Mayavati’s actions before her post-poll press conference said it all. She showered rose petals on the statues of three figures at the Samaj Parivartan Kendra. No prizes for guessing who these were.
There was Bhimrao Ambedkar, the architect of India’s Constitution, the first legal document in the country’s millennia-long history to endow all women and men with equal rights. There was also Kanshi Ram, the founder of the party who also set up the Bamcef, the employees’ federation, and the DS-4. Today’s leader, Mayavati, paid homage to the mentor even as her own statue loomed large in the pantheon.
There is little doubt that the Bahujan Samaj Party’s victory marks both the end of a long journey and the beginning of yet another. Dalit political assertion is not new to the valley of the Ganges, where 35 million Dalits live. Even in 1946, as shown in the research of Ram Narayan Rawat, Ambedkar’s Scheduled Caste Federation posed a stiff challenge to the Congress or to the loyalties of the depressed classes. The republican constitution, even more than independence, was a landmark for it made the right to vote universal and free of all qualifications of literacy and property. Yet, Ambedkar died before the Independent Labour party could actually mobilize his people into an autonomous force.
Kanshi Ram grew up in Ropar in an army cantonment, becoming a political activist and worker later in life. Yet, from the outset, his policy differed from that of the older Republican Party of India by giving political work priority over cultural polemics. As he explained with a famous analogy, India’s society was like a pen tilted to one side. The way to correct the tilt was to empower the powerless. The vote was a weapon, the struggle the method, the road was his chosen route. The last was quite literal for, in 1983, he embarked on a set of bicycle journeys that covered over 25,000 kilometres mainly in north India.
Dalit politics in post-Emergency India was in ferment. The stories of how he and Mayavati met are legion but the one with some credence is of how she raised objections to the word “Harijan” being used at a Janata Party meeting. The word Dalit was more appropriate: it endowed people with a sense of dignity, which the older word, despite Gandhi’s blessings, could never give.
Mayavati’s own educational qualifications have always been a matter of pride to her cadre, much the same way Mahars in the west still sing songs listing all of Ambedkar’s degrees and academic honours. Mayavati’s LLB from Delhi University’s Kalindi College and her BEd are part of political legend.
The journey, through twists and turns, has led to a situation with few precedents in the history of India. Nowhere in the country has there ever been such an overwhelming mandate for a Dalit leader. Till 2002, no Dalit-led formation had ever emerged as the key opposition force in any Indian state. That it should happen in UP, where more than 22 per cent of the people are from the scheduled castes, is not merely due to political arithmetic.
A lot of hard work went into crafting a cohesive political force that could not only come together but also emerge at the apex of a vast social coalition. The Eighties and Nineties were a time of sowing the seeds of change.
L.K. Advani rode his Ram rath in 1990. Two years later, the BSP, in alliance with the Samajwadi Party, trounced the saffron party in a Lok Sabha by-election. In 1993, they united to leave the Hindutva party behind in the race for power at the hustings.
The break-up of the two allies came in the mid-Nineties. The Dalit search for power now had a new adversary, the upwardly mobile backward classes. Unlike in south India, where the upper castes number only three in a hundred, in UP they account for one of every five citizens.
Since then, each of the two adversaries had to widen their social base. It is to Mayavati’s credit that she worked on this project when she was outside the corridors of power for the last five years. Nowhere was this as evident as in the way she courted the Brahmins of the state. Launched in Unnao in the early winter months of 2003, this project extended to as many as fifty district-level rallies in 2005. At a mass rally in June that year, Mayavati’s cadres chanted a new slogan, “Brahman shankh bajayega, haathi aage jayega”. The advance march of the BSP symbol, the elephant, would be heralded by Brahmins blowing the conchshells.
This strategy has borne fruit in 2007, with Brahmins accounting for 51 of the victorious state legislators, as many as one in every four the party now has in its kitty. Yet, this rallying of the elites has not been accompanied by any negative campaign against any other section of the society. Contrary to the claims of some commentators, Mayavati has accommodated the Mandal classes. Her vote share among the lower backward classes, according to the surveys of the CSDS, is as high as 30 per cent. This makes her the head of a rainbow coalition.
There is no doubt about the tint of the rainbow — it is blue, the colour of the party flag. Dalit power is paralleled by deeper socio-cultural changes. Badri Narayan has documented the rise of the Dalit viranganas, the heroines of the revolt in 1857. Such roadside shrines are as ubiquitous as the statues of Ambedkar in the state.
A number of teams carried out detailed studies over the last five years. These studies enabled Mayavati to not only draw up a battle plan but also to weigh the tricky task of seat allocations. No wonder her list was announced at one go and well in advance of that of any other party.
What lies ahead is difficult to predict but the political contours are such as to give her a free hand for a while. The BJP’s entire project is in ruins. Even the forward classes have decamped. The Congress is even more marginal than before. Outside Amethi and Rae Bareli, which resemble the sphere of influence of an 18th century Indian princeling, it has just 14 seats. Mulayam Singh Yadav, of course, is very much in the field, with his vote- base intact. Large numbers of cultivating castes and minorities are very much with him.
Yet, the shift in sociological terms parallels a generational one. Mulayam Singh Yadav entered the state assembly 40 years ago. Mayavati became chief minister in 1995, when she was about the same age that Rahul Gandhi is now. Now in her early fifties, her coming to power marks the blooding of a post-Emergency generation of Indian politics.
The BSP’s victory goes even further in unsettling the equations of the Third Front politics. These regional parties and formations, dominated by the beneficiaries of land reform, have had a distinct place in the social order. But the Dalit project, as conceived of Mayavati and her late mentor, seeks to replace the house that was built around the Mandal platform.
Much will depend on how Mayavati governs. A lot will also depend on how her party expands in the adjacent states. The wheel has turned, and a new day has dawned.