As I watched television clips of Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati addressing a rally in Lucknow on Sunday, I was reminded of a conversation with BSP founder, Kanshi Ram, a quarter-century ago.
This was a year or two before he installed Mayawati as deputy chief minister of Uttar Pradesh; the soft-spoken and mild-mannered founder was still the undisputed supremo of the party.
I was about the only mainstream’ English-language journalist who would meet him. As the chief of the political bureau of the newspaper for which I worked, I had distributed the popular 'big' parties to my colleagues to cover, and given myself the small parties that no one wanted to cover. So I spent quality time interviewing and chatting with Kanshi Ram.
On the afternoon of which his protege’s speech reminded me last Sunday, he took me across a large map of Uttar Pradesh on his office wall, explaining the demographic importance of Muslims’ votes. He pointed out belts where Muslims comprised between 20 and 30 percent of the population, or between 10 and 20 percent. He already knew where Dalits were in relatively large numbers. He was not talking so much about 'vote bank politics' as explaining why India’s electoral system demanded that political parties reach out to different communities.
His political strategy was clear, and based on a long-term understanding of the subcontinent's society and history. The name of his party stemmed from that understanding: he said that those who do not see themselves as Brahmins, Rajputs, Baniyas or Kayasthas together constitute 85 percent of the people - what he called the 'Bahujan Samaj'.
This majority must be empowered, he said. His argument was based on historical exploitation and social suppression. He wished for all the people of the 85 percent 'Bahujan' to vote together for a just and equitable society. He would hold up a pen vertically to indicate 15 percent at the top, then turn it horizontal to show the equitable effect on society of the 'Bahujan Samaj' being empowered as equals.
Of course, that was wishful thinking, given the deep and antagonistic divisions in society. Jats and Yadavs, which castes had successively gained political power in UP on the basis of increased land ownership in recent decades, turned out to be more averse to supporting Dalits than 'upper castes'.
And various 'Dalit' castes too did not always see their interests in the same light. Since at least the 1940s, castes associated with cleaning took to Gandhi, while castes associated with leather appeared to be more attracted to Ambedkar. In Uttar Pradesh, the latter were Kanshi Ram’s core supporters (he and Mayawati are from castes associated with leather). Yet, his talk of 'Bahujan' unity inspired at least a united 'Dalit’ identity.
Perhaps it was only for the additional support of the less prosperous backward castes that Kanshi Ram actually hoped - even in the face of the evident attractions of 'Sanskritization,' and the cultural inclusion that RSS ideologue Golwalkar urged.
In any case, that map survey he gave me clearly showed that Kanshi Ram was sure of one thing: his party could not win without Muslim support.
In fact, he told me that no party could.
Amit Shah and Narendra Modi seemed to have proved him posthumously wrong in 2014 when the BJP won 72 of Uttar Pradesh’s 80 seats.
At her rally on Sunday, Mayawati strongly reached out to Muslims, asking them to combine with her Dalit backers in order to defeat the BJP, which she described as oriented to the upper castes.
Of course, Mayawati is a very different kind of leader from Kanshi Ram. She is easily associated with state power, street muscle and political deals. That may be one reason she appears to have given up on the social and historical understanding that undergirded the 'Bahujan' ideology. She even won a majority mandate by overtly seeking and projecting Brahmin support for — and power through — the BSP.
On the other hand, there were strong shades of class in the political style with which Kanshi Ram promoted his 'Bahujan' thinking. During the 1970s and 80s, he and his activists bicycled around the villages of Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, spending nights in sympathizer’s huts, where they often shared their ideas in the shadows cast by lanterns and candles.
By seeking Dalit-Muslim resistance at the state level against BJP power at the Centre in her speech on Sunday, Mayawati implicitly acknowledged that her battle is against the optics generated by the BJP at the national and international levels. That is an anti-Pakistan rhetoric which very easily, albeit subliminally, becomes an anti-Muslim bias.
Given the hyper-nationalist mood of many across the land, Mayawati’s political gamble is bold. One key is whether Dalits are swayed by nationalism sort or by the obvious anti-Dalit biases of BJP leaders and ranks. A second key is whether some of the more-backward castes share the perception of BJP caste-based contempt. How Muslims perceive the answers to those two questions is only the third question.
On those answers hangs the future of the country, maybe even the subcontinent.