Behenji’s Brahmin Gamble

Published in Tehelka issue dated 28 April 2007

If the ongoing elections in Uttar Pradesh result in Mayawati becoming Chief Minister of the state, she will be governing more people than any other woman leader in the world at this moment.

But that record she has broken before. Three times, in fact. In those three terms put together, she ruled for a little less than two years. That is not surprising in a state where one Jagdambika Pal was chief minister for all of 48 hours. The BSP is hoping not just to form a coalition government but one that lasts five years.

The BSP was founded by Kanshi Ram, a former laboratory assistant in a defence laboratory, in 1984, preceded by thirteen years of social agitations by dalit beneficiaries of affirmative action. The vacuum left by the co-option of the Ambedkar-founded Republican Party of India into the Congress made Uttar Pradesh a fertile ground for the BSP.

Mayawati is a former schoolteacher, has a degree in law, and got her oily ponytail cut into a boy-cut as part of building her image as the Iron Lady of Lucknow. She has marketed herself to dalit voters by telling them she is one of them — an outcast whose rise to the highest post is to be seen as a symbol of the elevation of all dalits. She can’t wait for posterity to install her statues: she wants them now.

This is the first election Mayawati is steering the BSP without Kanshi Ram. In the 1989 Lok Sabha polls the BSP fielded 246 candidates and had its security deposits forfeited in 222 seats. But since then, in a very short while, the BSP has dominated the political scene in UP. The BSP’s vote-share in the 2002 Assembly elections was 23.1 percent, a little less than that of the Samajwadi Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party.

With support from the BSP, Mayawati became chief minister for the third time on 3 May 2002. The 2004 Lok Sabha elections were approaching and the BJP was being more than a little persistent for a pre-poll alliance in which the BSP was being allotted seats less than what the BSP wanted. Besides, a pre-poll alliance with the BJP hurts the BSP’s small but important Muslim constituency even if the fixed dalit vote-bank may not care. The last nail in the coffin was the Vajpayee government’s refusal to save Mayawati from the Central Bureau of Investigation’s proceedings in a case where she allegedly received kickbacks in allowing the construction of a commercial complex too close to the Taj Mahal in Agra.

That was Mayawati’s second experiment with the BJP. The first one had resulted in Mayawati occupying 5 Kalidas Marg, Lucknow, from 21 March to 21 September 1997. As per the BSP’s rather bizarre agreement with the BJP, Mayawati and Kalyan Singh would take turns as cm every six months. Kalyan Singh took over on 21 September 1997 and aggressively started reversing Mayawati’s policy decisions. The BSP couldn’t stand it and four months later, on 21 February 1998, Vidhan Sabha was in search of another government.

The alliance with the BJP was meant to be strategic and short-term rather than ideological for both parties. Occupying the treasury benches was important enough to forego the irony of a savarna-dominated Hindutva party allying with a Hindu-hating Ambedkarite outfit. Eager to co-opt dalits and OBCs rather than have a hostile relationship with them, the Sangh Parivar approved of Mayawati.


Before the 2002 Assembly elections, both the BSP and the BJP were vehemently denying the prospect of a post-poll alliance, even attacking each other in rallies. It’s the same this time. If the BSP emerges as the single largest party on 11 May, its alliance choices will depend on the number of seats it would need to reach the 202 majority mark. Relations between the Samajwadi Party and the Congress are more than a little strained, and if the Congress can get enough seats to be able to help the BSP, so be it.

The BSP and the Samajwadi Party together got nearly 50 percent vote-share in 2002, but an alliance between the two is like one between the Congress and the BJP. The BSP was formed on a “Bahujan” plank. The idea was to isolate the minority upper castes and unite dalits, Muslims and the intermediate ‘OBC’ castes. Being the dalit party it was, the BSP was never able to woo OBC voters and the closest the alliance came to doing that was on 3rd June 1995 when Mayawati got support from the Samajwadi Party to become chief minister for the first time. But soon, there was friction between the two parties’ cadres. SP leaders began breaking away BSP ones to their side and Mayawati, seeing the gameplan, dissolved the government.

The SP then saw a golden opportunity to break away BSP MLAs to form its own government. The MLAs were virtually under a BSP house-arrest in a guesthouse so that they could be prevented from being horse-traded. The guesthouse was gheraoed and attacked. The incident, known as the Guesthouse Scandal, sealed forever a relationship that was in any case doomed because dalits and OBCs were in violent conflict in the villages.

In 2003 Mayawati’s government fell again, and the Samajwadi Party managed to break away 37 BSP MLAs and form a government.

The space left by an ailing Kanshi Ram in the BSP has been filled by the reputed Lucknow lawyer Subhash Chandra Mishra, a Brahmin. Mishra was UP’s Advocate General when Mayawati was cm and is now the party’s national general secretary. He became the leader of an ambitious project to woo Brahmins and forge a coalition of extremes.

The BSP started mobilising on a war footing, organising community gatherings for different castes. Capitalising on the Brahmin disenchantment with the Baniya-dominated BJP in particular, the BSP is now selling the slogan of a Sarvajan Samaj, a society for all.

Just like other parties, dalit candidates of the BSP have been given tickets in almost exclusively those seats that are Constitutionally reserved for the Scheduled Castes. 139 tickets have been given to upper caste candidates, 86 of them Brahmin.

In Western UP, efforts have been made to win over Jats and break into the base of Rashtriya Lok Dal leader Ajit Singh whose campaign for a separate Harit Pradesh has run out of steam. Muslims have been sent out mixed signals – given 61 seats along with some murmurs about Islamic fundamentalism in order to assure the Brahmins that unlike the SP, BSP leaders won’t be found wearing skullcaps and breaking bread with clerics. Although still largely with the SP, Muslims prefer to vote tactically in favour of the candidate most likely to win in order to defeat the BJP. The BSP’s Bahujan experiment has failed; the results on May 11 will tell whether its Sarvajan experiment succeeds.

That doesn’t mean the OBCs are not being wooed — a good 110 seats have been given to them. Kanshi Ram used to scoff at reservations, saying that Bahujans should capture power and give reservations to the minority savarnas. What seemed like bravado rather than rhetoric just might come true. Mayawati has been promising quotas for the upper-caste poor. She’s serious.

The sorry state of law and order, which everyone except the Samajwadi Party admits is a result of “Yadavisation” of the state administration, is being used by the BSP as the chief plank to capitalise on the anti-incumbency factor that runs high. Voters across caste and religion are being told that the choice is between the SP and the BSP.

A whole new political realm might open up in what otherwise seems a stagnant identity politics in post-Mandal north India. But some things won’t change: there will be criminal cases against SP leaders and harsh disciplinary measures against officials seen not to be obedient. Ranging from the constable to the senior-most ias officers, everyone will line up before ministers requesting to be transferred or to not be transferred. Nobody does as many transfers as Mayawati does. After all, mammon is the god of electoral politics.

The state treasury will again be strained for funds for the benefit of different sections of society, and the establishment of a Sarvajan Samaj would require more crumbs to be thrown than ever before. After all, the benefits have to be tangible if an election has to be fought five years later, or even sooner. So what happens to the other BSP, bijli, sadak, pani? Wait for Behenji to establish the Sarvajan Samaj, will you?

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