Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati
remains a perplexing political enigma even after ruling the country's most populous state for more than four years. In the past, political observers who had been baffled by her incredible ascent up the ladder of power, despite breaking every rule in the game, used to complain that the Dalit firebrand's stints in power were too brief and interrupted to judge her properly. But now that she has lasted almost a full term in office there is still considerable bewilderment about Mayawati's trajectory.
On the face of it, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) supremo appears to be in deep trouble. The media crucifies her almost on a daily basis for rapes, scams and a multitude of other horrific misdemeanours that are all laid at the beleaguered chief minister's doorstep. If one were to believe the headlines, Uttar Pradesh is in the grip of a terminal crisis and the state government 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, Samajwadi Party (SP), Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress.
Those who know grassroots politics in Uttar Pradesh
feel the BSP leader's Dalit vote bank remains intact and that this provides her with a tactical advantage that her political rivals in the state do not have.
UP Chief Minister Mayawati
In the past, Mayawati has shown rare skill in mobilising three layers of electoral support - a core Dalit base with an inner rock solid nub of support from her own Chamar sub-caste, the dominant Dalit group in Uttar Pradesh; a subsidiary prop from poorer backward castes and Muslims who have a shared grievance with Dalits against economic exploitation and social oppression from upper castes and rising middle castes; and the additional backing from 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.
While there is little doubt that a united opposition harnessing a massive anti-incumbency wave would topple Mayawati from her Lucknow throne, this appears to be unlikely at the moment. Notwithstanding the palpable gap between expectations and delivery, the BSP supremo and her functionaries have indeed over the past few years managed to woo the Dalit and subsidiary poor backward caste and Muslim bases through a slew of programs and measures - although these may have been piecemeal and a long way from being comprehensive.
It will be surprising if these sections are going to be influenced by the wrath of television anchors against Mayawati. 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. Most importantly, the opposition is both badly divided and lack leaders of substance. Mulayam Singh is today a lion in winter while the Congress and BJP have nobody to challenge a leader of Mayawati's stature.
What has no doubt helped her resilience 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 and an uncanny knack of taking politics by the scruff of its neck and making it do her bidding. In this she is perhaps quite like two contemporary sister politicians - Jayalalitha and Mamata Bannerjee - and the three could well form a unique trinity dominating Indian politics for the next decade at least.
Yet, despite her resounding past successes, the Dalit leader has proved a disappointment to those who thought she could scale even greater heights than rule Uttar Pradesh. Her party has failed to spread wings beyond its home bastion, largely because the BSP supremo has doggedly refused to allow smaller replicas of her to extend the clout of the party in other parts of India. Nor has Mayawati been able to project herself as a spearhead for a larger coalition even though she commands such a mammoth state like Uttar Pradesh.
This inability so far, to be more than a provincial insular leader, remains her biggest failing.The writer is the author of
'Behenji: A Political Biography of Mayawati'.