Mayawati, former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, has come to epitomise empowerment of dalits, the lowest segment of India’s caste hierarchy. What explains her humiliating electoral defeat? Was it her vanity that distanced her from large sections of the country’s most populous state? Will she able to stage a comeback five years down the line?
It is early days yet to write the political obituary of the president of the Bahujan Samaj Party. Just as the BSP was the biggest beneficiary of anti-incumbency sentiments against the Samajwadi Party government led by Mulayam Singh Yadav in 2007, the roles got completely reversed this time round. The sharp rise in voter turnout from 46 percent to around 60 percent was a clear signal that anti-incumbency sentiments were pronounced against the BSP led by the only Chief Minister in the history of Uttar Pradesh who completed a full term of five years. It must be underscored that a mere 4.5 per cent shift in the vote share of the BSP to the SP translated to a loss of 126 seats in the state assembly for the former and a commensurate gain (of 127 seats) for the latter.
Mayawati’s ambitions to become Prime Minister of India evaporated in 2009. Her decision to remain aloof from her constituents and administer the state through a clutch of subservient bureaucrats was, in hindsight, a big mistake. That she thought her actions in building statues of not just her mentor, Kanshi Ram and other dalit leaders but of herself as well, would be perceived by the electorate as expressions of empowerment, was clearly naïve. BSP sympathisers invariably refer to the large number of memorials named after the Nehru-Gandhi family. But these statues and memorials came up after the family members had died. When vaulting ego and hubris come in the way of political astuteness, the consequences can be disastrous, as these have been for a person who claims to be the country’s tallest leader of the socially downtrodden.
Mayawati’s greed is common knowledge. The value of her assets more than doubled during the period she was Chief Minister, from Rs 52 crore in 2007 to nearly Rs 112 crore when she filed her nomination for the Rajya Sabha elections on March 14. In the 58 months she ruled Uttar Pradesh, the value of her assets appreciated by as much as Rs 1 crore per month!
Her supporters say her wealth sends a signal to those who aspire to a more prosperous life. But the flaunting of her riches – in sharp contrast to the austere lifestyle of another important woman political leader of the country, Mamata Banerjee – was clearly a bit too much. Mayawati filed an income tax return of Rs 6.51 crore in 2010-11. Her immovable assets worth Rs 96.38 crore include residential and commercial buildings in Delhi and Lucknow. Although she faces charges of amassing wealth disproportionate to known sources of income, which is being probed by the Central Bureau of Investigation, the growth of her assets indicates that she received impressive returns on her investments in properties. Yet, she does not possess any life insurance policy and does not own a vehicle.
The rise of Mayawati in Indian politics has been truly phenomenal. Born on 15 January 1956 into a relatively poor family of jatavs (once called chamars, a community whose traditional occupation was skinning animals and working with leather), her father Prabhu Dayal was employed as supervisor with the Department of Posts & Telegraphs. She completed her bachelor’s degree in 1975 from Kalindi College; later she earned a degree in education from Meerut University and a law degree from Delhi University. As a student, she was active as a public speaker who would often participate in debating contests. She taught in various schools run by the Delhi administration between 1977 and 1984 before associating herself with Kanshi Ram.
When she met Kanshi Ram for the first time, before he became her political mentor, Mayawati was hoping to join the Indian Administrative Service. Kanshi Ram reportedly told her that she should instead join him because he would make her a “queen” who could control and decide the fates of IAS officers. Her political career formally began with the establishment of the BSP in April 1984.
Interestingly, Mayawati lost the first three elections, she contested. She was elected to the Lok Sabha for the first time in 1989 from Bijnor. Thereafter, in 1994, she was elected to the Rajya Sabha. The BSP supported the SP in UP in 1993 and on 3 June 1995, in the wake of the infamous ‘guest house incident’ when she was physically assaulted, she and her party parted ways with Mulayam Singh Yadav and joined hands with the Bharatiya Janata Party.
When she became Chief Minister the following day, she was only 39 years old, the youngest ever head of UP and the first dalit to hold the post. This was perhaps the first indication that she had acquired a political stature independent of her mentor. Her first stint as Chief Minister lasted a few months and ended in October that year with the BJP-BSP alliance abruptly coming unstuck. In the 1996 elections to the UP assembly, a new alliance between the BSP and BJP was struck under which it was decided that each party would have its own Chief Minister for six months at a stretch. Mayawati was sworn in as UP Chief Minister for the second time in March 1997, becoming the first woman to do so. After six months, she withdrew from the coalition government on the ground that her partners in the BJP were not cooperating with her party’s attempts to rigorously implement a law (the Dalit Act) aimed at prevention of atrocities against those belonging to the lower castes. The widely held perception at that time was that she feared that the BJP could engineer a split in the BSP to form a government on its own in UP and chose to pre-empt such a possible move.
Mayawati won both the 1998 and 1999 Lok Sabha elections from Akbarpur constituency that was reserved for Scheduled Caste candidates. Her choice of constituency was significant in that Akbarpur is in eastern UP, whereas all the constituencies she had contested from earlier happened to be in the western part of the state. This indicated her confidence in the BSP’s ability to garner votes all across a state that was then geographically larger than the whole of Western Europe.
Her third stint as Chief Minister of UP lasted just over a year, from 3 May 2002 to 25 July 2003. The BJP withdrew support to her government soon after her decision to build a commercial corridor near the Taj Mahal generated a major controversy and allegations of corruption were levelled against her, ministers in her government and bureaucrats who were supposed to be close to her. She was accused of approving a project in violation of laws that protect the historic monument. The Supreme Court ordered an investigation by the CBI into the case and also ordered a probe into allegations that she and her family members had acquired assets disproportionate to known sources of income.
Mayawati won the Ambedkarnagar Lok Sabha seat in 2004 but resigned the following year to become a member of the upper house of Parliament. Soon after her third stint as UP Chief Minister, a new controversy surrounding her broke out when members of Kanshi Ram’s family instituted legal cases against her for, among other things, allegedly making him her ‘prisoner’ and denying family members access to him. Kanshi Ram was, by then, very ill and in hospital most of the time. Even after his death in October 2006, his family members claimed she did not allow them to take his body before cremation.
Mayawati has often been criticised for her imperious style of functioning. Her birthdays have been celebrated lavishly; these became public occasions attended by thousands of supporters. Sections of the media have often highlighted the size of the cakes she has cut, described the glittering sets of diamond jewellery she wore, the change in the way she styled her hair (from a ponytail to a bobbed cut) and how her supporters would gift her huge garlands of currency notes. If emphasizing such information was an attempt to paint an unflattering picture of the BSP leader, the impact on her supporters was often just the reverse. For many dalits, the fact that one of their representatives can currently boast a lifestyle that was earlier considered a prerogative of the rich upper castes remains a matter of considerable satisfaction and pride. Political observers drew an analogy between Mayawati’s public demeanour and the sartorial habits of the best known dalit leader in pre-independence India, B. R. Ambedkar, who invariably wore a suit and tie, the dress of the country’s British colonial masters.
For an unmarried woman who grew up outside Uttar Pradesh and entered active politics when she was just 28, Mayawati’s rise has indeed been quite remarkable. The future of her political career is uncertain. But one thing she will clearly have to do is become less paranoid about her security. She does not really have a choice.
On March 17, the newly appointed Akhilesh Yadav government ordered a drastic reduction in the size of the security cover given to her. Instead of 415 men who worked in three shifts, she will now have a contingent of 115-odd Black Cat commandos belonging to the National Security Guards looking after her. In her last financial statement before the assembly, Mayawati had allocated Rs 26 crore for her security which included 14 new cars (four of them bullet proofed) besides two mobile frequency jammers.
Kancha Ilaiah, director, Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad, believes Mayawati is “not a failed leader as Bengal’s Communists are” as “she has combined the cause of Buddhist religious reconstruction with that of Ambedkar-ite political and economic development” which disappointed her Brahmin allies (Asian Age, 16 March 2012).
Yet even Ilaiah acknowledges: “She may be a maverick and may have made money thinking that riches would enhance dalit pride. Making money through wrong means sends wrong signals. In this respect, one wishes Ms. Mayawati had learnt a lesson or two from Kanshi Ram, her guru, who died penniless and yet continued to provide moral strength to the dalit cause.”
A different life awaits Rajya Sabha MP Mayawati in the immediate future.
(Portions of this article have been based on the book Divided We Stand: India in a Time of Coalitions written by Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and Shankar Raghuraman and published by Sage Publications India in 2007.)