UP polls: Is BSP chief Mayawati's muted campaign part of some grander design?

While there is no clear answer there are definite pointers. A key assumption being, she is playing along with the BJP as part of its B team. There are no happy coincidences in politics

Arup Ghosh January 27, 2022 08:14:56 IST
UP polls: Is BSP chief Mayawati's muted campaign part of some grander design?

File Image of BSP chief Mayawati. PTI

For years, Uttar Pradesh elections were incomplete without Mayawati’s (aka Behenji) savage putdowns, stinging insults and scathing criticism of the Opposition. Her incessant quest for power meant high-voltage campaigns with lots of drama and histrionics.

But this time around, she has, so far, played reticent. A muted campaign, some vague tweets and the occasional sound byte adding to the mystery.

As president of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), there is a lot riding on her. The party is contesting all 403 seats alone although she is personally not contesting.

Then why choose to remain in the shadows?

While there is no clear answer there are definite pointers. A key assumption being, she is playing along with the BJP as part of its B team. There are no happy coincidences in politics.

Mayawati’s past involving allegations of disproportionate assets, cases registered by the CBI, the Taj Corridor controversy of awarding preferred contracts and alleged kickbacks definitely impacts her present. While she has been cleared in most cases but the sword of suspicion still hangs over her head.

Legal experts say the clearances are based on technicalities, implying they can always pop up again like a bad nightmare. Is that the sword which makes her restless and prone to subjugation?

Lucknow’s corridors of power talk about persistent pressure from government agencies. Besides, she seems to specialise in losing her flock. She had 19 MLAs in 2017. The number is now down to seven. Most have quit and joined rival parties.

Key BSP players such as Nand Kishore and KK Gautam have left while BSP’s legislative party leader Lalji Verma and Akbarpur MLA Ram Achal Rajbhar have been expelled. This is a big problem for BSP.

There is neither continuity nor consistency.

There is definite grumbling about her being soft on the BJP. Also, party old-timers complain of tickets being hawked on ideology and winnability taking a backseat.

Ironically, the only stable face is that of MP SC Mishra, whose son Kapil Mishra is involved with Brahmin social engineering for the party. There is further speculation as to how long would SC Mishra last.

Mayawati has frittered away several of the gains of the past. Inability to carry through infrastructural reforms, create a strong organisation and second-string leadership coupled with lack of an effective communication wing have further added to her woes.

BSP watchers say she is insecure about a strong second-in-command, who could overshadow her, and out of touch with the youth cadre and ambitious MLAs and MPs. And the growing list of expulsions has led to uncertainty within the ranks.

And then there are the potential legacy usurpers such as The Bhim Army Ekta Mission. The party wants to be seen as a part of Kanshiram’s Ambedkarite legacy. The Bhim Army’s flamboyant leader, Chandrashekhar Azad, has an appeal across caste, religion and regional lines. He is contesting against Yogi Adityanath from Gorakhpur.

Surveys give BSP anywhere between 15 and 20 seats. So why then is behenji still relevant? She has served four separate terms as Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. Her party focuses on a platform of social change for Bahujans, more commonly known as Other Backward Castes, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes as well as converted minorities from these castes.

She was chief minister briefly in 1995 and again in 1997, then from 2002 to 2003 and from 2007 to 2012. Her power stems from millions of Dalits across India for whom she is an icon. She is adept at fundraising for the party and her birthdays are almost always a show of strength.

Behenji’s Dalit vote bank can prevent the fight from getting too bi-polar, ensure more three-cornered contests and block the Samajwadi Party from broadening its OBC coalition. All this, of course, benefits the ruling BJP. Mayawati might not be the king this time around but she could play kingmaker.

I have met and interviewed Mayawati several times over the past two decades. She remains forthcoming, aggressive, pugnacious: never backing down from a fight. Bureaucrats, who have worked with her in the past, talk of her being a strong administrator and a crafty tactician.

Mayawati's rise from humble beginnings has been called a "miracle of democracy" by former prime minister PV Narasimha Rao. In 1993, her mentor Kanshi Ram formed a coalition with the Samajwadi Party and Mayawati became the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh in 1995. She was the first female Scheduled Caste chief minister in India.

In 1997 and in 2002 she was chief minister with outside support from the BJP, the second time only for a year due to BJP withdrawing support.

To understand the rise of Mayawati better, it is important to take a quick look at what she inherited from Kanshiram and where she took the game.

The Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti, abbreviated as DS-4 was founded on 6 December, 1981, by Kanshi Ram to organise Dalits and other oppressed groups of India. DS4's slogan was "Brahmin, Thakur, Bania chhor, baaki sab hain DS-4". ("Leaving Brahmins, Thakurs and Banias, everyone else is DS-4.").

The organisation was absorbed by the Bahujan Samaj Party in 1984.

Gauging the simmering resentment against the political ostracism towards Dalits, Kanshiram recruited disgruntled intellectuals and government employees to give wheels to the caravan of the Bahujan movement, writes Suraj Yengde, the author of “Caste Matters.” “Educated and with a confident outlook, the young breed of Dalits are now aiming to give life to Ambedkar’s vision — of becoming a part of the ruling class of the country.”

I recall a bunch of young reporters reached the then Allahabad (Prayagraj) in 1986 when VP Singh contested from there and won. Kanshiram was pitted against him. He knew winning was out of the question. But he was smart enough to know that if you are contesting against a big candidate the media focus would also be on you. Hence, your message also gets through. Kanshiram met the group of four reporters at a hotel.

They introduced themselves by name and association. All was fine till the fourth person gave his name. He was a Brahmin. That was enough to trigger a rant by Kanshiram. He kept complaining how the Brahmins had treated the Dalits and other backwards so poorly not only in Uttar Pradesh but in India. The reporters tried to reason with him. He would not relent. Ironically, this is the same party which is now being steered by a Brahmin, SC Mishra.

The backstory of Satish Chandra Mishra is that he played an important hand when social engineering of upper castes worked for Mayawati in the 2007 elections. The fact also remains that many were disenchanted with the style of working of Samajwadi Party’s Mulayam Singh Yadav. So, this was a matter of timing, anti-incumbency and pushback. As a result, BSP benefited.

Then, SC Mishra’s stature grew further as he began handling her legal cases when the pressure piled up. She remained indebted to him because of this big service. Mishra was given a fleet of government cars, power and had an important say in ticket distribution. His son Kapil and son-in-law now play a crucial role in social engineering of Brahmins.

Cut to 2022 – Mayawati still shows occasional sparks of aggression. She took a dig at Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath saying he should tell the people of the state that the monastery where he lives most of the time in Gorakhpur, is "not lesser than a big bungalow."

She exhorts people not to waste their votes on the Congress as they cannot even decide on their chief minister face. Yet, she was criticised during the COVID pandemic phase for “advising” the Yogi government how to tackle the problem and what steps to take.

Behenji has avoided holding rallies but her party is ostensibly working at the booth level. Their battle cry is …har booth ko jitaana hai…(make every booth win) reminiscent of BJP tactics. Some watchers aligned with BSP say don’t rule her out, she can spring surprises. Currently, that seems like a bridge too far. Her first rally is supposed to be on 2 February in Agra.

When asked about Mayawati’s current political fortunes, an old-timer in Lucknow quipped: “She is between the precipice and the deep blue sea. She is sandwiched between the Centre on one side and time on another.”

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