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Why Mayawati's defeat is the BSP's victory

By Shivam Vij
March 06, 2012 18:26 IST
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Mayawati must not be shattered right now. Had she not done what she did, she would have lost the Dalit votebank -- that would have been the end of her political career.

As someone told me during the elections, says Shivam Vij, the BSP was not fighting this election for power. It was fighting this election to save its core.

Even before the results came out, the Mayawati cabinet passed a resolution to dissolve the assembly. Never before has an incumbent shown such confidence about losing. Mayawati's body language during the campaign was proof of the same lack of confidence.

The Mayawati was going to lose to the Samajwadi Party was in the air. And yet, Mayawati must be relieved right now. She knows that this defeat of hers is, ironically, a victory of the Bahujan Samaj Party and what it stands for.

Here's how.

When in 2007 the BSP came to power with 206 of 403 seats, it adopted 'Sarvajan Sukhaye, Sarvajan Hitaye' as its motto. The words mean that its government was one for everyone's welfare and everyone's interests. This was the brave new BSP sought to shed its 'image' as a party of the Dalits.

It was this image makeover that had helped it capitalise on popular disenchantment over law and order with the Samajwadi Party government. The image makeover's centre-piece was its Dalit-Brahmin alliance.

Immediately after coming to power, Mayawati thought of herself as an emperor of sorts, who has won one territory and would now go around capturing the rest of the land. She put forth her prime ministerial ambitions bluntly. Can't the daughter of a Dalit become prime minister, she asked. A new fleet of helicopters helped her fly here, there and everywhere.

As many expected the UPA government to fall over the nuclear deal, she opened channels with the Left Front. So confident she was of the possibility of her becoming a serious player in Delhi that she even addressed a rally in Kohima in Nagaland!

The Lok Sabha results were disappointing: She expected 60 of 80 seats in UP, but won only 19. This was partly because the Congress did well: It made voters respond to its performance at the Centre, which included things like NREGA. The upper caste 'Sarvajan' voters did not see any reason why she should be prime minister.

More importantly, many Dalits did not turn up to vote, something not reflected in exit poll data. The exit poll data for 2009 does show, however, a shift from some non-Jatav voters to other parties, mainly the Congress.

While Mayawati initially blamed Muslim voters for the 2009 debacle, the feedback from the party cadres must have been shattering: The drop in the number of Dalits who did not go to the polling booth was in some parts as high as 25 percent. A number of Dalits felt that if they go to the polling booth, they would not be able to press any button other than that of the elephant.

Why were the Dalits so disenchanted in 2009, just two years after their party had made history by coming to power with a majority, on its own, led by a non-Congress Dalit?

They were disenchanted because Mayawati's arrival in power in 2007 did not mean any change in life for them. Mayawati diluted the SC/ST Atrocities Act's implementation, giving upper castes in villages the carte blanche to violence. She did not offer them anything by way of land redistribution, BPL cards, jobs and so on.

Mayawati was particular her cadres should not go around showing off their power, so the cadres could not get anything done for the Dalit voter, and could not make money for themselves.

Part of the reason Mayawati behaved like this was because she was trying to change the 'tone' of her government to that of 'Sarvjan Samaj', which essentially meant that she would do nothing the upper castes didn't like.

The BSP cadres responded to complaints from Dalit voters by saying that for now they must keep quiet and vote like a herd because, well, the daughter of a Dalit had to become prime minister.

Many Dalit voters felt betrayed. They had been turned into BSP voters by being told that the BSP contests the first election to lose, the second to defeat and the third to win. The Dalit voter of Uttar Pradesh had thus been taught patience, but patience has a limit.

Now that the BSP had reached its stated goal -- that of power with which it always said it would unlock the dreams of Dalits.

Now that the moment had come, she was saying wait some more.

In such a scenario, Rahul Gandhi was going around sleeping in Dalit homes. Mayawati was so insecure of this that even before the 2009 results, Mayawati had started taking digs at Rahul Gandhi. She famously said that the next morning Rahul Gandhi goes home and bathes with a special soap to purify himself after having interacted with Dalits.

After May 2009, as a result, Mayawati changed the 'tone' of her government. In name it remained a Sarvajan government. But in practice, Dalits started getting what they wanted.

To give this signal, she sidelined Satish Chandra Mishra, her Brahmin mascot. Rare is a moment between 2007 and 2009 when Mayawati was seen in public without the presence of Mishra. Rare is a moment since 2009 when she has been seen with Mishra.

It wasn't symbolism alone. She did what the Dalit masses wanted: Gave their educated lot jobs, especially as assistant teachers, made the SC/ST Atrocities Act's implementation more stringent, gave small pieces of land to thousands of landless Dalits, built them houses.

Travelling in UP this election season, many journalists noticed the anger amongst non-Dalits with the SC/ST Atrocities Act, in every part of UP. This was contrary to the perception that the Act was not being implemented, a perception created by the Lucknow and Delhi media and by the Congress party.

Right now in UP, you will be told wherever you go that Mayawati's government benefited only Dalits, just as Mulayam's benefited only Yadavs. I met Brahmins and Bhumihars who'd rather vote for the BJP or the Congress but who said they were voting for the SP this time to make sure the BSP would go out.

Ironically, the SP has its own Sarvajan moment right now: Akhilesh Singh is praising UP voters for rising above caste, by which he means that upper castes have voted for the SP in large numbers for the first time.

Mayawati, however, must not be shattered right now. Had she not done what she did, she would have lost the Dalit votebank -- that would have been the end of her political career.

As someone told me during the elections, the BSP was not fighting this election for power. It was fighting this election to save its core.

After her 2007 victory, Mayawati had once said that UP should now be treated like Tamil Nadu, where two regional parties compete for power, and there is no role for the national parties. (It must be pointed that the BSP is technically a national party in the Election Commission records.)

Mayawati must today be happy that the rising threat of the Congress has subsided for now. A victory for Mulayam bothers her less than 100 seats for the Congress would have. The SP is the ideological and caste opposite of the BSP. The SP and BSP define each other, and don't leave room for the BJP and the Congress. Which is why workers of the BJP and the Congress alike complain about the evil of caste politics.

Mayawati's defeat is the BSP's victory.

It's a victory of democracy that the BSP's voters were able to make the BSP deliver to them what they deserved for their loyalty, and what they do not get in governments led by other parties.

The question now is, what will the Dalit voter have to face under an SP government? Will there be a backlash at the village level? Will the Lucknow media and the Congress party remain equally concerned about violence against Dalits as they were under Mayawati rule?

Shivam Vij is a journalist based in Delhi. He is a fellow with the Pulitzer Centre for Crisis Reporting, Washington DC.

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