Ascetic prince, dalit duchess

Mayawati is a populist but her populism now seems distant... One wonders how long she will continue as the dalit face of dalit politics.

Uttar Pradesh is not just a geography, a state having the largest number of parliamentary seats, it is also a metaphor for political style. Its political characters are larger than life and none is larger than Mayawati.
Mayawati is a creation of electoral democracy and its arithmetic. She was raised within the electoral numeracy of Kanshi Ram, where alignments were pragmatic. She has had alliances with the BJP and the Congress, and yet as an electoral Machiavelli, she has a permanent interest in herself. She understands politics as markets and knows that she controls the formidable dalit market.

She speaks the language of exploitation as a genealogy building exercise. She articulates the genealogy of reform from Swami Haridas to Jyotirao Phule, from Bhimrao Ambedkar to Kanshi Ram only as a backdrop. Hers is not a reformist story; it is a love affair with power. Mayawati has converted dalit currency into the language of power. While she is interested in the status of dalits, the universalism of rights does not appeal to her.
She captures one aspect of the dalit style of politics — it is particularistic, obsessed with itself and yet is pragmatic enough to align with the Brahmin. She is singular in that sense, a monumental figure who has constructed tributes to her own monumentality. She is not waiting for a statue at Madame Tussauds. She has flooded Lucknow with Roman replicas of herself.
She is formidable, yet it is the enormity of her presence that has become a disadvantage. She appears historic but it is this very history that puts doubts on her continuity. Let me put it this way: Mayawati is a monument to electoral politics but her sense of governance is abysmal.
She is a populist but her populism now seems distant. She looks like a fixture — distant and imperious, waiting for acclamation rather than election. As far as she is concerned, she has created history and her politics is the reward for that. But history might be more cunning and ironic than her.
One can articulate one’s doubts by comparing Mayawati to Rahul Gandhi and Mulayam Singh Yadav. Mayawati’s dalit politics is particularistic. It uses universal frameworks like rights and electoralism to make particularistic gains. Dalits vote her in, but have little role in governance. Her idea of governance has no sense of reform. In fact it is normless and blatant in stating that what is good for Mayawati is good for Uttar Pradesh. She is like an electoral oligarch consolidating a market. Her dalit politics invokes Ambedkar but evokes very little of his universalist or modernising vision. It is not Ambedkar’s voice we hear, but Mayawati playing his ventriloquist.
She is shrewd but jaded. She is more like a party boss computing numbers and interest groups than the ideologist of equality. One wonders how long she will continue as the dalit face of dalit politics. The new generation might have a different memory. It might see Rahul as a fresh possibility and not even recollect years of Congress misrule.
While Mayawati practises her magic from a distance, Rahul is traversing Uttar Pradesh, learning politics at the ground level. The dalit hare can no longer watch the Congress tortoise with contempt because the latter has discovered a speed it did not originally have. Maybe politics is hormonal, catalytic — suddenly, Rahul feels different. By constant presence, by walking the talk from village to village, Rahul had emerged as an ascetic ideal, a well-intentioned young man who deserves a chance.
There is no cynicism in his appearance. The Boy Scout has grown up and has smelt the elixir of politics. His style is open. He has come to learn, not to lecture. His modesty makes him a good listener. People have begun to feel that he has empathy and that he works hard. An ascetic prince might one day be preferred to the “Dalit Duchess”.
There is a possibility that Rahul might for the time being be an extra-curricular interest. I think the voter senses his commitment, his dedication and his hard work. There is the making of a new Nehruvian incarnation here, toughened by the tandoor of everyday politics. Rahul can speak to many interests because his is a more universalist perspective. He can talk of the poor, not just dalit poor. He can talk development, not just casteist politics. Maybe India, for all its particularism, is yearning for the competence of the universal. Yet, his is a promise of a future victory.
The third style of UP politics is the OBC style and it’s a hybrid one. It is more content with electoral politics, more competent in blending feudalism and populism, speaking the language of the dominant caste and the emerging dialects of modernity. One sees it in the transition from Mulayam to Akhilesh Yadav. Mulayam is old world; Akhilesh is ready to speak new dialects, from computer talk to caste politics. Electoral politics is a forgiving exercise and the old Samajwadi Party constituencies might congeal into a winning arithmetic.
Mayawati might be singular but she is no longer the hegemonic electoral figure she appeared to be. The electorate appears to be nibbling at other possibilities, determined to keep politics open and plural.
Suddenly, the possibility of three political dialects, three body languages, and three styles of electoral rhetoric is making politics a more open playground. Maybe the emergence of this is still new. The politics of memory in the dalit mind might trump the politics of possibility. But if Uttar Pradesh is a rehearsal for the future, Mayawati better hear the warning bells.
A new generation and new combinations in politics might wreck her old-style politics. It is a tremor of intent but earthquakes, especially in politics, often begin that way.

The writer is a social science nomad

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