When BJP leader Dayashankar Singh yesterday compared Mayawati to a sex worker, the comment rankled not only because it was misogynist or targeted at a Dalit woman by a Thakur leader. As the response to the controversy by everyone including the BJP showed, Mayawati occupies a stature in Indian politics that inspires respect of the kind few politicians enjoy.
Her party may not have a single seat in the sitting Lok Sabha, but 2.3 crore Indians--or 4.1% of the total votes--were earned by the Bahujan Samaj Party. Most of these voters are Dalit, and many of them voted for the BSP knowing the party's candidate wasn't going to win. These numbers made the BSP India's third largest party in the 2014 elections.
In Uttar Pradesh, the party won nearly 20% votes even though it didn't win a single seat, showing that even in the Modi wave that swept Uttar Pradesh, Dalit voters stood by Mayawati.
These numbers also tell you what Mayawati means to Dalits even outside Uttar Pradesh. Her appeal isn't just one of power and patronage, elections and governance. She is the mainstream political face of India's Dalits in the way that Modi is the face of Hindutva. That's a very high position to occupy for a party without a single seat in the Lok Sabha. The BJP's Bihar ally, Ram Vilas Paswan, doesn't even come close to occupying that position even in his home state, Bihar.
She is the mainstream political face of India's Dalits in the way that Modi is the face of Hindutva. That's a very high position to occupy for a party without a single seat in the Lok Sabha.
As a heated election campaign takes place in Uttar Pradesh over the next six months, opponents may want to be careful in not just choosing their words about Mayawati, but even attacking her at all.
Unlike the Samajwadi Party, the BJP and the Congress are eager to win over some of the 20.5% Dalit vote in Uttar Pradesh. Attacking Mayawati is likely to alienate Dalit voters from your party, because Dalit voters see any attack on Mayawati as casteist. This is also why constantly accusing Mayawati of corruption won't help you win Dalit votes, because Mayawati is accused of corruption as though other parties and leaders don't indulge in it.
For both BJP and Congress, the implications are beyond Uttar Pradesh. Mayawati and her party have attacked both BJP and Congress for years as parties that believe and and further upper caste domination--Manuwadi--and going overboard in attacking her will only confirm her charge.
This hurts the BJP not just electorally but also its larger RSS-driven agenda of Hindutva-ising Dalits. Calling Mayawati names is not going to ingratiate Dalits to the Hindutva family at all. The RSS in Uttar Pradesh understands this, and is often willing to be soft on her, even backing her Dalit-Brahmin alliance in 2007.
Calling Mayawati names is not going to ingratiate Dalits to the Hindutva family at all. The RSS in Uttar Pradesh understands this, and is often willing to be soft on her, even backing her Dalit-Brahmin alliance in 2007.
There was a time when the Mayawati phenomenon was explained away, but her endurance as the face of Dalit politics, even after the demise of her mentor and BSP founder Kanshi Ram, has given her a stature of a living legend, one whose place is already marked in history. The only achievement that could take her higher than she is, is a chance prime ministership. In the history of Dalit politics in India, she arguably ranks number four, after Ambedkar, Jagjivan Ram and Kanshi Ram.
After Kanshi Ram died in 2006, sceptics wondered in Mayawati could still hold the party and its Dalit vote-bank together. Not only did she do that, she became in 2007 Uttar Pradesh's first chief minister with a full majority in 17 years. She has occupied that seat four times by now.
The story of Mayawati's career is the stuff of legend. Born in a Delhi slum, the former school-teacher wanted to be an IAS officer. Then, Kanshi Ram heard of a fiery intervention she made in a seminar, and went to her house. He promised her to make the boss of IAS officers, which she has done four times by now.
A turning point in her life, and that of UP politics, was the state guest house attack on her by Samajwadi Party workers in 1995, after the BSP withdrew support from the SP government. That attack nearly killed her, had it not been for the alacrity of some policemen. Those were the days when comments like Singh's used to be made more routinely about her.
A day after the attack on her, she became UP chief minister for the first time with support from the BJP. Prime Minister Narasimha Rao described her as a miracle of democracy. Since then, there's been no looking back for Mayawati.