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Don’t think of the Elephant

There’s an air of panic about Mayawati. Is that all about caste?

Written by Mihir S. Sharma | April 24, 2009 11:31:55 pm

This is Mayawati’s moment. The third prime ministerial contender,we’re 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 isn’t 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 that’s 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 world’s 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,we’re always on the look-out for those tell-tale indicators: sentences that begin “It’s not that I care about caste,but…”; firm yet content-less assertions that Mayawati wouldn’t “fit” or “look” prime ministerial; or easily-disproved claims that what would “work” in UP wouldn’t work at the Centre. (Lalu Prasad’s 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 here’s the problem: even though those might be floating around,it might well be the case that they aren’t the main source of the discomfort. (Nobody’s panicking about Ram Vilas Paswan,are they? And seriously,he might have more of a chance at being PM.) And that isn’t all that’s wrong with the theory: the hopes that,at least in the metros,tend to be attached to an optimistic showing by Mayawati’s party aren’t really connected to delivering an Obama-style knockout to centuries-old deprivations,either.

Explaining the hope is easy. It’s 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 doesn’t reflect your views — can lead people to detect alternatives where none exist,to proclaim messiahs where none are. There’s a common belief that the Congress and the BJP have converged on a common view on economic policy (which they haven’t),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 doesn’t 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 doesn’t 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 it’s taken us; that’s valuable and necessary in itself,isn’t it? Well,firstly,probably not; and secondly,she doesn’t. That’s precisely what the BSP doesn’t stand for,and,again,never has. It wasn’t founded for social transformation on the ground,it wasn’t 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,there’s little that’s radical about Mayawati.

So,regardless of ideology,she doesn’t represent your hopes the way you think she does. She isn’t so easily categorised. More problematically,and also regardless of ideology,there’s 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. There’s 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 doesn’t work to expand political parties.) Her fear for her security is perhaps justified,but a private,uniformed militia probably isn’t. 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 wouldn’t 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 isn’t 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 Mayawati’s 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 it’s sometimes difficult to ensure that these claims are not read as re-affirming traditional exclusions. Is it simply that a feverish cult of personality’s always bad — or are you talking about it because of the particular personality that’s the object of the cult? It’s 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 it’s 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? Don’t join it,for one. And particularly don’t join in the vehemence — nothing rationally justifies that. But don’t think for a single moment that it’s illiberal to worry.

mihir.sharma@expressindia.com

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