This is Mayawatis moment. The third prime ministerial contender,were told,prepared to sweep her party out of UP and into power. This is her moment at least,till the bubble bursts on counting day. Replicating her assembly results across UP will be difficult enough two years have passed since she won,and the caste coalition that delivered that victory seems to have broken down.
Expanding outside UP will be even harder,and will buck the nationwide trend away from three-cornered fights in most regions. And finally,holding on to any gains isnt straightforward,as the recent defection to the Congress of all six BSP legislators in Rajasthan demonstrated.
And yet,hopes and fears about Mayawati-as-PM dominate discussion everywhere you turn. Why is that? It would be easy,so easy,to assume that thats because she is a Dalit woman. She raises hope,says this theory,because it might be that the final step in the political assertion of the worlds most subjugated minority,historically,is near; and she causes fear for the same reason. After all,there are so many ways in which all the baggage of our caste-ridden history could
determine reflexive reactions to the Mayawati-as-PM possibility. And so,good liberals that we are,were always on the look-out for those tell-tale indicators: sentences that begin Its not that I care about caste,but…; firm yet content-less assertions that Mayawati wouldnt fit or look prime ministerial; or easily-disproved claims that what would work in UP wouldnt work at the Centre. (Lalu Prasads party,an earlier focus for this doubtful snobbery,has managed to provide some of the hardest-working and sharpest ministers to the current government.)
But heres the problem: even though those might be floating around,it might well be the case that they arent the main source of the discomfort. (Nobodys panicking about Ram Vilas Paswan,are they? And seriously,he might have more of a chance at being PM.) And that isnt all thats wrong with the theory: the hopes that,at least in the metros,tend to be attached to an optimistic showing by Mayawatis party arent really connected to delivering an Obama-style knockout to centuries-old deprivations,either.
Explaining the hope is easy. Its actually desperation. To be closed out of the national conversation or worse,the sense that a national conversation has been replaced by a national consensus,and one that doesnt reflect your views can lead people to detect alternatives where none exist,to proclaim messiahs where none are. Theres a common belief that the Congress and the BJP have converged on a common view on economic policy (which they havent),and that Mayawati,given that she represents a party that was set up to appeal to the marginalised,would change that. Besides,at least she doesnt trust the US. (No reason,other than her opposition to the nuclear deal,is generally given for this one.) The truth is that the Bahujan Samaj Party doesnt have,has never had,a policy programme like Fight Club,the first rule of its programme is that There Is No Programme and so,like a particularly vacuous film star,suitors and fans are free to ascribe to it motivations and character that it may not possess.
So what,some argue: at least she represents a radical critique of the system,a rejection of where its taken us; thats valuable and necessary in itself,isnt it? Well,firstly,probably not; and secondly,she doesnt. Thats precisely what the BSP doesnt stand for,and,again,never has. It wasnt founded for social transformation on the ground,it wasnt set up to aid the individual aspirations of the excluded; it was set up to capture the existing system. Other than her blunt acknowledgment of economic and caste
dynamics in politics,theres little thats radical about Mayawati.
So,regardless of ideology,she doesnt represent your hopes the way you think she does. She isnt so easily categorised. More problematically,and also regardless of ideology,theres every reason to be genuinely deeply doubtful about a Mayawati premiership. Not necessarily for her conspicuous accumulation of wealth; our prizing of self-denial and austerity in our leaders could do with a bit of challenge,frankly,before it becomes so set in stone that conspicuous lack of consumption becomes a substitute for genuine leadership virtues. But the way she runs her party should give us pause. Nobody within it has any freedom of manoeuvre; their every public interaction and there are precious few of those is subject to approval and control. Theres absolutely no challenge and dissent permitted; no second-rung,or even third-rung leadership is groomed. (Hence her approach to handing out nominations: you pay your money,you can stand as a BSP candidate. Franchising doesnt work to expand political parties.) Her fear for her security is perhaps justified,but a private,uniformed militia probably isnt. Statues that change the skyline to reflect Dalit assertion might be understandable,but her insistence on appearing larger-than-lifesize is somewhat disquieting. And to make a virtue of not thinking big,of avoiding discussion of programmes and claiming that it is all about implementation,is
reflective of an anti-intellectualism that we have thankfully never had in this country,and which wouldnt be welcome or useful.
Those banging the drum for Mayawati might pause to consider exactly what price they are willing that our institutions pay in order to create space for an alternative that isnt really an alternative. And what price their own political presence will pay,too. A.B. Bardhan of the CPI,for example,responsible for first dragging in Mayawatis name last year as a possible Left-supported PM candidate,needs to stop and think for a moment: has the CPI genuinely learned nothing? They have,after all,supported a magnetic,autocratic,pro-poor leader in the 70s,and it destroyed them as a credible progressive force.
So,then,why this profound unease over criticism? Partly because its sometimes difficult to ensure that these claims are not read as re-affirming traditional exclusions. Is it simply that a feverish cult of personalitys always bad or are you talking about it because of the particular personality thats the object of the cult? Its more than possible to both front-and-centre the intellectual part of your movement and reject Brahmin domination, for example look at the Dravidian parties but its sometimes difficult to attack anti-intellectualism without sounding like that this Dalit woman needs more Brahmin advisors. And,worse,sometimes that may well be precisely what the critic actually means.
So,how to react to paranoia about Mayawati? Dont join it,for one. And particularly dont join in the vehemence nothing rationally justifies that. But dont think for a single moment that its illiberal to worry.