Despite parliamentary democracy
A political biography of Mayawati
by Ajoy Bose
The man who oversaw the drafting of the Constitution of India tried his luck again in a by-election in 1954, contesting on a Scheduled Caste Federation ticket from Bhandara, in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region. He lost again to an unknown Congressman, Bahurao Borkar. The defeats were a shock to Ambedkar’s followers, but not to the Congress. The foundation for these defeats had been laid on 24 September 1932, the day the Poona Pact had been signed between Mohandas K Gandhi and Ambedkar, which provided for reservation for the Depressed Classes, as the Dalits were then called. The strategy of the Congress was to ensure that the docile Kajrolkars and Borkars made it to elected bodies – and not independent-minded sharp-shooters such as Ambedkar.
It is in such a skewed, rigged political landscape that the emergence of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which today commands a majority in Uttar Pradesh, must be seen. Understood against the backdrop of Ambedkar’s own defeats – both personal and with the limited success of the parties he founded, the Independent Labour Party and the Scheduled Caste Federation – the BSP’s performance seems nothing short of a miracle. Social scientists and political analysts, with an abiding lack of interest in history, have tended to dub the BSP’s successes since the 1990s as a tribute to the resilience and maturity of India’s parliamentary democracy system. Behenji, Ajoy Bose’s new journalistic political biography of BSP leader Mayawati, reinforces this commonly held view. The truth is slightly more complicated in that the BSP has succeeded despite parliamentary democracy. A short detour into history is necessary by way of explanation.
The Poona Pact, which denied the Dalits the right to carve out a space for themselves, has finally been subverted by Mayawati, with her mentor, the late Kanshi Ram, having laid the foundation for her political strategy. On 24 September 1982, one of post-Independence India’s most significant politicians catapulted onto the national stage by mourning the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Poona Pact. Less than a year before, Kanshi Ram – then a relative unknown – had founded the Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti on the anniversary of B R Ambedkar’s death, 6 December 1981. His frontal attack of the Poona Pact, through 60 simultaneous denunciation programmes from Poona to Jullundhar, made Prime Minister Indira Gandhi abandon her plans to commemorate the occasion. Kanshi Ram believed that it was the Poona Pact that had turned elected Dalit representatives into lackeys of the ruling Congress party. He called them chamchas (stooges), and termed the post-Poona Pact era a ‘Chamcha Age’. For Kanshi Ram, the best representative of Congress-reared chamchas was Jagjivan Ram, who eventually rose to become deputy prime minister.
Since the Poona Pact impaired the growth of genuine political participation of the Dalits, and also because historical memory is short, it is necessary to understand both its significance and the pre-Pact scenario that Ambedkar had envisaged. In London in 1931, the second Round Table Conference (RTC), presided over by British Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald, discussed the political representation of minority communities in India. Gandhi, as the representative of the Indian National Congress, impugned the leaders of the Muslim, Sikh, Dalit and Christian communities, ridiculing their claims to self-representation. While he reluctantly came around to accepting the communal scheme of representation for Sikhs and Muslims, Gandhi was particularly piqued when Ambedkar made a case for ‘separate electorates’ for the Depressed Classes. Since 1919, Ambedkar had argued that the Dalits should be considered a separate entity, outside of the Hindu fold, due to the segregation forced upon them. During the course of the RTC, contesting Ambedkar’s right to represent the Dalits, Gandhi said presumptuously: “I claim myself, in my own person, to represent the vast mass of the Untouchables.”
The 1931 RTC culminated in the Communal Award of 16 August 1932, which, among other things, allotted separate electorates to the Depressed Classes/Dalits for a decade. What did this entail? First, it meant that the Dalits, and only the Dalits, would choose their representatives. Second, they would be able to cast a second ballot to choose who among the caste Hindus was best suited to represent Dalit interests in a legislative body. Such a safeguard was necessary, argued Ambedkar, since not only were the Dalits outnumbered by savarnas (caste Hindus), they were also physically vulnerable to attacks by caste Hindus during elections (a matter he had painstakingly documented, and which continue to take place in most parts of India today). In addition, he argued, Dalits did not enjoy either civil or religious rights on par with Hindus in the villages of India, and they were widely stigmatised. Ambedkar believed that a mere right to vote would do the Dalits no good, and that they would be subject to the manipulations and machinations of caste Hindus. If the Dalits had the ‘double vote’, including the right to elect their own representatives, the savarnas and the rest of society would come to regard ‘untouchables’ as worthy of respect and dignity. Indeed, Dalits would become politically consequential citizens.
Whereas Gandhi spiritualised the issue of untouchability, regarding it as a sin for which caste Hindus had to atone by a change of heart, Ambedkar sought to politicise caste discrimination by calling for ‘direct action’ – an assertion of rights, and not an endless wait for savarna repentance. If the Communal Award had prevailed, and there had been separate electorates created for Dalits, only Dalits would have been able to choose between, for instance, Kajrolkar and Ambedkar. Gandhi saw the Communal Award as something that divided the ‘Hindus’ (not varnashrama, which he defended) and protested by undertaking a fast. The Poona Pact, which Ambedkar became compelled to sign after Gandhi’s melodramatic fast that jeopardised his life, stripped the Dalits of the unique ‘double vote’.
Post-Poona Pact, it was the caste-Hindu majority that decided which of the Dalit candidates – faceless and pliant – would win. In such a scenario, any party representing caste-Hindu/majoritarian interests – be it the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu or the Communist Part of India (Marxist) in West Bengal – could ensure the victory of any Dalit candidate they fielded. As such, a Dalit-led party that espoused an openly radical agenda did not – and does not – stand much chance in such a first-past-the-post system. While Bose does recount in some detail the belligerent criticism both Mayawati and Kanshi Ram espoused on the subject of Gandhi, he does not seem to have an understanding of or sympathy for the BSP’s anti-Gandhi position.
Because caste Hindus inevitably ensure that they are represented by the least threatening Dalit candidate, both Kanshi Ram and Mayawati lost several elections early in their careers, even while contesting from reserved constituencies. It is rare for a Dalit candidate to win from a general, non-reserved constituency. In fact, this has not been possible even at the height of the BSP’s popularity in UP. During the 2007 assembly elections in the state, the BSP fielded only four of its 93 Dalit candidates in general constituencies. The non-Dalit vote in a general constituency does not easily transfer to a Dalit, it seems, as all four lost; meanwhile, 62 of the 89 candidates fielded in reserved constituencies won. Despite Mayawati’s slogan of sarvajan samaj (a society for all), Dalits, it seems, are to win only from reserved constituencies. In addition, today, a non-Dalit contesting on a BSP ticket receives a share of the non-Dalit votes, as well as most of the Dalit votes.
Ambedkar came to two realisations: that parliamentary democracy under the first-past-the-post system would not enable minorities in India to achieve genuine political representation, and that the communal majority – caste Hindus – had always wrested political majorities with relative ease. Ambedkar did anticipate the rise of the majoritarian communal politics of Hindutva, but his concern of the moment was the Hindu majoritarianism within the Congress. He battled on, like an insurgent infiltrating the enemy camp, by accepting several key posts with both the British administration and the Nehru government.
While Ambedkar, given his scholarship, was accommodated and tolerated so long as he did not threaten to seriously upset caste-Hindu interests, Kanshi Ram, early in his career, realised that it was not easy to engage in politics in such a crooked world. He also quickly understood that the bahujan (oppressed majority) formulation of Jotiba Phule, Ambedkar’s predecessor in Maharashtra, would be more useful if Dalits wished to carve out a distinct political space. Only a utopian social coalition of the oppressed (the Sudras, or ‘Other Backward Castes’, Muslims and other minorities) would be able to challenge the Brahminical interests of society.
The problem was that non-Dalits – even the Sudras, placed low but still within the caste system – were unwilling to accept the leadership of a party founded and led by Dalits. Kanshi Ram therefore first sought to consolidate the party among Dalits. For two decades, he campaigned indefatigably to ensure that Dalits in Uttar Pradesh did not vote for non-Dalit parties. He did not choose his native Punjab for this political experiment, despite the fact the state has the highest proportion – 28 percent – of Dalits in India. Instead, he chose UP not just due to its sizeable Dalit population (21 percent), but also because there were several caste groups in the state, as well as a Muslim population with whom the Dalits could strike possible alliances. Having discovered Mayawati in 1977, he subsequently undertook to groom her as the future leader of UP.
During the 1990s, Kanshi Ram and Mayawati, after establishing a hold over the Dalit vote, realised that the Dalits could gain through both social and political alliances in an era of coalition politics. While editorial writers and analysts lamented political instability inherent in coalition politics, the BSP leadership saw this as a moment rich in possibilities for Dalits and other minorities. During Ambedkar’s times, when the Congress behemoth had not needed allies and was able to ensure a rather frightening stability, Dalits had not been able to carve out an autonomous political space. By the 1990s, this had become possible for the BSP.
With the OBCs, led by the Yadavs, reluctant to accept a Dalit woman’s leadership, Mayawati slowly shifted to the idea of sarvajan samaj, with an eye on the state’s 10 percent Brahmin population. As political columnist Chandra Bhan Prasad explains, her logic was that, in a world polarised along caste lines following the recommendations of the Mandal Commission in 1990 to impose reservations in education and government jobs, once you reach out and win over Brahmins ‘orphaned’ both by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress, the other castes in society could be won over. During a recent visit by this reviewer to Azamgarh, in eastern UP, this strategy was borne out at a teashop run by Dasarath Paswan, a Dalit. In 2003, when Paswan opened the shop, one among 20 others on a 300-metre stretch of the Azamgarh-Baliya highway, besides Dalits some Brahmins came to patronise it. Soon, the other castes followed suit. The BSP is like Paswan’s teashop today, where all castes are welcome – provided they are willing to savour chai, samosas and jalebis made by Dalits. This seemingly unlikely grouping is an evolution from the turmoil of the 1990s.
Press Club view
While the Mayawati phenomenon merits a committed engagement, Bose’s book is a quickie. Though he claims to have spent four years researching for the book, it has clearly benefited by only four months of labour. It is an effort in which timing scores over content. Behenji tracks the various alliances, poll strategies, backroom deals, campaigns and the surrounding heat and dust with a keen eye and a sympathetic ear. But the author does not seem to have dug deep into resources – personal, historical, political or social. The book is an anglophone Delhi/Lucknow ‘Press Club’ view of the emergence of the BSP and Mayawati. Bose’s informants seem to be unnamed sources in the BSP, the current coterie surrounding Mayawati, and sometimes rightwing journalists such as T V R Shenoy of The Week, whose views he echoes nonchalantly. We get a detailed reconstruction of newspapers reports of the June 1995 Lucknow state-guesthouse incident, when Mayawati and her MLAs were violently attacked by Samajwadi Party MLAs and leaders. We get to know how Kanshi Ram once made Manmohan Singh and Arjun Singh wait for hours for a meeting.
The book regales us with anecdotal political gossip. Right at the start of the book, Bose – whose propensity to refer to women politicians as ‘ladies’ has been indulged by Penguin’s editors – says of Mayawati’s 2000-plus page, two-volume autobiography: “The fact that I went through her autobiography from cover to cover and that too in an unfamiliar language of Hindi deserves a self-congratulatory pat on my own back.” This would seem to be the basic task of any biographer, and such an attitude portends poorly for the relationship between the writer and the subject.
Bose hardly refers to any literature published in Hindi or Bhojpuri, relying almost solely on English-language newspaper reportage of the 1990s. He seems to have stumbled upon websites and blogs featuring analyses of Mayawati’s latest success in UP. Yet he somehow manages to not refer even once to, for instance, Chandra Bhan Prasad, one of the most astute commentators on the BSP, who incidentally has written extensively in both the Hindi and English-language press. During the last elections, at a time when opinion polls and analysts predicted another hung assembly, Prasad had predicted a majority for the BSP. In fact, it is clear that Bose has in his research neglected Dalit opinion in general on Mayawati and the BSP.
At long last, India has a Dalit-led party in which non-Dalits have accepted secondary roles and even bit-parts. Critics of the BSP, especially left and liberal-secular intellectuals, lament that the BSP does not have a radical agenda, other than ensuring that Dalits gain political power. Ambedkar had a radical agenda, but could not succeed in the electoral arena. Kanshi Ram began with radical ideas, but long remained on the political fringes. To be part of India’s system of parliamentary democracy, one evidently cannot afford to be too radical. This is perhaps the most useful lesson that Mayawati has learned.
~ S Anand is the publisher of the imprint Navayana, which explores issues of caste from an anti-caste perspective.