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Rise of Mayawati in Hindi heartland is a remarkable phenomenon

Mayawati was persuaded by Kanshi Ram to join the Dalit movement.

Written by Sudha Pai | New Delhi |
Updated: January 22, 2016 12:31:24 pm
mayawati, bsp, dalits Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati.

The rise of Mayawati – who turned 60 on January 17 – as a strong, woman Dalit leader in the highly conservative society of the Hindi heartland is a remarkable phenomenon. A product of two post-independence forces: state policies of protective discrimination and a long-term process of democratisation which have given Dalits a more inclusive space in Indian society. She epitomizes a post-independence, educated, politically conscious generation of middle/lower-middle class Dalits who actively oppose oppression/domination and expect a share in the fruits of development. Born into a lower-middle class family that took interest in the writings of Dr. Ambedkar, she was persuaded by Kanshi Ram to join the Dalit movement.

While Kanshi Ram undoubtedly provided the vision for the BSP as a movement-cum-party, it was Mayawati who as an aggressive leader, organizer and master strategist built the party in UP and brought it to electoral success. The success of the BSP under her has lain in its ability to adapt to the rapidly changing political scene in UP. During the late 1980s/early 1990s, a period of decline of single party dominance, the BSP positioned itself as a strident, radical Dalit party opposed to manuvadi forces. This enabled it to replace the Congress as the party of the Dalits in UP and to capture power in 1993 with the SP despite the Ram Mandir movement.

In the ‘moderate’ post-Mandir phase, the party decided to join hands with the BJP and Mayawati became the first woman Dalit to become the Chief Minister in a traditional society. This had tremendous impact on women who told me during fieldwork in the panchayats in the mid-1990s that they could tell their families: surely if a Dalit woman could be the Chief Minister, girls could go to school. Although she joined hands with the BJP, once in office Mayawati pursued Dalit-oriented policies, such as appointing Dalits as Thana in-charges in one-fourth of rural police-stations which ensured that the Civil Rights Act was implemented. Her politics of symbolism, through establishment of Ambedkar statues and invoking past Dalit heroes and heroines, created pride in low caste identity. However, by the second half of the decade Mayawati felt that the party had reached a plateau and decided to give tickets to non-Dalits including the upper castes. This strategy helped in widening the social base and increased seats, but did not allow the party to achieve power on its own.

A major critique of the Mayawati-led governments in the 1990s was the lack of an economic vision for socio-economic transformation beyond welfare schemes for Dalits. It was argued that sectional development in a condition of underdevelopment in UP was simply not possible and had emptied the treasury. In contrast, the Sarvajan experiment of Mayawati was a two-pronged strategy to capture power alone through mobilizing the upper castes and introducing a more inclusive economic development agenda that would sustain it. While much has been written on the former, the latter has not received adequate attention. On assuming office in May 2007 Mayawati announced that her government’s “priority areas” would be rural development, agriculture, social development and infrastructure, development of all regions and social segments not only Dalits and making the state conducive for attracting investment. She was able to persuade the Centre to provide Special Economic Packages for all these goals and set a target of 10 per cent growth rate and reduction of poverty by half during the 11th Plan period.

During Mayawati’s regime a modicum of development was achieved in areas such as law and order, urban housing, social security and pro-poor programmes for all sections of the population. But she found it impossible to balance the interests of all the social groups that voted the BSP to power. While the upper castes expected a share in political power and economic benefits, with rising aspirations the Dalits expected substantial improvement in material conditions and social status. The Sarvajan strategy also created divisions in the party and it was her core constituency the powerful Jatavs, who deserted her in the 2012 assembly elections.

The BSP under Mayawati undoubtedly has a number of seminal achievements that have contributed to the social deepening of democracy: the creation of a new identity and counter-ideology of Dalit and Ambedkarism that has provided Dalits self-respect, confidence and political empowerment. But there are disappointments. The downward process of democratization under the BSP which during the 1980s/90s constantly empowered marginalized sub-castes has weakened; the emphasis is on capture of power. Organizationally, power in the party remains in Mayawati’s hands; unlike Kanshiram she has not created a second line leadership. Neither is the future ideological direction of the party, post-Sarvajan phase, clear. While history will remember Mayawati as the leader who enabled strong Dalit assertion and challenged upper caste dominance, the more racial promises remain unfulfilled.

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