Mayawati is Letting Down Dalits and Uttar Pradesh
With each passing episode, Mayawati is doing a disservice to herself. Her latest decision to have Uttar Pradesh Congress president Rita Bahuguna Joshi arrested for badmouthing her is another controversy which will highlight her impetuousness.
Yet, perhaps for the first time, Mayawati had some reason on her side. The Congress chief's allegations about the role played by money in covering up rape cases were outrageous enough to shock several members of her own party. But the chief minister spoilt her own case with her penchant for overreaction.
If she had brought a charge of defamation against Joshi, there wouldn't have been such a storm over the matter as at present. But, by arresting her under the law for protecting Dalits, Mayawati has raised the temperature to such an extent that a calm, logical approach is no longer possible. The situation has been compounded by the arson attack on Joshi's house in Lucknow.
It is entirely possible that Mayawati has created the furore on purpose. She had shown a similar tendency to overstep the limits by having Varun Gandhi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) arrested under the draconian National Security Act (NSA) for his anti-Muslim speeches during the election campaign in April-May.
The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader's preference for extreme measures is explained by a desire to show her core group of supporters, the Dalits, that she will go to any length to browbeat her opponents. By doing so, she is telling the Dalits that the old days of their oppression by the higher castes are over, and now that one of them is in power she may use a sledgehammer to swat a fly.
Arguably, the Dalit tsarina has become even more aggressive because of the growing belief that she is losing ground in Uttar Pradesh. After her stunning victory in the 2007 assembly elections, she hasn't quite fulfilled the promises of that time. Not only has the BSP's performance in the recent parliamentary polls been well below par, Mayawati is continually being dogged by unsavory controversies.
The most notable of them is her narcissistic habit of building statues of herself alongside those of other Dalit leaders like B.R. Ambedkar and her own mentor Kanshi Ram. The evident wastage of public money in a palpably poor and backward state has attracted the Supreme Court's attention (although it has refused to intervene) and made her an object of ridicule among the chattering classes.
However, her object is evidently the same as the one which made her use the NSA against Varun Gandhi, which drew the apex court's ire, and the non-bailable Atrocities Act against Joshi -- to flex her administrative muscle to buttress her political cause. The act was meant to protect vulnerable Dalits, not to shield a powerful chief minister from verbal abuse, however derogatory.
Mayawati's no-nonsense attitude would have earned more kudos if she had shown an equal firmness in dealing with other law-breakers. But, by accommodating notorious elements of the underworld in the BSP and by even describing them as Robin Hoods, she has shaken her base of support, especially the upper castes, which won her the last assembly election.
One of the reasons for the success of her rainbow coalition comprising Dalits and Brahmins was the widespread disquiet prior to the polls because of the prevailing lawlessness in Uttar Pradesh, which was ascribed to the failures of the then ruling Samajwadi Party.
Mayawati's tough image made all sections of the people support her in the expectation that she will crack down on the goons. But there has been one disappointment after another. First, the murder of an engineer who had resisted a collection drive for her lavish birthday parties created shock waves in the state and outside. Then came the hanging of a candidate for the parliamentary polls, who had apparently been "advised" by the BSP to withdraw from the fray in its favor.
While factors such as these have been responsible for her sliding popularity, the signs of revival of the previously moribund Congress have clearly unnerved her. As much was evident from her castigation of Rahul Gandhi's attempt to woo the Dalits with the obviously baseless charge that he washed himself with a "special soap" after spending time with members of the formerly untouchable community.
Joshi's arrest cannot be unrelated to Mayawati's fear that it is the Congress which poses a greater challenge to her in Uttar Pradesh than either the Bharatiya Janata Party or the Samajwadi Party. The return of the Congress to power at the centre with greater strength than before must have deepened her apprehensions that it may rebuild its old Brahmin-Dalit-Muslim alliance.
Considering that Mayawati has little to show in the matter of development in Uttar Pradesh in contrast to the much better show put up in neighboring Bihar by the Janata Dal-United's Nitish Kumar, her fears about the Congress's rising prospects are not unfounded. But, instead of rectifying her mistakes, she has continued with her headstrong decision to build more statues and indiscriminately use the laws meant for specific use.
That her rainbow coalition is in tatters was evident from her post-poll decision to disband the bhaichara or friendship committees which had been constituted to encourage social harmony. Now, her emphasis is only on the Dalits. The latest step is clearly meant to placate them.
But the Indian voters have shown more than once that they are not easily deceived. Mayawati is likely to go down in history, therefore, as another Dalit leader who failed.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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