. Today, the Brahmins, who matter in 120 of the 405 assembly constituencies of the state, and who once had nothing but utter contempt for the bahujan samaj have decided to change adversity into opportunity.
Simultaneously, Mayawati has assiduously wooed the Banias who, while accounting for just three per cent of the vote, wield the financial muscle in UP. "Under the umbrella of the Banias," BSP's national spokesman and MLC Sudhir Goel adds, "Mayawati is hoping to unite the other trading castes who are OBCs, like the Telis, Sahus, Halwais, Sonars etc. They'll make up another 10 per cent. " Already, the BSP has organised bania sammelans in Agra, Allahabad, Meerut and Muzaffarnagar—on the anvil are similar gatherings in Kanpur, Farukkhabad, Sant Kabir Nagar and Jhansi. Goel points out, "The trading castes are the first victims of extortion and kidnapping—security is of paramount importance to them."
It's come to a situation where a three-time SP MP admits ruefully, "The upper-caste allergy for Mayawati is gone. Now all the upper castes care about is increasing their own representation in the assembly or LS so that they can once again influence decisions." Perhaps why they are more than willing to forget the belligerence of "Tilak, tarazu aur talwar, inko maaro joote chaar" and tune into the more gentle "Yeh haathi nahin Ganesh hain, Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh hain."
But is there a sociological reason beyond the desire for the rule of law and an administration that works? A senior UP cadre IAS officer says, "The Brahmins and Banias at the top end and the Dalits at the bottom are coming together to take on OBC—specifically Yadav —criminalisation. There are criminals among the Muslims and the Thakurs but they are more easily taken care of, the first because of a general mood against the community and the second because they are divided. This is why Mayawati is on the rise." To convert that into a majority in 2007, he adds, "the only option is to join hands with the Congress... that will consolidate the Muslim vote in its favour. Right now, the BSP remains the second choice of the community." An alliance looks remote, but already Mayawati has made friendly gestures, like saying the party will not field a candidate against Sonia Gandhi in Rae Bareli.
Whether Mayawati makes it in 2007 on her own remains to be seen, but today she is clearly the frontrunner. For her supporters—both traditional and newly acquired—tales of disproportionate assets and corruption cut no ice for they don't see it as affecting the common man. And anyway, it's a reality that only the fat cats who have the money can contest elections. The only irony here is that if Mayawati does win next year's elections, it will be on the good governance ticket.