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VIRAGO IN DIAMONDS - Who's afraid of Kumari Mayavati?

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By Mukul Kesavan
  • Published 16.04.09

I was in a studio discussing the general election in the bitty, broken way that television allows, when a pundit said: “The reason we, all of us, are so appalled by the outside prospect of Mayavati becoming prime minister, is…” His reason wasn’t particularly original (she was paranoid, corrupt, intemperate, authoritarian and vulgar, not necessarily in that order); what was interesting was his assumption that his colleagues on the panel were in agreement about the awfulness of Behenji.

Let me concede straight away that Mayavati might well be paranoid, corrupt, intemperate, authoritarian and vulgar, though her vulgarity might lie in the eye of the beholder because not everyone deals in designer Kanjivarams or Fabindia’s take on dowdy ethnic chic. There must be a world of people out there who like matched salwar suits and coordinated diamonds of the sort that Mayavati wears.

Journalists who have travelled through Uttar Pradesh offer anecdotal evidence that suggests that the Bahujan Samaj Party is as corrupt as, but less violent than, the Samajwadi Party. As the eminent Dalit intellectual, Chandrabhan Prasad, is fond of saying, Dalits don’t do violence particularly well. And while there’s no question that Mayavati is autocratic (her short way with political opponents and erring followers is the stuff of legend), it can be nobody’s case that Indira Gandhi ran the Congress party like a commune. Other provincial leaders who, like Mayavati, led political parties that they helped to create — N.T. Rama Rao and M.G. Ramachandran come to mind — ran them like fiefdoms, but that doesn’t seem to have occasioned as much comment as Behenji’s brusque style.

If someone were to say that Mayavati would be a dreadful prime minister because she’s tyrannical in a paranoid, thin-skinned, temperamental way, I would assume (I think reasonably) that the comment was gendered. Think of contemporaries of Mayavati like Mamata Banerjee or Jayalalithaa or Uma Bharti — every woman in Indian politics who chooses to lead a political party without being beholden to a male patron is typecast as difficult, irrational and unpredictable.

This is not to say that they aren’t all of these bad things: it is simply to point out that a) their male counterparts don’t excite the same sort of criticism and comment, and b) to remind ourselves of how difficult it is to be a female political leader in a systematically male world. To remain both likeable and in command amongst men who see women as sex objects or subordinate kin is probably impossible. Sonia Gandhi has managed to side-step the stereotype by ceding the top job to Manmohan Singh, but were she to directly take the reins we should expect suggestive rumours about her opaque, whimsical, sphinx-like nature.

It’s worth remembering that Mayavati grew up as one of nine children in a slum resettlement, that her father spent more money on the education of his sons than he did on her, that early in her career she had to contend with Uttar Pradesh’s Hindi press spreading squalid rumours about her relationship with her mentor, Kanshi Ram, besides having to deal with Yadav and Thakur enemies like Mulayam Singh Yadav and Rajju Bhaiya who despised her for being a woman as much as they loathed her for being a Dalit. We should remember these things not to make allowances for Mayavati — she doesn’t need our charity — but to teach ourselves that the plausibility and easy likeability of Omar Abdullah or Rahul Gandhi or Murli Deora has much to do with the fact that these privileged young people were so insulated from life’s slings and arrows that they didn’t have to develop Mayavati’s defensive angularities. A system that encourages the babalog to parachute down to its political summit while guarding that peak against those who fight their way up (having paid their dues), begins to lose the right to call itself democratic.

It’s ironic that Mayavati should need an apologia: by rights, she ought to be Indian democracy’s poster-girl. She helped Kanshi Ram found the BSP on April 14, 1984. That a young girl born to an ‘untouchable’ Chamar family should have co-founded a party that managed to win an absolute majority in India’s largest province, Uttar Pradesh, and threatened to hold the balance of power at the national level on the eve of a general election, within 25 years of its founding, is, or ought to be, a matter for celebration. That she should have achieved this without the dynastic leg-up or the majoritarian short cut that has defined Indian political leadership in recent times, is even more remarkable.

One reason why this isn’t celebrated is easily summarized: Mayavati’s relationship with Kanshi Ram is sexualized in gossip and sleazy reportage. The same middle-class people who celebrate the process of ‘mentoring’ in corporate contexts, find it hard to see Kanshi Ram as Mayavati’s political mentor: he has to be cast either as an older man preying on a young woman, or as her visionary political patron, so that she can be cast as an upstart client given her start in life by an all-seeing man.

Anyone who has read Behenji, Ajoy Bose’s first-rate political biography of Mayavati, will know that Kanshi Ram needed Mayavati as much as she needed him, that his vision of a coalition of plebeian castes and communities (the idea of a Bahujan Samaj that he had borrowed from Jyotirao Phule) was made real by her success in mobiizing that constituency in UP even as he struggled to make that social calculus work in Punjab and Madhya Pradesh. Still, a leader’s political struggles and achievements aren’t sufficient reason to see him or her as prime ministerial material. It is legitimate to ask if a Mayavati government would amount to more than the symbolic enthronement of the scheduled castes.

I think it would. The BSP is contesting nearly every seat in this Lok Sabha elections. More than that, its list of candidates spans the spectrum of India’s social diversity: Dalits, Brahmins, Muslims, Banias, Backward Castes, you name the social species you want and she has it housed in her electoral ark. There are events in her political career that seem to question-mark her commitment to diversity: for example, the time she campaigned for Narendra Modi in Gujarat after the 2002 pogrom, because she was in alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party in UP. The cold-blooded cynicism of that act made people committed to political pluralism wonder if her efforts to diversify her social base in UP is opportunistic or part of a governing philosophy.

The definitive answer to that must wait upon history but there’s enough in the BSP’s record to indicate that its commitment to pluralism — a plebeian pluralism with Dalits in the van and poor backward castes, poor Muslims and even Brahmins ranged alongside them — is durable and ideological. Jyotirao Phule’s late-19th-century dream of a Bahujan Samaj, a subaltern majority mobilized to reform an oppressive social order, fired Kanshi Ram’s imagination when he was posted in Pune as a young man. It is just possible that his protégé, this prickly virago, might come to embody that political reformation in the early years of the twenty-first.