Mercurial, canny and ambitious: What is Mayawati up to?

Mercurial, canny and ambitious: What is Mayawati up to?

That Mayawati is mercurial is well known, but her decision to call off any tie-up with the Congress for the upcoming Assembly elections on seemingly flimsy grounds has had many wondering what the Bahujan Samaj Party chief is really up to.

Why did she cite the provocative comments of Digvijay Singh, when it is well known that his political fortunes are flagging, and he is a marginal player within the Congress?

And if the reasons were so immediate, why did she need to go back to the 86-year-old Poona pact between Mahatma Gandhi and BR Ambedkar, which advocated seat reservation for the Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) in the provincial legislature? Or for that matter, why did Mayawati equate the Congress with the BJP, accusing it of being a "casteist" party that did not take care of the interests of those classes for which the BSP was formed? And why raise the bogey that Congress is more interested in finishing off the BSP than fighting the BJP?

The truth of the matter is revealed by a close look at her statements over the last few months: Mayawati is desperate to arrest the drift among Schedules Castes, a powerful caste block which has shown signs of disintegration even in Uttar Pradesh (UP), India’s most important state electorally, and one which has been ruled by the BSP for long stretches of time. 

Outside UP, the Congress has so far been the prime gainer of SC votes - even in Punjab, the birthplace of BSP architect Kanshi Ram, and a state where Dalits account for a third of the population. The truth of the matter is that Congress, with its broad church of voters encompassing Muslims, Brahmins and SCs, always gains more SC votes elsewhere when the BSP is not in power in UP. Of late, of course, the BJP has been catching up. 

In UP, the "Dine with Dalit" programme of Rahul Gandhi, which was quite a rage between 2007 and 2012, caused a breach in SC votes, and helped win 22 out of 80 Lok Sabha seats in 2009, even if it ended up eventually benefitting the Samajwadi Party in the 2012 Assembly polls because the Congress was hamstrung by a poor organisational structure and the lack of a face. When Mayawati looks back in anger, she is not oblivious to the Congress nibbling at her lunch, or causing it to be eaten by someone else. 

Of late, the breach in SC votes has benefited the BJP more. The ruling party successfully managed to brand Mayawati only a leader of her Jatavs, the community to which she belongs, and a large section of the non-Jatavs bought this reasoning both into the 2014 Lok Sabha polls in which the BSP could not open its account and in the 2017 Assembly polls. 

So a division in SC votes has always done the BSP in, whether engineered by the Congress or the BJP, and hence Mayawati’s attempt to bracket both the national parties as two sides of the same coin. 

With SCs turning against the BJP in the last few years after incidents like the Una flogging, the Rohith Vemula suicide, the arrest of Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan in UP, Bheema Koregaon and even the Supreme Court order on SC/ST Act which forced the BJP to bring a bill to overturn it, Mayawati is conscious and careful to ensure that the Congress does not become an alternative for her flock. 

The Congress does lie in wait for SC votes that may come its way, be it through Jignesh Mevani in Gujarat, or Ravan, or Left leader Kanhaiya Kumar of JNU

The Congress does lie in wait for SC votes that may come its way, be it through Jignesh Mevani in Gujarat, or Ravan, or Left leader Kanhaiya Kumar of JNU. In the past, Congress has used Ram Vilas Paswan (now in NDA) and the late Jagjeevan Ram’s daughter and party leader Meira Kumar of Bihar as a counter to Mayawati. 

Of late, Congress leader K Raju, a close aide of Rahul Gandhi, has been working on various programmes to build SC leadership in various states, the lack of which he believes to be a prime reason why SC leaders from other parties emerged as alternatives. 

Apart from these long-term political goals, there is also a clear understanding in regional leaders like Mayawati that even if the BJP’s fortunes fall in 2019, the Congress is not in a position to replace it and a strong regional party with close to 40 to 50 seats could have a better chance of leading some rag-tag coalition at the Centre. These Assembly elections are a semifinal to 2019 polls and winning some seats this time will ensure a better bargaining position for Lok Sabha seats in 2019. After all, the country has had a regional leader like H D Devegowda as prime minister, and Mayawati would reckon that her appeal is more pan-Indian than his. 

Indeed, unlike many other powerful regional leaders like Mamata Banerjee, Naveen Patnaik, Mulayam Singh Yadav-Akhilesh Yadav duo, Lalu Prasad, Chandrababu Naidu or KCR, Mayawati’s influence is not limited to one state. An aggressive SC consolidation could see her rise beyond UP and allying regional parties matters more for her than for the Congress or the BJP, which are wooing her to capture the same space. 

A careful analysis of Mayawati’s statement bears out her all-out effort to protect her Dalit constituency. 

October 3: "As always the Congress party’s attitude this time also seems to be of defeating its allies more than defeating the BJP. Congress was in power for many years after independence but like the BJP, it maintained its communal and casteist thinking towards Dalits, tribals, OBCs and Muslims, a reason why the BSP had to be formed to protect their interests. Despite the Poona Pact of 1932, the Congress prevented Ambedkar from being elected to Parliament, did not give him Bharat Ratna. Later It did not declare national mourning on the day Kanshi Ram ji died. The Congress is going two steps more than the BJP in destroying our party. The BSP will not allow any strategy or conspiracy to dent it." 

September 20: "The BSP and Ajit Jogi’s Janata Congress in Chhattisgarh will fight Assembly polls together: Due to dependence on Delhi for decisions and the helplessness and inactivity of local leaders of the BJP and Indian National Congress, the interests of people of Chhattisgarh have always been compromised. A strong regional leadership is required here. 

September 10: "The BSP did not participate in the Congress-sponsored bandh. Both the Congress and the BJP are responsible for the rise in petrol prices. They are two sides of the same coin. The BJP government is following the wrong economic policies of the Congress." 

July 24: "We want to clearly say this to those Congress leaders in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, who keep giving different statements regarding the alliance with the BSP that we will go for an electoral alliance with any party only if they get a respectable number of seats. Our party is otherwise gearing up to fight all the seats there on our own." 

April 25: "Both the Congress and the BJP are responsible for the poor plight of Dalits. The Congress did not confer Bharat Ratna on Ambedkar but uses his name for electoral gains. (During an election rally in Mysuru, Karnataka). 

December 28, 2017: "The equality-based Constitution envisaged by Bhimrao Ambedkar is under attack today, but it is also a historical fact that the Congress has not failed any less in implementing the Constitution in its right spirit to ensure people’s welfare."