The Elephant Charge

By Shivam Vij

First published in Tehelka issue dated 26 May 2007

You may have seen him on television on May 11, blue gulal all over his bearded, happy face and brand new kurta, dancing more for the television cameras than to the beat of the dholaks. Sobran Pal knew this was the right time for some publicity. This was his moment as much as it was the Bahujan Samaj Party’s, and although Pal had not been given a ticket he is instrumental for the BSP’s strategy to win over the Pals, an intermediate obc caste, not just in Uttar Pradesh but all over India. Based in Jalaun near Jhansi, he is also the vice president of the Uttar Pradesh Pal-Baghel Samaj, one of hundreds of such caste-based organisations across India.

What attracted Pal to politics and the BSP is exactly what Kanshi Ram had once told Mayawati to convince her to join politics: instead of trying to become a civil servant, she could rule over hundreds of civil servants. There are a few good reasons why workers like Pal are so central to the BSP’s historic victory in Uttar Pradesh’s 15th Vidhan Sabha elections. Like him, there are many workers who convince members of their caste to vote for the BSP. This stems from the BSP’s realisation that caste is the basic unit of Indian society. This idea is as central to the party’s Sarvajan Samaj strategy as it was to its Bahujan Samaj ideology.

The media waited outside Mayawati’s residence — which is where all the action is, the BSP office is as good as a tea shop — since 6am on May 11. Only after it became clear that a majority of the seats were in the BSP’s pocket did the security personnel convey that there was a press conference at 3:30pm — not at her residence but, for the first time, at the imposing Bahujan Prerna Kendra, built in 2004 but never really used. A caravan of cars arrived and Mayawati came out in a pink chiffon suit that is the trademark of her celebratory mode, flanked by Satish Chandra Mishra, Nasimuddin Siddiqui and Baburam Kushwaha, besides many security guards. She climbed up the stairs, turned to wave to the celebrating crowd outside, and then walked ahead. She reprimanded a television cameraman for trying to shove one of her security guards and walked in. The room inside has three gigantic statues — that of herself, with Kanshi Ram to her left, and Bhimrao Ambedkar behind them. She spent a considerable time showering petals over the two men’s statues and then took her seat. The first thing she said about her victory was that it was the victory of the ideologies of Ambedkar, Narayana Guru, Periyar and Shahuji Maharaj, “and of all the great men and saints of the Bahujan Samaj.” Most of the daily media did not consider it important to report this, but every BSP worker knows what this means. The BSP in Uttar Pradesh has been built around stories, real and mythological, of the contribution of Dalit icons to Indian society as well as the Indian State. This has been used as the chief instrument of imbibing a new pride in Dalits which they can use as a self-esteem pill against the daily humiliation of untouchability and a socially inferior status. If Mayawati’s own statue stands there, it is symbolic of her attempt to place herself in the pantheon of Dalit icons.

That attempt requires her to take the path of “Ambedkar’s Constitution”, to capture power and then bring its benefits to Dalits. The same room also has three large portraits of Mayawati taking oath as Chief Minister. The fourth one may well have been installed by now. This journey to power has not been easy. Dalits form only 22 percent of UP’s population, and the party’s “Bahujan” or majoritarian theory of uniting Dalits, obcs and Muslims and isolating twice-born upper caste Hindus never really worked. Stuck with a stagnant votebank, the party had to ally once with the Samajwadi Party (SP) and twice with the Bharatiya Janata Party. The first alliance fell apart in four months. The SP’s attempt to break the BSP in 1995 resulted in a vicious attack on Mayawati at a Lucknow guest house. That has become the basis of her rivalry with SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav. Her first alliance with the BJP lasted six months, and the second, 18 months. Worse, they seemed to ruin forever the BSP’s chances of winning over the “lower Muslim” vote.

In 2002, Mayawati was caught in allegations of kickbacks after permission was granted, in violation of existing laws, to a company to build a commercial complex near the Taj Mahal. Advocate Satish Chandra Mishra, the party’s national secretary and Brahmin mascot, persuaded her to resign and has since been fighting the case. The Brahmin gatherings where he persuaded them to see the BSP’s election symbol, the elephant, as Lord Ganesha added another chapter to the party’s use of mythology as a tool of mobilisation. But these Brahmin sammelans were only the face of a wider “Sarvajan Samaj” (a society for all) strategy. Even Banias — whose domination of the BJP is the main reason why UP’s Brahmins are upset with the party — were wooed. So were Thakurs and obcs, particularly the lower obcs. A BSP source says that a vast constituency-wise database of caste population and voting blocks was collected two years in advance, and tickets were distributed (widely rumoured to have been “sold” for amounts ranging from Rs 25 lakh to a crore) six months in advance. Travelling through eastern UP in mid-February, Tehelka found that the BSP had begun a village-by-village campaign when other parties had not even announced their candidates. Planning early has paid off for the BSP.

In the press conference that day, the second thing Mayawati said was that the architects of the Sarvajan Samaj strategy were sitting beside her. She introduced Satish Chandra Mishra (“he is associated with the Brahmin society”), Nasimuddin Siddiqui and Babu Singh Kushwaha (“I did not send him on the field but had him by my side for day to day strategy”). In one stroke she displayed the party’s “sarvajan” credentials, but asserted twice that she had trained them. This rather patronising way of asserting Dalit leadership, where even Brahmins would follow her, was also reflected in the party’s new slogan that talks of behaving with the twice-born Hindus with “shishtachaar” or respect.

A key plank of the BSP in this election was Mulayam Singh Yadav’s “goonda raj”. “It was the worst this time,” explains a former ips officer. “His brother Shivpal Singh Yadav was virtually ruling the state.” The chief element of “goonda raj” is Yadavisation. The state administration and the police is filled with Yadavs, and Yadavs in tehsils and villages are able to act with impunity by claiming to have “powerful connections”. Licence for a gun? Just threaten the Collector and get him to sign the no-objection letter. The BSP was able to exploit this discontent across caste divides. The party’s vote share increased from 24 percent to 31 percent. In her autobiography, Mayawati has written that the party needs 25 percent vote-share to cross the majority mark.  “There seems to have been a massive rearrangement of votes,” says political scientist Sudha Pai. “The obc vote seems to have shifted away from the BJP in large numbers.” Caste realignments and anti-incumbency both work constituency-by-constituency, and that’s why 253 of 402 seats changed hands in this election. The BSP, too, lost 33 of its seats.

With 48 seats, the BJP’s size in the Vidhan Sabha has come down to the pre-Ram Mandir era. Part of the reason for this may be tactical voting for the BSP by Muslims. In Deoband, where the SP candidate was expected to win, the polling was on a Friday. “After the jumma namaz, word spread that the BJP was going to win and so the Muslims voted for the BSP candidate who eventually won,” says a Muslim worker of the BSP from Deoband. The BSP spread the message amongst Muslims that the SP had come to power with the BJP’s underhand help.

It’s no surprise that even the priests of Varanasi, who won’t allow Dalits to enter their temples, have prayed for Mayawati and the RSS has praised her. But caste arithmetic is unpredictable as the weather. Behenji will have to work to keep the wind in her favour till the 2009 Lok Sabha elections.

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