Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati remains a perplexing political enigma even after having ruled the country's most populous state for more than four years. In the past, political observers, who had been baffled by her incredible ascent despite breaking every rule of the political game, used to complain that her stints in power were too brief to judge her properly. (She was chief minister for three short periods earlier.) But even now, after she has lasted almost a full term in office, there is still considerable bewilderment about her trajectory.
On the face of it, the Bahujan Samaj Party, or BSP, supremo is in deep trouble. The media crucifies her almost on a daily basis for rapes, scams and a multitude of other serious crimes taking place in UP that are all laid at the beleaguered chief minister's doorstep. If one were to believe the headlines the state government is on the verge of collapse.
Yet, as we approach next summer's crucial state assembly polls which should logically seal the fate of the BSP regime, voices on the ground suggest otherwise. There is good reason to believe that Mayawati, regardless of the storm of allegations raging around her, is clearly the frontrunner in a four-way contest between the BSP, the Samajwadi Party, or SP, the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, and the Congress.
In the past Mayawati has shown rare skill in mobilising three layers of electoral support - a core Dalit base with an inner nub of support from her own Jatav sub-caste, the dominant Dalit group in UP; a subsidiary prop from the poorer backward castes and Muslims who have a shared grievance with Dalits against economic exploitation and social oppression by the upper castes and the rising middle castes; and the additional backing of influential upper caste and middle caste individuals lured with the promise of a seat in the assembly. This strategy worked like a dream in the last elections helped by the tail wind of widespread anti-incumbency against the previous Mulayam Singh Yadav government.
The question is whether Mayawati can repeat last election's grand success now that anti-incumbency is blowing not for but against her.
Will Mayawati repeat her last election's grand success?
While there is little doubt that a united opposition harnessing a massive anti-incumbency wave would topple Mayawati, this appears unlikely at the moment. The opposition is both badly divided and lacks leaders of substance. Mulayam Singh Yadav is today a lion in winter, while the Congress and BJP have nobody to challenge a leader of Mayawati's stature. Besides, the BSP chief has indeed managed to further consolidate her support among the Dalits and subsidiary poor backward castes and poor Muslims through a host of programmes and measures - although these may have been piecemeal and far from comprehensive.
Similarly, self-interest is likely to guide upper and middle caste groups and leaders looking to collaborate with the BSP for mutual benefit. The urban middle class is undoubtedly up in arms against the Dalit leader but they would not have voted for her in any case. What has no doubt helped her in the face of the unrelenting barrage of attacks by the media and her opponents is her ability to fight back from situations of extreme adversity. In this she is, perhaps, quite like two contemporary sister politicians - J. Jayalalithaa and Mamata Banerjee - and the three could well form a unique trinity dominating Indian politics for the next decade at least.
Mayawati, however, has disappointed those who hoped she would scale heights greater than ruling UP. Her party has failed to extend its clout to other states of India.The writer is the author of Behenji: A Political Biography of Mayawati