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A Matter of Maya

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The quiet rise of BSP in the battle for UP

FOR A FEBRUARY afternoon it is quite hot in Fatehpur, Uttar Pradesh. On a vast ground along the Grand Trunk road, about 160 km from Lucknow, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief, Mayawati, is about to address a rally. Her helicopter is supposed to land at noon, but people have begun to arrive from 9 am onwards. They are coming in buses, tractor trolleys, motorcycles, cycles, and on foot. By noon, the ground is full, and the local BSP functionaries have to ask volunteers to prevent more people from entering. Songs based on popular Bollywood songs, eulogising Behenji, as her supporters affectionately call Mayawati, are being played over giant Ahuja speakers. On the stage, BSP candidates from various Assembly constituencies in the Fatehpur region run from one corner of the stage to another, making sure everything is perfect. The two air-conditioners, specially fitted on the right side of the podium, are already on. Someone from the BSP keeps on addressing people, telling them that Behenji’s helicopter is about to land in their midst; there is much emphasis on ‘helicopter’.

Just before Behenji’s helicopter lands, a little after 1 pm, the shamiana curtains on the left are removed so that people can get a full view of the landing. Ramsari, 50, has come to the rally from a village 10 km away. Has she ever met Behenji? “Hum kahaan mili?,” (Where would I meet her!), she laughs at the absurdity of the question.

When the chopper appears, a din arises from the ground. Women, who are sitting in the front on their haunches, get up in unison. Many among them fold their hands in reverence the way they perhaps do while watching an emotional scene in a Ramlila staged back in their villages. Some break into a smile, as if they can taste the cashews and the mineral water that Mayawati carries with her during campaigning.

As the helicopter comes close to the ground, a tide of dust and dry grass rises and falls over the gathering. The BSP candidates have, in the meantime, formed a line on the stage like school children and they shout a slogan in loop in praise of Behenji: “Sarv samaj ke samman mein, Behenji maidaan mein” (In honour of all communities, Behenji is in the arena).

Finally, she appears on the dais and waves at the crowd. Children, especially girls, sneak through a wooden fence into the Press section in the front to take a closer look at her. Behenji is dressed in a cream-coloured salwar-kameez with an embroidered shawl over it. She sits on a giant sofa chair kept in the middle of the stage; she looks like someone Mario Puzo would have been happy to make notes on. Her candidates and other leaders sit on a row of chairs at least six feet behind her; she does not speak to them at all. A few minutes later, she gets up and begins to read from a piece of paper.

This is two days before the third phase of elections in Uttar Pradesh. If Mayawati’s speech, which lasts for exactly an hour, is an indication, the BSP now considers the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as its principal contender in these elections. There is mention of the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Congress as well, but even that is mostly to appeal to Muslims to “not let their votes get wasted on the SP-Congress alliance”, which she says will end up aiding the BJP. “The BSP is your only well-wisher,” she tells them. She mentions common civil code and the issue of Triple Talaq. “The BJP has harassed Muslims so much on the name of gau raksha, love jihad and terrorism,” she says. From there, she quickly mentions Rohith Vemula and the Una agitation. She warns people, quoting what she calls her sources, that the agenda of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is to finish reservations if BJP comes to power.

Mayawati is known to give almost no access to journalists. She hardly grants interviews, and in her press conferences she did not take questions until recently. But if one were to analyse her speeches for the 2017 election campaign in UP, one thing becomes clear: her politics is considerably inclusive now, leaving no community or its concerns unaddressed; she is answering almost all questions which may lurk in the minds of voters. Here is a sample of issues she has addressed in her rallies this time:

• “We will not only keep reservations intact, we will also provide for the economically backward among the upper castes.”

• “I will not cut off most-backward OBCs; they will be taken care of as well.” [Big applause by crowd]

• “Do not pay heed to opinion polls. We will form a government on our own. Opinion poll ki pole khul jaayegi (Opinion polls will be exposed).” [Applause]

• “We are concerned about farmers and their plight no matter which caste they belong to and we will address their problems.”

• “Once I come to power, I’ll send all criminals and those responsible for communal riots where they belong: prison.” [Big applause by crowd]

• “People do not need laptops and mobiles; they need economic support which the BSP will provide.”

• “In schools, children will be given proper meals: milk, biscuits, eggs, chana, and cake.” [Applause by crowd]

• “We will grant land and jobs to everyone.” [Big, big applause]

• “I will make sure that the police care and its officers remain in fine shape.” [Draws laughter among sections of crowd]

• “I am done with creating museums and installing statues. Now we will put all our force together to bring development to you and to keep you safe.”

Towards the end of her speech, she looks up from her sheet of paper and specifically addresses the women. “My sisters and mothers have all come decked up. I really like it; even if their clothes are old, they will first wash it and then wear it when they come to see me,” she tells them. And with it comes a message: on voting day, please keep a fast. Otherwise women will get stuck in kitchens and won’t be able to vote. Then she speaks to women again. “Do not give food to your men till they go and vote for me,” she tells them.

Mayawati’s politics is considerably inclusive now, leaving no community unaddressed; she is answering almost all questions which may lurk in the minds of voters

After Mayawati has left for Allahabad for another election rally, Naeem Khan, 64, prepares to walk back to his village, Alamganj, about 35 km away. “In my village, all Muslims will vote for Behenji,” he says. Khan has a tailoring setup in Mumbai since 1976; he was there when riots broke out in the city in 1992. “Tauba tauba, don’t even ask me what all I saw,” he shudders. “As long as Behenji is around, I know there will be no Muzaffarnagar,” he says.

AJAY KUMAR RAWAT, a 31-year-old scholar, is among 300 residents of the Ambedkar Hostel built in the heart of Lucknow during Mayawati’s stint as Chief Minister in 2002-03. Rawat was born in Gangoli in Unnao district; he is a Pasi, which is the second-largest Dalit community in the state (after Jatavs, who constitute 55 per cent of the Dalit electorate in UP). His father is a marginal farmer who couldn’t take his high school examination due to adverse social and economic circumstances; his mother managed to study till class five. In school, on his very first day, Rawat’s upper-caste teacher aimed a casteist barb at him: “Tum aahiv sudo saakho, tumhre baapon ke baapon ke baap utri aave, tabhu tum na pathi paiyo” (You are from the branch of Shudras; even if your father’s father’s father came down on earth, you won’t be able to educate yourself). This, Rawat says, he will never forget. It stays embedded deep in his head. “The thinking was, if a Dalit’s child went to school, who would then work in the fields?” says Rawat. With his mother’s support, Rawat prevailed and was able to complete his doctorate in Sociology. “As a child if you know A is for apple and then you get to eat it, too, who among us will be more meritorious—you or me?” he asks. Rawat is a student of Dalit politics and believes that BSP is a political power and not a social movement any more. “The Dalit struggle is an ongoing process and it is independent of BSP,” he says. Mayawati, Rawat says, has now gone full-throttle on her politics of inclusion.

In its early days, the BSP consolidated its Dalit base with the politics of exclusion. “In those days manyawar ji [Kanshi Ram] gave us slogans like ‘Tilak, taraazu aur talwaar, inko maaro joote chaar’ and ‘Ram ko phenko nadiya mein, Bheem ko lo kandiya mein’,” says Rawat. Later, when the BSP and SP came together for a short period in 1993, the slogan of ‘Mile Mulayam-Kanshi Ram, hawa mein ud gaye Jai Sriram’ was floated.

From the early 2000s, the BSP began to woo Brahmins in the state, and it coined new slogans like ‘Haathi nahi Ganesh hai, Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh hai’ and ‘Brahmin shankh bajayega, haathi badta jaayega’. As a result, the BSP got over 23 per cent votes in the state’s 2002 Assembly elections, which meant that the party was getting votes outside the Dalit fold. In the 2007 state polls, the BSP’s social engineering formula turned the electoral tide so successfully that Mayawati’s victory—her party got a vote share of over 51 per cent—was seen by some as the beginning of ‘Dalit raj’.

In many areas, especially the Awadh region, the SP enjoys significant Muslim backing. It is in such areas that Behenji hopes to sway the minority vote

But even in 2007, the SP retained 47 per cent of UP’s Muslim votes. In 2012, when Mayawati lost and SP’s Akhilesh Yadav became Chief Minister, the SP’s Muslim vote share fell to 39 per cent. But by then the SP had been able to make inroads into Mayawati’s Dalit base, especially Jatavs. ‘Mayawati’s social engineering brought more Brahmins, upper castes and Muslims into the party fold even as Dalit elites in the party and government were displaced and felt threatened at the shrinking political space for them in the BSP,’ wrote AK Verma in the Economic and Political Weekly. Mayawati’s new politics isolated many old-timers of the party who had joined under the influence of Kanshi Ram. “One old-timer I know was so committed that he once donated his entire salary to the party, then cut his pocket with scissors and told his wife back home that his pocket had been picked,” recalls RB Rawat, a BSP member based in Lucknow.

In the 2014 General Election, Mayawati failed to win even a single seat in UP or elsewhere. According to National Election Studies (NES) data, the BSP lost 16 per cent Jatav and 35 per cent other-Dalit votes in 2014 as compared to 2009. In 2014, many among the Dalit middle-class chose to vote for the BJP; 18 per cent of Jatavs voted for the party.

After her defeat in 2014, Mayawati appeared to turn more aloof. Many senior leaders got frustrated with her and left the party. But in the past few months, say party insiders, she has changed her attitude. Encouraged, the BSP worked meticulously on its list of candidates and this early ticket distribution has worked to the party’s advantage. “Behenji is doing things differently. She is now regularly meeting party workers and gets feedback directly from them,” says a senior party leader. According to him, the leader’s strategy this time is to consolidate Dalit and Muslim youth. That is why, he says, Behenji always mentions Rohith Vemula and Najeeb (a JNU student who went missing) in her speeches. To connect with young voters, the BSP has made its presence felt on social media as well. While the BSP has an official Twitter handle, several other Twitter handles and Facebook groups are run by Dalit students and scholars who support Mayawati.

What is also believed to be working well for the BSP now is the revival of BAMCEF, the organisation of backward and minority community employees founded by Kanshi Ram in 1978

Given the Muslim community’s increased soreness with the BJP after the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013 and its politics on beef, the BSP is hoping to return to power by riding on a Dalit-Muslim alliance (21.6 per cent and 20 per cent of the electorate, respectively). In western UP, which went to polls in the first phase and has a sizeable Muslim population, the BSP usually does well in any case. But in many areas, especially the Awadh region, the SP enjoys significant Muslim backing. It is in such areas that Behenji hopes to sway the minority vote in her favour.

In the Awadh area, as part of the polling’s third phase on February 19th, large numbers have come to vote in Ganj Moradabad town in the Bangarmau Assembly constituency of Unnao district, just off the Agra expressway. A local resident, Mohammed Waqar Alam says there is overwhelming support for the cycle (SP’s symbol). Outside a polling booth, Munniwur Rehman, a timber merchant, does not hide his support for Akhilesh Yadav. Standing amid a group of fellow Muslims, Rehman says they are all going to vote for SP. “A lot of development has happened here under Akhilesh. We have got better electricity; there is a hospital coming up and roads are much better,” he says. But isn’t Muzaffarnagar an issue here? “Muzaffarnagar toh purana matter hai (It is an old matter),” he says. A majority of voters here accept, though, that law-and- order is one domain where Mayawati scores above everyone else.

IN MIYAGANJ, IN the Safipur Assembly constituency, BSP candidate Ram Baran is fighting for the third consecutive time against SP’s Sudhir Rawat, who was a minister of state in Akhilesh Yadav’s cabinet. A local resident, AS Mohammed, 79, who retired as a captain from the Indian Army, says that though there are Muslims who will vote for the BSP, a majority of them in this area will vote for the SP. “The BJP candidate came canvassing to my house. I offered him tea and told him that had Atalji been around, ‘I’d have given you my vote.’ But I’m very frightened by your language,” he says. Another resident claimed that even the Baniya vote here was going to the SP because the community is upset with the BJP-led Centre’s demonetisation.

For Dalits here or anywhere else, the caste of the candidate is a big factor. In Hasan Khera, which is a Pasi-dominated village, most votes have gone to SP’s Rawat who is a Pasi. Ram Bharose, 65, a farmer, says that before Rawat, the village would invariably vote for Behenji. “Some will still do, but Rawat is from our own caste and he got this road built to our village,” points out Roopchandra, a teacher. In Unnao district, of which Safipur is a part, Pasis have an estimated 50 per cent more population than Jatavs.

The BSP does well in Bundelkhand and this time it also hopes to do better in eastern UP, especially after Mayawati made the notorious bahubali, Mukhtar Ansari, fight elections on a BSP ticket. Ansari, who got sidelined in the Yadav family feud, wields influence in several constituencies of the region. In the Bahraich-Gorakhpur belt in northeast UP as well, the party is hoping to benefit from an internal feud within the BJP, set off by candidates who did not get tickets this time. But even the RSS has been working hard in these parts, gradually building bridges with the Dalit community.

Another major force in the polls are most-backward OBCs, who constitute over 15 per cent of the state’s population. The BJP has been wooing them since the 90s. “Invoking figures like Kewat in the Ramayana, the BJP succeeded in garnering their support,” says Ajay Rawat. In 1990, when Mulayam Singh Yadav ordered police firing on Kar Sevaks, 16 of the 21 people who died were Kewat-Nishads, one of 17 such communities. Later in 2005, Yadav’s government passed an order that brought the state’s 17 most-backward OBCs (now called most backward castes) into the SC list. But the Allahabad High Court stayed the move after a petition was filed by the BSP. In 2007, after Mayawati formed the government, she withdrew the earlier recommendations and quashed the order. After protests erupted, she sent it back to the Centre for consideration in March 2008; she urged the Centre to raise the quota of SCs by 8 per cent so that these 17 castes could be accommodated as well. This time, the most-backwards OBCs are divided between the BSP and BJP. “In 2014, Behenji lost because the Dalit voter became a ‘Hindu’,” says Lavalesh Chaudhary, a Lucknow-based activist, “but this time they will rally again behind Behenji.”

What is also believed to be working well for the BSP is the revival of BAMCEF, the organisation of backward and minority community employees founded by Kanshi Ram in 1978 (the BSP was formed six years later and the leader shifted his focus to the party). In the last few years, BAMCEF has been divided into 12 factions, including one run by Waman Meshram, once a close associate of Kanshi Ram. In 2012, Meshram even started a political party, Bahujan Mukti Party, to counter the BSP. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, according to sources in the BSP, even the faction allied with the BSP had worked against the party, clandestinely helping the BJP. But now the organisation is once again rallying behind Mayawati; its workers are travelling across UP to help her party achieve victory. “There is a lot of support for Behenji, but the media will never show it,” says RB Rawat.

Rawat says the media only focuses on urban areas and has no idea about what social change Mayawati’s rise to power has brought about. “A few years ago, when Behenji was CM, an old woman in her nineties came all the way from Bijnore to attend one of her events in Lucknow. There, a few journalists asked her if she had come for a free sari. She made a face and said, ‘Our daughter is CM now; do you think I care for a damn sari?’” he recalls.

Mayawati’s attainment of political power, says Rawat, has changed the socio-political axis in villages. “Earlier a Brahmin would go to a Dalit hut, stop at a distance and then ask him to vote for a party he himself was voting for. But now he goes inside, turns the cot down, sits on it, makes the Dalit sit too, and then seeks a vote for Behenji,” he says.

But Dalit activists feel there is still much left to achieve. “A Dalit youth born after 1990 has not seen casteism as much as his previous generations. A middle class Dalit household is a replica of a Brahmin household. So on what basis will he give you votes? For his vote, you will have to go beyond the politics of symbols and icons,” says Ajay Rawat. RB Rawat agrees. “Seventy per cent of Scheduled Castes still do not write their surnames,” he says. “We want to arrive at a point where Chamarji will be as respectable and acceptable as Panditji.”

Also Read: Assembly Elections 2017