Mayawati, political queen of the untouchables, could become her country's next prime minister. But what does her unlikely rise tell us about the new India?by Meghnad Desai / May 4, 2009 / Leave a comment
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When the first female head of India’s largest state celebrates a birthday, you wouldn’t expect an intimate private event. But when Kumari Mayawati celebrated her 53rd birthday in January the party became what Indians call a big political tamasha. Admirers brought presents, most often bundles of cash, because the birthday girl had announced a gift target of 120m rupees (£1.6m). In theory this was for party coffers, not herself, with each of 400 local branches aiming at 300,000 rupees (£4,000) each. Her followers were happy to oblige. Mayawati is not just leader of India’s poorest caste, the untouchables, in Uttar Pradesh, one of the country’s poorest states. She is also a behenji, or respected sister.
Yet even these lavish celebrations seemed subdued compared to previous years. There was no giant birthday cake laden with orchids. Mayawati dropped her favourite fuchsia dress in favour of a muted silver and pink suit, topped with a simple overcoat. Such reserve was a response to the allegation that one of her party’s legislators had bludgeoned a prospective guest to death for refusing to contribute to the birthday gift target. Her political rivals were also on the streets. One group held a “contempt day,” in which caricatures of Mayawati were ceremoniously spat upon and her effigy was set on fire. Another held a khooni divas, or “murderous day,” highlighting the murder allegation. Not to be outdone, her supporters in the Bahujan Samaj party (BSP) held an “opposition party contempt day” of their own, recounting similar misdemeanours by their opponents. For corruption or thuggery there is little to choose among the parties; politics in Uttar Pradesh (UP) is never dull.
In India’s 15th general election, held in April and May 2009, 714m eligible voters will decide the 545 seats in the lok sabha, the equivalent of Britain’s House of Commons. (The voting began in mid-April, and continues over a month, with the result announced on 16th May.) Indian politics has always been complicated, crossing boundaries of caste and class along with religion and region. But recent economic development, combined with stronger identification with regions and tribes, has made it more unstable, and intensified the scramble for allies after any election. In the first 42 years after independence in 1947 India had seven prime ministers; in the 20 years since, it has had seven more. Meanwhile no single party has won a majority in the last six elections. Five years ago Sonia Gandhi’s Congress party won a surprise victory, going on to govern at the head of a coalition of more than a dozen parties, known as the United Progressive Alliance, headed by current prime minister Manmohan Singh. This year, if neither Congress nor the Hindu nationalist BJP party gets enough seats to lead a government, a new coalition of smaller parties, known as the Third Front, could sneak in and form a government. If Mayawati also manages to get a sufficiently large slice of the vote in her home state, she could be the kingmaker—or perhaps even get the top job herself. For India’s most famous and controversial dalit leader—a social group literally meaning “downtrodden”—this would be a victory more impressive than Obama’s, as if a black or a native American woman came to occupy the White House.
Mayawati’s political rise is a sign of how far both India and its underclass have come in their struggle for political recognition. Only 30 years ago, in UP’s tourist city of Agra, a procession was held to celebrate the birth of BR Ambedkar, a dalit politician and icon who dedicated his life to helping his caste escape their binding traditions, under the slogan “educate, agitate, organise.” (He was also a framer of India’s constitution, which officially abolished untouchability.) There was much music and dancing through the streets, until upper-caste Hindus attacked the celebration. Many were injured. After days of riots, the army had to be called in to restore order. Such scenes were not uncommon during the decades when Ambedkar tried to lift up India’s millions of untouchables, who make up about a fifth of its population.
Hindu society has a fourfold division of castes. The three “forward” castes (about 40 per cent of the population) place the intellectual Brahmins on the top rung, followed by the warrior caste Kshatriyas, and then the traders, the Vaishyas. The fourth, the “backward” caste, are the toilers. (Each is further divided into sub-castes, of which there are at least 7,000.) But outside the system altogether lie the untouchables, whose very presence by tradition was sufficiently polluting to any upper-caste person to require immediate cleansing—usually a bath.
Traditionally, untouchables were not allowed to learn to read and write, let alone run for political office. British rule made secular education open to all, though only a few untouchables were able to take advantage. In 1931, British prime minister Ramsay MacDonald lent his support to the idea of separate electorates for untouchables, similar to those for India’s Muslims. This set the backdrop for a famous dispute, in which Gandhi conducted an epic seven-day fast to persuade Ambedkar, the dalit leader, not to support the plans which would have split the untouchable and the mainstream Hindu vote. Ambedkar called Gandhi’s fast “a foul and filthy act,” but ultimately accepted a different system of reserved seats for untouchable candidates, voted on by all castes and religions. Ambedkar’s compromise held the independence movement together. But reserved seats proved a blunt instrument, with the dominant Congress party smartly picking pliable Uncle Toms to take these seats. Even with locked-in representation, the movement for dalit justice was slow.
It was against this background of frustration and elusive political power that, in the early 1970s, Kanshi Ram—today an icon for the dalits second only to Ambedkar himself—decided to give the system a push. (Ambedkar had died in 1956; his last act of desperation being a mass conversion of dalits to Buddhism.) Ram, an educated dalit who had benefited from a government job, travelled throughout India’s north to persuade other educated dalits to support a new trade union, which in time became the BSP, or the “party for the masses” which Mayawati now leads in UP. During these travels he came across a fiery young female graduate who liked attacking politicians at public gatherings for their sloth in granting dalit rights. She was neither physically striking nor noticeable in any other way, at least until she spoke.
By the time Ram happened upon her, Mayawati had acquired a degree, qualified as a teacher, and was preparing to become a civil servant. This was 1977—a time of turmoil in India. Indira Gandhi, the country’s once all-powerful leader, had recently seen her Congress party defeated, for the first time, by a ragtag coalition of opposition parties, following a period of dictatorial rule known as the “emergency.” The coalition, called the Janata party (one of whose members was the precursor to today’s BJP) had won power on a promise to deal with social deprivation. It held a conference to consult opinion among the deprived sections. Mayawati decided to attend.
The main speaker was Raj Narain, a colourful man whose main claim to fame was as Indira Gandhi’s political nemesis. (He first took her on in the 1971 election, and it was his lawsuit about misuse of public resources that led her to declare the emergency rule. In 1977, he unseated her from a parliamentary seat considered a Gandhi family stronghold.) Mayawati saw her opportunity and spoke up: the untouchables hated the Gandhian word harijan, she said forcefully. Instead they preferred to be known as scheduled castes, or dalits. If the new minister did not know that much, she asked, how could he be trusted with their future? For a 21-year-old dalit woman, to speak up at a public meeting and take on a cabinet minister of a newly elected government was a bold move. In a culture where younger people, and especially young women, have to be deferential to their elders, it was bolder still. Kanshi Ram suspected he had found a new leader.
Mayawati’s parents were typical of many dalit couples. They had migrated to Delhi from a UP village. Her father had a lowly clerical job in the post and telegraph department and her mother was a housewife. They preferred their six sons to their three daughters, but encouraged their daughters to study nonetheless. Mayawati seems to have had a rebellious streak from an early age. An early show of defiance came when a woman in her village was ostracised by all, including her husband, as she was suspected of having an infectious disease. In fact the woman was pregnant; Mayawati took her to a hospital to deliver her baby.
Deciding to leave her job as a civil servant, with Kanshi Ram’s guidance, Mayawati was finally elected to the lok sabha as an MP from a reserved constituency in 1989, after three previous failures. She rose quickly. Four years later her BSP party formed an unlikely coalition in UP with the Samajwadi party, which represented a rival backward caste group. Mayawati became an enforcer for the chief minister, taking an aggressive approach that won her a reputation as the state’s “super-chief minister.” The experience gave her an immensely detailed knowledge of local districts and villages, and the ability to reel off their problems in cabinet meetings. In the summer of 1995, and with secret backing from rivals in both the BJP and Congress parties, Mayawati broke with her coalition partners and tried to form a government of her own. To do so she needed to prove her support to the state’s governor. Holed up with her supporters in the state guest house, she was surrounded, and her followers attacked by erstwhile coalition partners stung at her “arrogant” behaviour. She had to be rescued by the police. But she was not put off, and went on to lead two different coalitions as UP’s chief minister. Then, in 2007, she won on her own, surprising all of her rivals. There had not been a single-party government in UP for 20 years.
Already skilled in the dark arts of politics, Mayawati proved equally skilled at manipulating the symbols of the dalit struggle, in particular statues of their icons: 15,000 statues of Ambedkar and of Kanshi Ram were built across her state in her first stint as chief minister, while statues of Mayawati herself are increasingly popping up. She also developed an in-your-face political style, parading her jewellery and finery and announcing at events how much money she has been donated. On her path to power her aggressive agenda as much as her style won fans and scared the establishment. A favourite slogan used to be “Tilak, taraju aur talwar, isko maro joota char” which, roughly translated, asks followers to throw their shoes at anyone from the Brahmin, trader and warrior castes. More outrageously still, and unlike Ambedkar, she was even critical of Gandhi himself. For a rising politician to insult the father of the nation was a risky step. But for the young Mayawati the Hindu religion and philosophy were instruments of oppression rather than beautiful gems of a higher intellect. If Ambedkar was India’s Martin Luther King, she was more like Louis Farrakhan or Malcolm X.
In recent years she has mellowed and expanded her appeal to include upper caste voters and Muslims, many of her closest advisers today are Brahmins. And there is less need to be confrontational—her own rise reflects the broader, slower advance of dalit power, in combination with the gradual erosion of the political power of the upper castes, and the end of the Congress party’s hegemony. (Dalits and other untouchables represent about 25 per cent of the population, the three upper castes about 40 per cent.) The blow struck by Janata and the Hindu nationalist BJP was the first. But it was followed by various caste parties, and others championing regional identities—for instance the Shiv Sena, a sometimes violent party championing the demands of Marathi-speaking people in Maharashtra, the state whose capital is Mumbai. Against such a backdrop ideological differences count for little, as coalitions are fashioned now one-way, and then another, in the search for power. The caste parties in particular have been helped in the last few decades by the 1979 Mandal commission, which produced a report recommending that India’s backward castes be given the same privileged access to government jobs and university places as its scheduled castes and tribes. This simultaneously weakened the elite’s lockhold on social advancement, and the power of both Congress and the BJP—the parties of the upper echelon.
Political fragmentation has not hindered—and may even have helped—India’s economic revival. Decades of low growth caused by heavy regulation and limited trade under the “licence-quota-permit Raj” crashed the economy in 1991, giving Manmohan Singh, then India’s finance minister, the opportunity to liberalise. In the years since, India has become a byword for dynamism, with a vibrant IT export sector, a new managerial culture and a trillion-dollar economy. For much of its history the bulk of Indian workers have remained stuck in low-productivity agriculture or in the urban informal sector with precarious tenure and low wages. Growth has made a dent in these statistics: using its own national poverty level India has seen the proportion of the poor falling from around 38 per cent in the early 1990s and to about 20 per cent in 2004. The World Bank’s dollar-a-day standard shows that people living below that fell from around 60 per cent to 42 per cent.
Even so, the vast majority of Indians still know little of material prosperity. Regular jobs with tenure and good wages are held by only 10 per cent of the labour force, and nearly half of those jobs are in the public sector; the majority of workers remain in the informal sector, with smaller firms, or in agriculture. Against this backdrop, the best chance anyone has of a decent job is often to step on the government job ladder, or to rely on politics itself. Although caste is becoming less important thanks to urbanisation and political reform, many people in India do not so much cast their vote as vote their caste. They expect favours from leaders in return.
Mayawati herself is relentless in pushing forward the interests of her clients. Upon first becoming UP’s chief minister in 1995 she succeeded in appointing dalits as magistrates in half the districts and as officers in a quarter of the police stations, transferring some 1,350 police and civil servants from the same jobs. (When she lost power, the jobs went back again, a process known as “regime revenge” in Indian politics.) And she has proven equally ferocious in taking on adversaries, most notably in 2002. Her slim majority was challenged by a thuggish upper-caste legislator, Raja Bhaiyya, whose dictum was “Jiski lathi, uski bhains”: the buffalo is his who has the bigger stick. Bhaiyya had guns, horses, money and thousands of militant followers. But Mayawati outsmarted him, using a law passed by the BJP government to fight terrorism to have him charged for terrorising a fellow legislator. Few expected a dalit woman to take on an upper-caste Thakur.
Such events are typical of Mayawati’s rise to prominence. But it is in this current general election that she could take her place on the national stage as part of a new generation of Indian politicians. Much attention has focused on the prospects of Rahul Gandhi, the 38-year-old son of Sonia and Rajiv, who has enjoyed a high profile in the campaign as the voice of youth. But if his Congress party falters, either the BJP or the Third Front will come to power. In the latter scenario, Mayawati is a certain candidate for the top job herself, while even in the former scenario there is a possibility that the BJP might look to her to join an intriguing alliance. If a Hindu nationalist party were to be instrumental in bringing a dalit to the highest position, India’s democracy would have a triumph to savour. In either case she will certainly become a more prominent national political figure in years to come.
The prospect of a more prominent role for Mayawati’s fiery, divisive politics fills millions of upper-caste and upper-class Indians with dismay. But more than personalities, perhaps the real question is: does it matter who wins, especially for the poorest? Congress has a competent economic record and its pioneering reforms have made some dent in poverty. The BJP is economically competent too, although its commitment to redistribution and tolerance is patchy. Mayawati and her party, meanwhile, have a decent record of reducing deprivation. She has done so with imagination, arguing that affirmative action should be based not just on caste but on economic and social deprivation in general. And, as already mentioned, behind the fiery rhetoric she has learnt to compromise, for instance by supporting poorer Muslims in her home state of UP who weren’t eligible for affirmative action, and even seeking alliances with Brahmins who are sometimes economically worse off than castes below them.
April 14th 2009 was the anniversary both of Ambedkar’s birth, and 25 years since the establishment of BSP. The struggle for the dignity of the lowest in India’s democracy has been long. It began during the British empire, but has seen its most successful phase of late amid the nitty-gritty of India’s chaotic democracy. Mayawati may or may not become prime minister this time around. But her presence and her achievements thus far mark a seemingly irreversible advance for the dalits. Her detractors may rightly criticise her for corruption, strong-arm tactics or ostentation. But in doing so they pay a backhanded compliment both to her style and success. She has shown that, in getting their way, India’s dalits need not play by any different rules than their supposed betters. They need not be any more polite, any more honest, any more straightforward than the rest. They are their equals, in bad as well as in good. She is the best India has done in a long time. And if she is not perfect, then neither is India.
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