If Mayawati had joined the Indian Administrative Service, as she had planned at a young age before Kanshi Ram changed her mind and brought her into politics, she would have retired from office this January. But the four-time chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, who will turn 60 on Friday, still has plenty of time as a politician.
Slowly overcoming the setbacks of 2012, when she lost assembly elections in UP, and the 2014 when her party failed to win a single seats in a Lok Sabha election for the first time, she remains busy charting out the strategy for the next year’s assembly elections which could bring her back to power in India’s most populous state for a fifth time.
Mayawati, a law graduate and former school teacher, gained popularity for her fiery speeches with acerbic attacks on forward castes in the rural hinterlands during the late 1980s and the 1990s when the BSP consolidated Dalits behind it. In 1995, she became the first Dalit woman chief minister in India and the youngest in UP at the age of 39.
In September 2003, when she became the president of BSP after being chief minister in her mentor’s shadow three times, the party faced internal and external troubles. That year, a faction of BSP MLAs broke away and helped her rival Mulayam Singh Yadav form a government. She faced a CBI inquiry in the Taj Corridor case.
In the following years, she not only assumed complete control of the party and strengthened her grip on Dalits, but she also initiated a strategy to reach out to the upper castes. This was a move that helped her form a government with an absolute majority in 2007 and made the BSP a mainstream party in UP. In a major coup, a party of Dalits weaned away the traditional support bases of parties like the BJP and the Congress.
Over next five years, even as she kept her focus on Dalits, she made the BSP a party with a Dalit base which was attractive to the upper castes. She changed the slogan from Bahujan Hitay to Sarvajan Hitay.
She cultivated an image of a strict administrator and of a leader whose stands are unwavering. She has rejected the idea of an electoral alliance with any party. While there have been deviations on several issues including the induction of tainted and criminals in her party, she has tried to work as a no-nonsense leader.
She did not panic after the 2014 loss nor did she make any major changes in her party or ideology. Neither did she succumb to the temptation of forming an anti-BJP group like Nitish Kumar did in Bihar. Over the years, she has
matured and become more tolerant– she is a seasoned politician. In November last year, she announced that she will build no more parks and memorials – something that had earned her considerable criticism– on returning to power. This move was aimed at reaching out to urban and floating votes.
With the BJP’s popularity diminished and Akhilesh Yadav facing anti-incumbency, she has emerged as a serious contender in the assembly elections, as the recent victories of BSP-supported candidates in zila panchayat elections show.
While the BJP works to attract Dalits and OBCs and the Samajwadi Party keeps its focus on Muslims, Mayawati faces the twin challenges of keeping her Dalit support intact and gaining additional support from other castes.
However, Mayawati still does not have significant presence outside UP, which is a big obstacle to her ambition of becoming the first Dalit prime minister one day. The reason seen by many is that no local leadership has been allowed to develop in other states. Many of her detractors say this is because she does not want anyone efficient in the party who could create problem for her.
While cases of corruption against her have not moved forward, many of her party’s leaders face charges of corruption and amassing disproportionate wealth. The secrecy in her party, especially about the party’s finances, and the strict unwritten ban on party leaders expressing their views in public especially, have led to charges of her being autocratic.
Also, the functioning style of the BSP is something of an anachronism: At a time when politicians are connecting with followers on social media, she remains one of the most difficult politicians to reach.