The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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For this mistress, teaching lessons is a way of life

New Delhi, May 11: The 51-kg cake came four years ahead of time.

The multi-tiered cake marked the 47th birthday of Mayavati. But the Dalit leader, who turned 51 in January this year, could have done with some serious cake-cutting today when she won a clear majority in the 2007 Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections — upsetting every possible electoral prediction.

But for the former mistress of a government school in west Delhi, teaching lessons is all a part of life. When she cut her mammoth cake in Lucknow in 2003, she thumbed her nose at a slew of critics who accused her of extravagance.

The birthday celebration, marked with 1,00,000 laddoos and 60 quintals of marigolds, was a sign of Dalit pride: she had arrived.

Mayavati’s rise is the stuff that hagiographies are made of. There she was one day, a strip of a girl who had caught the eye of Kanshi Ram, the founder of the BSP. Mayavati, the daughter of a Jatav telecommunication employee, wanted to join the administrative services. Kanshi Ram persuaded her not to. The path to power, he told her, was politics.

“It is a road that she has relentlessly pursued,” says Tanveer Kazi, the national secretary of the National Campaign of Dalit Human Rights, a non-government organisation based in Delhi. “And, as we can see, she has been hugely successful.”

Mayavati, or Behenji as she is known, is clearly not the girl that she once was. The old student of Delhi’s Kalindi College is arguably the second-most powerful woman in Indian politics today.

The thin ponytail has given way to a trendy hair cut, and she clearly dresses with care. Weightier now — politically and otherwise — she runs a party today the way a CEO-cum-MD controls a private limited company. Unlike the usual firms, though, there is no clear second line of command in the BSP. There is Mayavati right on top, and then there are the workers down below.

Mayavati, undoubtedly, is the queen of all she surveys. She took over the reins of the BSP when an ailing Kanshi Ram could no longer run it. There was sporadic trouble with other state units, and she was involved in a series of rows with his family, allegedly over property, when he was on his deathbed. But Mayavati has won every possible bout.

And a lot of her successes, her supporters say, has to do with the fact that the former teacher is a strict disciplinarian. “She enforces discipline, both in the party and in the government,” says the BSP’s Ambed Rajan. “And she has one word for those who flout discipline — dismissal.”

Her stints in Uttar Pradesh — this will be her fourth term as chief minister — got her mixed reviews. Corruption was never an issue with her, and she was accused of embezzling Rs 175 crore from the Taj corridor project. But the BSP camp stresses that her forte was law and order.

“She is the original iron lady,” agrees Ramesh Dixit, the president of the Uttar Pradesh wing of the NCP. “But you can’t forget that she was also the one who fielded some of the notorious criminals, including Mukhtar Ansari and Amarmani Tripathi.”

Mayavati is a curious package of contradictions. Everybody agrees that she is a quiet worker — as was evident for the last two years when she silently went about increasing her ground support by joining hands with upper castes, Muslims and some of the most backward classes. She is also voluble, as is evident at her every meeting.

She is extravagant — and has no qualms about it. For her Dalit voter, every bit of the good life — from the diamonds that she wore on her birthday to the baby pink salwar kameez — is a sign of success.

She is not a believer in consistency — having effortlessly moved from the Samajwadi Party to the Congress to the BJP in the last 10 years. Yet, barring Mulayam Singh Yadav, she has cordial relations with most politicians.

Mayavati would know that old chestnut that decrees that those who can, do — and those who can’t, teach. But she’d agree with the other dictum: once a teacher, always a teacher. After all, India’s electoral polity has just been taught a lesson or two by a former schoolmistress.

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