In March 2007, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) swept to power in Uttar Pradesh, winning the majority for the first time in India’s politically most important state. However, Kanshiram, the Dalit ideologue who had raised the party from scratch, was not around to savour the moment. He had died just six months before this monumental feat. The fruits of power fell into the lap of his protégée, Mayawati. This was no mean achievement for the one-time IAS aspirant turned Dalit icon. Mayawati was now in the enviable league of politicians such as ND Tiwari and Chandra Bhanu Gupta, who had held the reins of India’s most populous state for four times. It appeared Kanshiram’s legacy was now in safe hands.
Mayawati became the first Chief Minister in UP’s post-independence history to complete a full-term in office. It was a sort of tour-de-force for a woman who also happened to be a Dalit with no political background. She could not even speak extempore on public platforms and had to read out her speeches. Mayawati’s ascension to power was indeed a political miracle.
However, the BSP supremo’s claim to glory ends at that. Her and the party’s impact has only diminished in size and momentum after Kanshiram’s demise. The dwindling graph of the Ambedkarite party can only be put in perspective by analysing the difference between Kanshiram’s BSP and its current version.
The Mandal era is an important landmark in the political landscape of North India. The billions of destitute people oppressed by an unjust caste system for ages had finally woken up to claim their rights. It was a Renaissance period for the Dalit political consciousness in this country. The provision of positive discrimination favouring Dalits was enshrined in the Constitution. Yet, it was Kanshiram who reinvigorated the political activism among Dalits. He was arguably the tallest Dalit leader of contemporary India after Bhimrao Ambedkar, despite notable Dalit leaders such as Babu Jagjivan Ram being present. However, he fell short of setting a new benchmark for the Dalit struggle and was acquiesced as the Dalit face of the Congress. Kanshiram’s book ‘The Chamcha Age’ (An Era of the Stooges, 1982) is a severe indictment of such leaders. He jeered at Dalit representatives who used their identity to benefit traditional parties such the Congress.
Kanshiram was no match for Ambedkar in intellect. He did not belong the foreign-educated class of leaders. Yet, he is the sole Dalit leader after Ambedkar to have established the issue of Dalit dignity as one of the pivots of Indian polity. If Ambedkar authored a marvelous set of laws and objectives for the country’s emancipation, Kanshiram was the one who transformed them into ground reality.
Born into a Dalit family in Punjab’s Ropar district, Kanshiram successfully embraced Uttar Pradesh as his karmabhoomi. This unusual move was a result of his leadership prowess and foresight. In 1981, Ram formed a social organisation known as Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti (DS4). He was still a government servant at that time.
Founding BSP in 1984 was Kanshiram’s first serious bid to consolidate the Dalit electorate. He summarised the nascent party’s political strategy in rather succinct words – “Pehla chunav haarne ke liye, doosra harane ke liye aur teesra jeetne ke liye (first election to lose, next to make others lose and the third election to win).” When questioned about ideology, he stated, “Ambedkar kitabon ka ikatha karte the, main logon ko ikatha karta hoon (Ambedkar gathered books, I gather people).” At the core of the BSP was Kanshiram’s realistic assessment of the state of Dalits in mainstream political parties.
Kanshiram’s BSP found acceptance beyond Dalits. It ascended to become a rainbow coalition of Dalits, backward classes, minorities and other deprived segments of the society. There was a time when the BSP boasted a galaxy of mass leaders such as RK Chaudhary, Gandhi Azad, Raj Bahadur, Dara Singh, Swami Prasad Maurya and Masood Ahmed. Kanshi Ram’s idea of social justice was not exclusivist. Mulayam Singh ventured into the ‘Ekla Chalo’ path in 1991 upon his advice. Samajwadi Party-BSP ties hit a crescendo in the form of a strong alliance.
In contrast, Mayawati’s BSP appears bereft of allies. Maybe she has her own insecurity and ambition to blame for this. But, it has cost the BSP dearly. She fits the popular perception of a leader tainted with corruption allegations. Almost every leader deserting the party has accused Mayawati of selling tickets. Her erstwhile close commander Nasimuddin Siddiqui is the latest example. If genuine, the tapes released by the former state cabinet minister only reaffirm these allegations. Of course, the BSP supremo has always refuted them.
Mayawati runs a political party that has no backing in the corporate world. Its ideology and cause are not appealing enough for the big business families. Therefore, she explains garlands of money on her birthday as an attempt to collect party funds. This is not entirely an untruth. However, the myopic eyes of a powerful, upper-caste segment of India cannot see this reality. For a political party that has not known power for long, what are the other ways left to cover its expenses?
The former Chief Minister’s failure extends beyond an unblemished image. Kanshiram’s dream of a “rainbow BSP” lies in tatters under Mayawati’s leadership. There is no one else to blame. Not a single leader of Kanshiram’s era stands with Mayawati today. All of them were either ousted by Mayawati or chose to leave the party ranks. She erred in restricting BSP to Dalits. Claiming monopoly over their votes only added to her woes. Kanshiram led the elephant to make inroads into the electoral battlefields of several states including Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Uttarakhand, Punjab and Bihar. Mayawati has lost most of that ground. In fact, she never demonstrated any inclination to test the waters beyond UP during her governace.
Mayawati’s relapse is not the decadence of her party and organisation alone. She has failed the downtrodden Dalits. Her tenure (2007-2012) was devoid of any real vision for their welfare. Many felt she had benefitted only the Brahmins. She replaced Kanshiram’s notion of “Bahujan” with “Sarvajan” for political expediency. Enjoying unbridled power, the BSP supremo was colluding with the same classes in power corridors which were responsible for the plight of her core supporters on the ground. Mayawati has little to show as serious attempts to alleviate their sufferings. An overwhelming majority of these segments continued to face the same circumstances.
Out of more than 60 Dalit castes only three to four reaped the benefits of Mayawati’s power. Most jobs, contracts, election tickets and other incentives went to Chamars, Pasis, Dusadhs and Mallahs. Mayawati faced serious allegations of amassing huge wealth unlike her political guru.
Politics is a 24X7 job of engaging with people. Yet, the gates of Mayawati’s palatial bungalow scarcely open for masses. A self-professed deity for Dalits, she has rarely hit the roads during the past decade for any issue that resonates with her core supporters. Two Dalits girls were brutally raped and murdered in Badaun under Akhilesh Yadav’s governance. Mayawati did not bother to meet the victims’ families despite being the tallest Leader of the Opposition. There is no dearth of such instances. Kanshiram’s successor has increasingly confined herself to her opulent bungalows. Little wonder then, the party’s figure in the state Assembly has dipped to 19 from 206 in the year 2007. She had as many MPs in her heydays.
Mayawati’s disdain for party and organisation stems from her insecurity. The infamous incident at a Lucknow guesthouse in 1995 still seems to haunt her. Mayawati had pulled the rug from under the feet of the then SP-BSP alliance government. The alleged SP goons took revenge by intimidating her in the guesthouse. She was purportedly beaten up and her clothes torn. It is said that BJP leader, Brahma Dutt Dwivedi came to her rescue at that point. The notorious gangster Shriprakash Shukla later murdered Dwivedi. Perhaps, the scars of that horror are still festering in her sub-conscious. This is evident in several of her speeches. She has expressed that she fears for her life on several occasions while in the Opposition, even directly accusing Mulayam Singh Yadav of wanting to kill her.
This sense of insecurity was not publicly exposed while she was under Kanshiram’s tutelage. However, she bolstered her security apparatus soon after his death. There are no signs of reversal of the party’s fortunes since 2007. It is clear Mayawati has not shown the courage and heart necessary for success in politics. Nobody can deny only the brave catch the attention of the masses. Mayawati would be well-advised to take a leaf out of Arvind Kejriwal’s methods, where he continues to question and battle self interested lobbies and powerful political parties. This has gained Kejriwal continued support from the under privileged. They still see him as their voice. Mayawati, on the other hand, has not shown this kind of combative leadership for her constituency. If she does not do this even now, she just might soon be reduced to the footnotes of political history.
The author can be contacted on Twitter @BeechBazar