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If Mayawati were PM

BSP’s founding strategy could limit her potential. But can she still surprise?

Written by Kanchan Chandra |
April 16, 2009 9:58:31 pm

The current Lok Sabha elections may well usher in Mayawati as India’s first Dalit prime minister. The odds are low. But each one of the four BSP-led governments in Uttar Pradesh — in 1995,1997,2002 and 2007 — belied the odds. A fragmented electoral verdict and the logic of coalition politics may well produce a surprising outcome again.

The significance of Mayawati as a potential prime minister is not just that she happens to be Dalit — but that she has built a mass political base by openly presenting herself as being of and for Dalits. Simultaneously,she has presented herself as an advocate for all minorities based on caste or religion. Recognising that Dalit votes would not be sufficient to bring it to victory,the BSP’s initial effort was to mobilise the “Bahujan” — a term it defined as a rainbow coalition of minorities that collectively make up a majority,including all social groups except the three Hindu upper castes (Brahmins,Thakurs and Banias). The minorities it has courted most consistently in addition to Dalits have been the backward castes. Less consistently,it has sought the support of Muslims. In the last 10 years,and with great profit,the party has been pursuing Brahmins and other upper castes,replacing the target constituency of “Bahujan” with the new category of “Sarvjan”. Nevertheless,it has not given up the mantle of being a spokesperson for minorities. Although many of the upper castes who have been given tickets to represent the BSP are decidedly privileged,the party promises to advocate for the interests of “weaker sections” among the upper castes.

As the first prime-ministerial candidate to define herself openly as an advocate of minority groups defined by caste and religion,what kind of government might Mayawati lead? At first glance,we might imagine that a BSP-led coalition government at the national level would not be especially distinctive. It is difficult for any party,especially one with a small number of seats,to distinguish itself in a coalition environment. Even if coalition politics results in India’s first Dalit prime-minister,the constraints of coalition government may produce continuity in policies.

But a close look at what Mayawati has done in her four stints as chief minister of UP suggests otherwise. Three of these four stints have been at the head of a coalition or a minority government. Regardless,she has consistently launched a massive redistribution of state resources towards Dalits and other minority groups,through the Ambedkar villages schemes,through the attempt to transform the symbolic landscape of UP by building memorials to historical figures who honour Dalit and backward castes,and through using the threat of transfer to ensure that bureaucrats and police officers are responsive to complaints from minority groups. If the past is a guide to the present,we can reasonably expect such redistributive efforts to continue in a BSP-led government at the Centre,notwithstanding the constraints of coalition government.

We should also expect the BSP not to do at the Centre what it has not done in UP. Among the things that Mayawati has prominently not prioritised as chief minister is education. None of the BSP governments in UP launched any significant new initiatives on primary education. Just as important,the party does not choose to present itself as a party that prioritises education. The BSP government’s priorities,and the list of achievements for which it claims credit,start with law and order,and “development”,broadly defined. Education receives an obligatory mention,buried towards the end of these documents,following electricity,health,fertilisers,sugarcane,handpumps and even VAT. It also remains conspicuously absent from the themes emphasised in the BSP’s current election campaign.

The BSP’s lack of emphasis on education is not only the natural response of a party forced by coalition politics to focus on short-term measures. Any party with an eye to the next election is more likely to redistribute existing resources than invest in long-term transformations. Indeed,no national political party has made education central to its election campaign. But the roots of the BSP’s lack of attention to education are deeper. Education has never had a strong place in the BSP’s founding ideology. It has always been a party focused primarily on the redistribution of political power. “Political power,” according to Kanshi Ram,the BSP’s founder,“is the master key with which you can open any lock,whether it is social,economic,educational or cultural…” And the “locks”,Kanshi Ram argued,would be opened mostly by effective implementation rather than new legislation. His writings,often faithfully reiterated at the BSP’s rallies,define the BSP’s primary mission,not as enacting new laws,but as bringing about better implementation of existing laws.

Indeed,some of the BSP’s major achievements in government have to do with the aggressive implementation and expansion of previous laws put in place by previous governments. The SC/ST act was introduced by the Congress government at the Centre in 1989. The Ambedkar village programme was launched by the Mulayam Singh government in UP in 1991. Education,however,is a subject that requires both legislative initiative as well as the zeal to implement. This is in part why,even with a majority in the state legislative assembly,the BSP has not paid attention to education. Coalition constraints have not held it back — its own ideological origins have.

Three decades ago,when Mayawati had just joined the organisation that eventually became the BSP,its ideological focus on redistribution of political power and implementation of existing laws may indeed have been the most important challenge facing advocates of minorities. India’s economy was dominated by the state then,and most social groups pulled themselves up the ladder of social mobility by gaining access to the state. But that has changed. Since the economic reforms and India’s integration into a global economy,getting ahead requires not just access to power but also education. Those who have limited access to education are also those who are least likely to be competitive in this economy. The population with restricted access to education consists disproportionately of caste and religious minorities — exactly the constituency that the BSP aims to speak for.

Surely,a prime minister who is a champion of minority groups should be a prime minister who champions education. There is little in the BSP’s history,and in the history of Mayawati’s own initiatives,to suggest that she will be that prime minister. At the same time,this is a leader who has continually surprised us by not allowing the limits of the past to define her present. She may very well end up rising beyond the limits of her own ideological background.

The writer,an associate professor at New York University,has been studying the BSP for more than a decade

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