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Home > India > News > Columnists > Aditi Phadnis

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Mayawati's caste gambit

August 25, 2008

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Mayawati has now completed 15 months in office as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh [Images]. In this period, she has had to manage one farmers' agitation in Western UP, frenetic tours beginning with the Gujarat assembly election (in which the Bahujan Samaj Party didn't win a single seat but ruined the Congress' chances in at least 15), held campaign programmes and public meetings in Punjab, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala [Images], West Bengal, Uttarakhand [Images] and Bihar; lost one Lok Sabha by-election (Ballia) but won a clutch of others, both assembly and Lok Sabha, relegating the Congress to fourth place and BJP to third in most; pulled out of the United Progressive Alliance and managed a trust vote and been crowned as future prime minister by Communist Party of India PI leader A B Bardhan.

Not bad at all, huh?

The most important thing is that Mayawati's [Images] supporters are seeing a change in her. The first eight or so months were terrible, they concede. Caste atrocities against Dalits is never front page news but the police just watched as attacks took place relentlessly. A Dalit shopkeeper was beaten up, and he disappeared, after he asked a Brahmin to settle his monthly grocery bill. First Information Reports were not registered. The police claimed this was under advisement -- Mayawati wanted to show to the world immediately after she became chief minister that law and order was under control as a counterpoise to the Mulayam Singh Yadav's [Images] Samajwadi Party regime, that ended with the Nithari paedophilia scandal. Lower FIR rates meant lower crime statistics.

What is Mayawati really like?

But what changed the course of events was the incident in Bijnore in March-April. Bharatiya Kisan Union chief Mahendra Singh Tikait ripped Mayawati's sarv jan samaj ambitions to shreds when he heaped casteist abuses on her at a public meeting near Sisauli: The statements are too offensive to be reported here, but it served to tell appalled Jatavs (as Mayawati's caste is known in Western UP) that their traditional adversaries, the Jats, were not only totally unreconciled to the former's elevation to power but would spare no opportunity to punish them for it.

This brought home to Mayawati powerfully that until she got the administration to move she would not be able to ensure protection to the Dalits. There she was, the chief minister of UP. And a man old enough to be her father was abusing her in the worst possible language! Her supporters say now law and order and physical protection to Dalits is no longer the issue. Now the effort is to ensure she gets 50 to 60 MPs so that she can lay claim to the prime ministership of India.

Nobody can stop me from becoming PM: Mayawati

The question is: How? She has announced a succession plan, so that UP knows there is an heir to take up the mantle (remember, her party has simple majority in the Vidhan Sabha and is empowered to rule uninterrupted for the next five years). The name of a young person from the Chamar caste (they account for  12.5 per cent of the population in UP and are the most powerful among the Dalits) who is 18 years younger than her and not from her family will succeed her: The name has been given to the BSP leadership in a sealed envelope. Rajaram Pal's name is in circulation but he's a Pal, who account for 0.5 per cent of the Dalit population, not a Chamar. The signal to anyone who has ambitions of capturing the party in her absence is: Back off.

But for her to realise her ambition, support has to be wide as it is deep. This can be achieved only through a degree of caste-neutral schemes. Development work in UP is going on in full swing. A lot of the work on roads and homes for the poor has been funded through central agencies like the National Highways Authority of India and the Indira Awas Yojana (renamed Kanshiram Awas Yojana in many places). But Mayawati is making sure the administration actually carries out these projects without hindering them in any way. Her supporters complain that there is corruption and leakage, but they attribute it to the conspiracy of the upper castes. Routine development like declaring villages Ambedkar Gram continue. Pensions have been increased. It is raining scholarships for the poor and everything is online.

The BSP's vote share in the 2007 assembly elections was 31 per cent, up from the previous 24 per cent because of its appeal to the oppressed in all castes. On the other hand, the SP maintained its tally of 25 per cent, but lost 48 seats, indicating clearly that with its 8 per cent vote, the Congress could play a crucial role in preventing a division of votes if it reached a pre-poll adjustment/alliance with the SP.

To overcome this, the BSP needs to lure every friendly face from the SP willing to support it. This cuts both ways. Mayawati needs to retain the support of the Dalits without alienating other castes, lest they defect to the SP-Congress. How she will do this is the question.

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