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Home > News > Columnists > Shreekant Sambrani in New Delhi

Punditry on Mayawati win is misleading

May 28, 2007

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Just as the psychologist's perspective influences the results of the Rorschach test, the punditry after Mayawati's win reflects the biases of the analysts.

Such are the compulsions of 24-hour news channels that even seasoned, respected political analysts rush with comments that would not survive a second thought.

The recent victory of the Bahujan Samaj Party and Mayawati has not only been likened to a tsunami, but she is credited to have reworked the entire social calculus in the cauldron of caste-based politics and brought about a paradigm shift in Indian polity.

At a remove of just a few weeks, it appears very likely that these remarks are at the very least premature and perhaps quite misleading.

Any realistic analysis must begin with an acknowledgement of the obvious -- the first simple majority for any party in Uttar Pradesh in 15 years, and one that was achieved almost single-handedly by a Dalit, media-unfriendly woman, with no patronage from any other entity or individual.

Indeed, Mayawati was so confident that she spurned all overt and covert alliance offers before the election. Equally noteworthy is the fact that the BSP vote gains have been at the expense of the two national parties, a foregone conclusion in the case of Congress and a shocker for the Bharatiya Janata Party.

But it was not a landslide or a sweep as is repeatedly being said. The BSP's 206 seats out of the 402 amount to 51.2 per cent, almost exactly the same ratio the BJP has in neighbouring Uttarakhand (36 out of 70 is 51.4 per cent).

The BJP's majority is rightly called wafer-thin, with just two legislators' defection spelling its doom. If five MLAs desert the BSP, it will be in similar dire straits.

More importantly, the BSP's win brings out the fractious nature of elections in UP in even sharper relief than was the case earlier.

The party garnered 30 per cent of the votes cast. Since just about one-half of the eligible voters actually exercised their franchise, the BSP mandate came from only 15 per cent of the electorate.

Chief Election Commissioner N Gopalaswami was justifiably concerned about this state of affairs. This small a base cannot really sustain the talk of social revolution or paradigm shifts in the state, however sweet sounding those phrases may be.

Caste-based voting has been a fact of life all over India; states such as Bihar and UP provide more dramatic instances of it. There are, of course, no official data on the caste-wise break-up of the votes polled by different parties.

What we have are estimates on the basis of surveys; they are certainly susceptible to errors, possibly very large ones, as the present election results show. Assuming that the broad patterns taken for granted are correct, all one can conclude from the last several elections is that caste-coalitions are in a state of flux.

The Congress's upper caste-Dalit-Muslim combination gave way first to Ahir-Jat-Gujjar-Rajput and then Muslim-Ahir-Jat-Gujjar-Rajput, only to be succeeded by a winning combination of upper castes and Other Backward Classes, which in turn lost ground to OBCs and Muslims.

Now we have Dalits and a smattering of upper castes and Muslims providing a winning combination.

It requires a heroic perspicacity to read any patterns into these realignments, quite clearly temporary in nature -- a sort of social Brownian movement, a term used to describe the random movement of tiny particles in suspension.

An unusually lucid Brahmin voter said he could not vote for the cycle (Samajwadi Party), the Congress was finished and the BJP nearly so; hence, he had little choice but to give the BSP a chance this time. What emerges is not new loyalty, but a serial, shifting promiscuity of voter affiliations.

Mayawati fought the election with a single-point platform: a win at any cost and to hell with a manifesto.

Since her party amounts merely to an extension of herself and since her majority frees her from any need to adhere to any common programme at all, it would be very brave indeed to read a movement to the political centre in her victory, or to assume that governance and the other BSP planks (bijli-sadak-pani) (eletricity-roads-water supply) would be priority concerns of her government.

The first indications in this regard are bothersome. A large number of ministers have pending criminal prosecutions.

Most of them have been given minor portfolios, with Mayawati keeping for herself the most important departments.

The chief minister's office has seen a substantial bureaucratic concentration, suggesting that most of the work will be concentrated there.

Almost all Indian Police Service officers and a large number of their Indian Administrative Service counterparts have been transferred, even as there has been lip service about stopping the "transfer industry."

And we can rest assured that a great deal of energy and effort will be spent on investigating the decisions and actions of the predecessor administration and its chief performers.

In all of Mayawati's comments, prominent by its absence is the parallel with another imperious, contemporary woman politician, Jayalalithaa of Tamil Nadu.

Even her worst enemies would not count her out. The similarities are striking: strong mentors and the mercurial rise of the ladies after the mentors' exit from the political stage; attitudes; no semblance of a party structure; veneration by loyal voters and partymen even as the leader maintains a touch-me-not posture.

If Jayalalithaa, despite being a formidable force in Tamil Nadu, represents no break with conventional politics and only a minor impact on the national level, should we not use some caution before bestowing upon Mayawati those qualities?

She could well be, because politics is full of surprises and people grow, but we need more evidence before coming to that conclusion.

In elections, first past the post wins. In punditry, first with the byte or quip gets called for more interviews.

The liberal establishment is also troubled by its own historic guilt. It seeks to find deeper meaning in all in-your-face acts and pronouncements. This has happened abroad as well, most prominently in the United States. The patterns and paradigms we see in the Mayajaal are more likely our own Rorschach tests.


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