Travelling with my parents on the Yamuna Expressway from Noida to Agra, Uttar Pradesh, one breezy morning, the usually quiet cab driver interrupted me and my father sitting in the backseat. “Yeh sab Mayawati ka idea tha, yeah road sab usne banaya,” he said. This was Mayawati’s idea, this highway. It was built by her.
He spoke as our car breezed past the Buddha International Circuit, the motor racing track which once hosted the annual Formula One Indian Grand Prix.
The highway, a milestone in Uttar Pradesh’s development, was inaugurated within weeks of the Mayawati government’s in August 2012 by Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav, who had succeeded her as the chief minister. But everyone knew who had envisioned and executed the project. Mayawati had from the opposition and the media for her various highway projects, but she pursued them with a single-minded focus, convinced that they were vital to developing the state. As she turns 65 today, January 15, the Bahujan Samaj Party chief can contentedly look back at a lasting legacy, enshrined in projects such as the Yamuna Expressway.
Mayawati last served as UP’s chief minister from 2007 to 2012. The 2007 victory was particularly special for her, for it was the first election she had contested without her mentor Kanshiram, the BSP’s founder who had died the previous year. In the post-Babri Masjid demolition era when elections in UP returned hung assemblies, it was Kanshiram who would negotiate for the BSP to get a share in the power. He never entered a pre-poll alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party, but did ally with the Hindutva party afterwards to break the deadlock, and make Mayawati the chief minister – not once but thrice. Interestingly, each time after allying with the BJP, the , so much so that the Hindutva party was relegated to the third position by Kanshiram and Mulayam Singh Yadav, the Samajwadi Party supremo.
Kanshiram had quickly seen Mayawati’s leadership potential after meeting her in the early 1980s. Mayawati was then a teacher aspiring to join the civil services. He mentored her and eventually chose her to lead the Bahujan political movement after him.
Ahead of the 2007 election, pundits had largely written off the BSP’s chances of returning to power on its own. Historically, a party of Ambedkarites had never captured power on its own. But the BSP sprung a surprise, winning a historic majority. The five years of Mayawati’s rule were mostly a success, including in terms of curbing violence against religious minorities. Forbes her as one of the most powerful women leaders in the world.
In the 13 years since, the situation has changed profoundly. Narendra Modi’s ascendance and the BJP’s shrewd alliances meant the BSP reached its nadir in the last assembly election in 2017, securing just 19 seats and finishing third behind the BJP and the Samajwadi Party. It was still the second largest party in terms of , however.
The question now is, can Mayawati fight off the BJP and recapture power in 2022?
Given the BJP’s practice of investing heavily in each state election and UP’s centrality in the party’s plan to win the 2024 national election, it’s going to be a major challenge, no doubt. But on her 65th birthday, Mayawati can take heart from the fact that the BJP has lost most of the recent assembly elections in the Cow Belt, and came close to losing Bihar as well. Whether she will actually succeed in 2022, however, will hinge to a large extent on how she deals with the following four challenges.
1) Can she make the most of Brahmin disgruntlement with the BJP?
The BSP has changed from a Bahujan to a Sarvjan party over the years. And this change was instrumental in the BSP crossing the 30 percent vote barrier in 2007. As the Brahmin community’s disgruntlement with the Adityanath government becomes palpable, Ashok Das of the news platform Dalit Dastak believes the is ripe for a repeat of Mayawati’s 2007 experiment. The BSP chief, in fact, has been the community following gangster Vikas Dubey’s staged encounter last year.
Having publicly stated that she won’t any memorials or parks hereon, can Mayawati convince the voters that she will be the Iron Lady who will set the record straight in UP? In the backdrop of brutal cases of gangrape and murder such as in and , can she mobilise the state’s women?
2) Can she advertise her achievements better?
Unlike the BSP, the Congress, BJP, and Aam Aadmi Party have strong social media teams. Even the Samajwadi party is ahead of the BSP in the online game. Having a strong social media presence helps a party reinforce and amplify its achievements, and this is one thing the BSP must work to do effectively. Mayawati launched projects like the Noida-Delhi Metro, Yamuna Expressway, Buddha International Circuit, Gautam Buddha University, and schemes like Mahamaya Gareeb Arthik Madad Yojana and Savithri Bai Phule Balika Shiksha Madad Yojana. The BSP needs to amplify these achievements, and social media is an effective way of doing so.
3) Can she negate the political challenge posed by the Bhim Army?
As Mayawati focuses on UP’s most backward community in her attempt to retake power by appointing Most Backward Class' (MBC) Bhim Rajbhar as the party’s state president, she must guard against the division of Dalit votes with the Bhim Army in western UP. Even a small swing in vote share can make a big difference in UP. The 2022 election will be the first acid test of Azad Samaj Party, the political front of Chandrashekar Azad’s Bhim Army. Though the Bhim Army’s supporters are traditional BSP voters, they could be swayed away by Chandrashekar, who has a substantial following, especially among the youth, and draws far more TV news and social media coverage. His party could thus damage the BSP’s prospects.
4) Can she change the media narrative?
As the election nears, the BJP will use the construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya to consolidate the Hindu vote. And with the BJP friendly media likely to provide Modi and Adityanath blanket coverage, Mayawati will have to find ways to stay in the headlines in the run-up to the election. As always happens, the overwhelmingly upper caste media will reduce her to being a “caste leader”. Mayawati will need to guard against this pigeonholing, including by forging unexpected alliances. She may also need to give more one-on-one interviews to select Hindi TV news channels, and incessantly talk about her achievements.
All this needs to happen in the next year. It won’t be easy, of course, but Mayawati has a knack of surprising political pundits. Remember her famous hug with that stayed in the headline for days in 2018? Or her historic 2007 victory? Or the unimaginable alliance with the Samajwadi Party?
She’s a student of Kanshiram and a follower of Babasaheb Ambedkar, and she has the political acumen to surprise us all in 2022. For now, let us wish this quintessential leader a happy birthday and good health.