Wednesday's 'apolitical' meeting between Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, Jyotiraditya Scindia and Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad added some fresh elements to the otherwise stale pre-election narrative in Uttar Pradesh ahead of the Lok Sabha election.
One, it squarely put Congress back in combat mode against the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party (SP-BSP) alliance, after it wasted a lot of time trying to woo those parties for an umbrella alliance against the BJP. Secondly, it brought to the fore Mayawati's discomfiture with the rise of a 31-year-old Dalit icon, who has managed to grab eyeballs in national media, and some degree of respect, especially among Dalit youths.
Now, Priyanka meeting Azad to stiff-arm Mayawati after the latter's recent snub to the Congress over alliance concerns is a small victory in a clash of egos — at least until the Congress manages to bring the entire retinue of Bhim Army supporters to its side.
However, the latter repercussion — ie, Mayawati's discomfort over Azad's rising popularity — will have much deeper consequences in the electoral battle in the state that elects the largest chunk of MPs in the Lok Sabha.
The other 'bua-bhatija' of Uttar Pradesh
There is a marked difference in the way Azad and Mayawati regard each other in public. While the former maintains a careful tone of reverence, at the same time subtly delineating his own image from that of the latter, Mayawati's approach towards Azad has been of carefree disregard. In spite of Azad publicly stating that the Bhim Army's intention is to always complement to the BSP's reach and not oppose it, Mayawati has been anything but accommodative. He is 31; she is 63.
When Azad was arrested in June 2017 after the Shabirpur caste clashes, he was relatively unknown at least in the mainstream media and few people knew about Bhim Army in the vicinity of Saharanpur and the city of Deoband, both in western Uttar Pradesh. Still, the government kept him imprisoned for over a year under the contentious National Security Act.
Mayawati visited the area, offered her sympathy to the Dalits victimised in the clashes and criticised the government for its one-sided crackdown on the lower caste community. Yet, she hardly ever spoke in Azad's favour or demanded his release.
She even called his organisation a fringe outfit, and a BJP stooge acting to weaken the BSP and malign the Dalits. Without naming anybody, she quietly positioned her party's footsoldiers to curtail the growing influence of these 'fringe elements'.
"The office-bearers have been asked to inform the party’s supporters and its bhaichara (brotherhood) committee about the design of the fringe groups," a BSP leader told Hindustan Times in November 2018.
Azad, on the other hand, has always responded with a cautious reverence whenever he is asked to comment about Mayawati. In September 2018, he had instated to NDTV, like Akhilesh Yadav, that Mayawati is his bua (aunt) and that he cannot criticise someone whose life's struggle has set the course for making space for Dalits in national politics.
"We (he and Mayawati) both have the same blood. She may have some issues with me, I have none with her. It is not in my values to speak ill of my 'bua' (aunt). Our only aim is to defeat the BJP," he had said.
Mayawati, however, distanced herself stating that vested interests were using her name to further their own agenda. "Some people in order to realise their vested political interests, some in their defence, while some, in order to look young, are trying to forge different relationships such as brother-sister and bua-bhatija (aunt and nephew) with me," Mayawati had said after Azad's comments made headlines.
"For the past few days, a man who was recently released from jail is trying to call me 'bua'. If these people were really interested in the welfare of Dalits, then instead of resurrecting their organisation, they would have joined the BSP," she again repeated her stance when questioned about Azad.
But Azad has always maintained that he is willing to work on the same side as Mayawati. "The Dalits need a Bhim Army which is not afraid to go to any extent to bring about radical social transformation. That does not mean they don't need a BSP. We should complement each other. I'm convinced it's the only way forward," he had told NDTV in 2018.
That was the face of it.
A cursory look at the political developments will reveal the fault lines run deeper than both leaders let on.
A Hindustan Times report states that Azad is also wooing other BSP rebels to join Bhim Army. "A Dalit leader claimed that like Jai Prakash, there were many Dalit leaders who had a soft corner for Bhim Army and they could soon be part of a new Dalit movement in the region. He even said that those who have been expelled from the BSP may join hands with the Bhim Army," the article states.
Azad even launched a membership drive in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Bihar to mobilise Dalits, and has called upon the Dalits to donate generously for the organisation's cause.
Like their stated political/social ambitions, their support base also differs.
As this News18 report points out, the generational divide between the supporters of Azad and Mayawati is evident. Raju, a 55-year-old resident of Saharanpur's Nakur, has been a loyal BSP foot soldier since 1984. He is not impressed with the new upstart. “The problem with this Bhim Army is that they are too undisciplined. They don't have the structure of the BSP. That is why behenji (Mayawati) will remain the only true leader of our community. These are some young, hot-headed boys who are directionless. They should come under the wing of the BSP and fight under behenji."
But the younger lot disagrees. For many, like 28-year-old Mohit, the Bhim Army and BSP are two sides of the same coin. "You have seen how the Sangh Parivar works. BJP is a political party and RSS is a social outfit. That is how we see BSP and Bhim Army. We follow the ideology of Bhim Army but we will vote for BSP. Chandrashekhar has gone to jail for us. He cannot be a BJP stooge."
But in order to understand the clash of the two most-talked-about Dalit leaders of the day, one must go back and trace the perception battle each has been fighting.
Mayawati may sound dismissive of Azad’s rise, but he does signify a new phase of aggressive Dalit politics that is fast spreading from western Uttar Pradesh to Haryana, Delhi and Rajasthan
More recently, Bhim Army declared that its sworn support to the SP-BSP alliance was not unconditional. According to The Indian Express, days before meeting Priyanka — although the meeting was impromptu — Azad had backed off from his earlier promise of "always going where Mayawati would lead them" and added preconditions to his support to the alliance.
The Bhim Army chief said that the party would not support SP candidates until the party clears its stand on the reservation in promotion for Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST). It also demanded an explanation from the SP over its supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav’s statement in Lok Sabha saying he wished another term for Narendra Modi.
"Akhilesh Yadav’s party MP tore the Bill on quota for promotions for SC/ST in the Parliament. And then we are talking about fighting elections together. He should make his stand clear on the issue to get our support," Azad asked.
The Bhim Army had earlier put out a statement in support of the SP's pre-poll alliance with Mayawati's BSP in Uttar Pradesh.
Likewise, Azad did a volte-face on another promise of never entering the political fray. He has apparently declared that he will field independent candidates against Smriti Irani and contest polls himself against Modi in Varanasi.
"Wherever Smriti Irani will contest from, if there's already a strong candidate, we will support them or we will contest... She is responsible for the death of Rohith Vemula. We won't let her win a seat in the Lok Sabha," Azad said. Then on Wednesday, he told Priyanka that he wishes to fight against Modi from whichever seat he contests from.
But why is Mayawati against Bhim Army?
Before the days of Sarvajan Hitay, Sarvajan Sukhai (wellness and happiness for all), BSP's politics was largely associated with aggressive anti-upper caste slogans like Tilak, Tarazu, Aur Talwar, Inko Maro Jute Chaar (Thrash Brahmins, Vaishyas and Thakurs, with a shoe). She managed the impossible in 2007 and rode to power by engineering a Dalit-Brahmin combine in face of a strong Yadav lobby cultivated under Mulayam Singh Yadav's rule that irked both Dalits and Brahmins equally. Then again in the 2009 Lok Sabha election, she had given tickets to 20 Brahmin candidates, more than any other political party.
And since then, her politics has relied on wooing other castes as well in a bid to broaden its appeal. A guess would be that this choice is dictated by hard demographic data than any obligation towards social harmony. (According to Census 2011, the SC population of Uttar Pradesh is only around 20.5 percent and not all of whom vote for BSP, or, are of voting age, or, even come out to exercise their franchise.)
Another very valid fear Mayawati holds is that many Dalits still have a soft spot for Congress and Rahul and Priyanka's renewed attempts to woo Dalits may make a dent in her core support base. The upper caste vote is more likely to be divided between Congress and BJP than the chance there is for it to come to her should she go back to her old aggressive pro-Dalit politics. So, she needs to maintain the balance between posing as a secular leader who is still a messiah for Dalits.
Mayawati's Muslim outreach, too, has failed, as barring 2014, they have largely voted for the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh and for Congress in other states.
The Bhim Army, on the other hand, claims it will never aim at entering electoral politics. Hence, it can focus largely on Dalit interests and doesn’t need to pander to the interests of upper caste communities.
The Congress uniting with Bhim Army may have rubbed these insecurities raw. That Priyanka's meeting with Azad ruffled feathers within the SP-BSP alliance is evident from the fact that SP chief Akhilesh Yadav held a one-and-half hour-long closed-door meeting with Mayawati soon after the meeting made headlines.
The Congress, which is fighting polls with renewed vigour, may manage to woo back some of the upper caste community — especially small traders upset with the implementation of GST and demonetisation — farmers, and Muslims. With Bhim Army's support, it is not entirely unimaginable that the triangular contest in Uttar Pradesh turns bipolar with a neck-and-neck fight between Congress and BJP.
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Updated Date: Mar 14, 2019 17:22:08 IST