Why is Mayawati losing the support of BSP’s Dalit leadership?
“Behenji has got caught up in parliamentary deviation. She wants to remain in power, but has done almost nothing to accomplish the tasks set for the BSP by Saheb [Kanshi Ram] ” —Ram Samhar, BSP district coordinator, Ambedkar Nagar
Ram Subhawan, till recently a Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) heavyweight in Gosaiganj, is not the first party leader to get booted out for saying Mayawati no longer considers Kanshi Ram relevant. Nor is Ram Samhar, the BSP’s district coordinator of Ambedkar Nagar, the nerve centre of Dalit politics in Uttar Pradesh, bothered by the risk he runs when he openly talks about Behenji’s ‘deviation’. The fear of persecution no longer weighs on his mind because he knows he is not alone; most
BSP leaders of the Jatav subcaste—also called Chamar, the Scheduled Caste that is the moving force of Dalit politics in the state—are unhappy with the way the party is being run. Neither Ram Subhawan nor Ram Samhar, however, wants to do anything brash that may hamper the BSP’s prospects in the ongoing Assembly polls. But the churn within is loud and getting louder.
If Ram Samhar is acutely conscious of Mayawati’s “deviation” from the political programme laid down by Saheb, the appellation by which the late BSP founder Kanshi Ram is fondly remembered in the party, he is certain of who will finally come to prevail in a clash between the party’s support base and its top leader. “Bahujan society is greater than Mayawati,” he says.
Such remarks are rather unusual for a BSP district coordinator, a key post in the structure of a highly centralised, cadre-based party. What is even more significant is that Ram Samhar is not just any other BSP coordinator. He presides over the party in a district that has always been regarded as the workshop of Ambedkarite politics in the state. Dalits constitute nearly 28 per cent of the district’s population, and almost 90 per cent of them are Jatavs. This subcaste accounts for more than half of UP’s Scheduled Castes, and has been at the core of the state’s Bahujan mobilisation. Mayawati herself is a Jatav, as was Kanshi Ram, and so are Ram Subhawan of Gosainganj and Ram Samhar of Ambedkar Nagar. Also, it was in this district—called Akbarpur till 1995—that Dalit leader Ramji Ram had broken new ground by winning a parliamentary election way back in 1967, much before the BSP was formed; he had contested the poll on the elephant symbol of Dr BR Ambedkar’s Republican Party of India. Again, it is this district that served as Mayawati’s launch pad. It has elected her thrice to the Lok Sabha and remains a BSP bastion.
So, “When the party coordinator of Ambedkar Nagar talks like that, it is certainly not a good sign for Mayawati,” says a BSP Rajya Sabha member of the Jatav subcaste who is equally critical of Mayawati for dumping Kanshi Ram’s vision of Dalit empowerment, as he sees it, for the sake of retaining power. Unlike Ram Samhar and Ram Subhawan, this parliamentarian is yet to gain the nerve to go on record against Behenji. He is sure, however, that the anger smouldering among his subcaste brethren in the party will erupt with volcanic force if Mayawati loses power in the state. But what if Mayawati wins another term for her government in UP? “We can’t say anything now. Just wait and watch,” he says, “The BSP has to be put back on track.”
Indeed, this is not the first time that Mayawati is being seen within the BSP as the very antithesis of Kanshi Ram’s legacy. A decade ago, when Kanshi Ram identified Mayawati as his chosen successor, the response of a section of party leaders (most of them non-Jatav Dalit contemporaries of the founder), was one of puzzlement. They doubted her ability to complete Kanshi Ram’s unfinished agenda. In protest, many party men threw up their hands and turned politically dormant. Most of these doubters were members of the Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation, which Kanshi Ram set up in 1973 and later served to lay the ground for the BSP’s formation in 1984. Some of them, including RK Chowdhary, a Kanshi Ram loyalist and prominent Passi leader (another subcaste), even rebelled and left the party. But Mayawati had the unqualified support of most Jatav leaders back then; this proved critical as she set out to steer the BSP through a period of turbulence. Some would say she did well. Mayawati’s big moment of glory came in 2007, when she led the BSP to a landslide victory in UP’s Assembly election. It kindled a revival of faith in her leadership among Dalits in her party. But, as she started leaning a little too heavily on Brahmin leaders in particular and non-Jatavs in general, a Jatav backlash began taking shape.
Today, they are in no mood to listen to her. “Jatav leaders are angry,” says Ram Samhar, “Behenji’s explanation is that she has to do this in order to keep the BSP’s social alliances alive, which is a must if the party is to rule the state. But the truth is that she wants power for herself and not for the Bahujan samaj. She is afraid that if any other Jatav leader’s stature grows, he may threaten her authority in the party. This is a baseless fear [that she must overcome].” Saheb, in his view, was a different sort of leader. “As he understood the significance of numbers in democratic politics, he created a strong Jatav leadership on the ground across the state. More than half the state’s Dalits are of this caste. Mayawati has not only failed to nurture [this support base], she has done her best to dismantle it.”
The unrest among Jatavs is most palpable among those who consider themselves the ‘original’ and the ‘real moving force’ of Dalit politics. Fear of Mayawati’s wrath may have kept most of them quiet through her tenure as UP’s Chief Minister, but behind the scenes, they have been sniffing the powder for an all-out attack on her leadership—should she lose power. Their tactical line, pitting Saheb against Behenji and vowing to rediscover Saheb and draw the BSP back to his gameplan, is well in place.
In particular, the BSP’s rebels base their opposition to Mayawati on three specific grounds. First, they argue that power was never an end in itself for Kanshi Ram, who wanted it for the sake of Dalits as a people and not just for an individual. His strategy was to keep politics shaken up until such time that Dalits were assured a better deal in society. “It was this objective that made him declare that he wanted a ‘majboor sarkar’ (helpless government) and not a ‘mazboot sarkar’ (strong government) so long as the Bahujan society was not in a position to form a government for its own good,” says the district coordinator of Ambedkar Nagar. Mayawati, he alleges, has strayed far from this vision of her mentor.
Second, as the rebels contend, five years of BSP rule in UP have shown that Mayawati is not interested in achieving even the most basic objectives set out by Kanshi Ram—such as land reforms, unless she thinks erecting statues in public spaces should qualify. “Saheb’s slogan, ‘Jo zameen sarkari hai, woh zameen hamari hai’ (Land that belongs to the State is ours), which set off a movement of occupying government land by various Dalit groups across the state, was completely forgotten by Behenji,” says Ram Samhar. “Despite our party’s absolute majority in the Assembly for the past five years, our government did not take any step to realise that dream of Saheb. Everyone knows the reason. She is afraid that any move in that direction may end up annoying the social forces that are crucial for her continuance in power. Her inaction on this front has killed the enthusiasm of our leaders and cadre. They may not do anything to weaken the elephant symbol, but they don’t really feel quite so involved in the Bahujan movement any longer.”
Third, the rebels accuse Mayawati of killing the original spirit of the BSP’s cadre camps, the party’s real source of strength in its formative phase. “Under Saheb, cadre camps used to be lively forums for political debate. They played a significant role in generating awareness among Dalits against ‘Manuwadi’ forces in society. Over the past decade, especially after Mayawati took over, these cadre camps exist only in name. Bahujan issues are no longer their central theme, as Mayawati’s survival in power hinges on the notion of ‘sarvajan’ (which includes the aforementioned Manuvadi forces too),” says the party’s Rajya Sabha member. “Without proper and frequent cadre camps,” he adds, “the BSP cannot remain the representative party of Dalits for long.”
Mayawati is not entirely unaware of Jatav resentment. Disgruntlement within the BSP has been spreading by word of mouth for quite some time now. At a public rally held on 9 August 2008, just a year after she assumed office in Lucknow, she had tried to quell contagion by reassuring the party’s core supporters—Jatav voters, that is—of the subcaste’s extended reign over the party. “I have chosen my successor but I won’t disclose the name,” she announced, “The person is 18 years younger than me and is a Dalit. The name will be disclosed only once I am dead. Apart from me, only two other people know the name.” Her handpicked successor, she added, was neither from her own nor Kanshi Ram’s family, but a Jatav.
The statement took listeners by surprise. What motivated it was a mystery at the time. Nor was it obvious why she reacted with such nervousness to my report in Mail Today that revealed her ‘chosen successor’ as BSP Vice-President Raja Ram, a Benaras Hindu University graduate from Azamgarh who was a member of the upper house of UP’s legislature at the time. Within 24 hours of the publication of this report, the BSP chief issued a press note on the ejection of Raja Ram from his post and his replacement with Alok Kumar Verma, a largely unknown politician. A few months later, Raja Ram, who had become the focus of attention within the party, was given Rajya Sabha membership and sent packing from UP. He is now in charge of the BSP in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Haryana.
The strange case of Raja Ram, however, did not end there. Till this day, he maintains an unnaturally low profile and keeps away from the media, almost as if he has made it a point to underplay his potential as a Dalit leader of any reckoning—just in case it attracts Mayawati’s far-from-benign nazar (eye), as they say in the vernacular. Even in the Rajya Sabha, which Raja Ram attends regularly, he prefers to remain a silent observer. House records show that in his three years’ presence, he has never participated in Question Hour, nor made any ‘special mention’, let alone move any Private Member’s Bill. The leader spends the rest of his time silently getting the party’s act together in UP’s neighbouring states.
That Raja Ram was once Kanshi Ram’s own blue-eyed boy is not lost on the party’s rank and file. And so, for all his efforts to stay quiescent, now that unrest within the party threatens to gain critical mass, he is rapidly emerging as the force around whom BSP rebels hope to rally.
What the rebels had wanted was a leader who places Bahujan interests above his/her own. On this score, Mayawati is now seen as a grand letdown, a caricature of her own statuesque presence: more bothered about dwarfing others than moving anything in her people’s favour. What this also means is that Mayawati’s gambit to contain Jatav restlessness in the ranks by speaking of a succession plan may have backfired on her.
In response, Mayawati seems to be trying harder than ever to cramp the freedom of any Jatav in the UP Assembly who might gain attention. Of the three cabinet
ministers of the subcaste—Land Development and Water Resources Minister Ashok Kumar Dohre, Rural Development Minister Daddu Prasad and Consumer Protection Minister Ramhet Bharati—only the last was given a party ticket to contest this election. Similarly, of the two ministers of state in her government who happen to be Jatav, only one—Omwati—was given a ticket to contest the polls, while the other—Ratan Lal Ahirwar—was left in the lurch. In the state overall, nearly two-thirds of all 39 incumbent BSP legislators of this subcaste have been replaced by new faces in the party’s list of poll candidates.
Suspicions have been confirmed: Mayawati will not brook the emergence of another Jatav leader of stature so long as she reigns. So brazenly has she suppressed the possibility that her detractors know exactly what to expect of her. Barring a few, they do not voice themselves. Instead, they wait patiently for their turn as the party sweats to retain power in Lucknow. If she happens to win, they say, it will only postpone a face-off. And if she wants to stall such an outcome, her only option is to rededicate herself to Saheb’s vision. This is a proposition that Mayawati may not accept, given that she has begun seeing her interests served better by a coalition of caste groupings that can help achieve electoral success on a broader scale. In 2007, she did win a majority in UP. But if her power formula falters, her detractors will prove more unforgiving than she might expect. There is little worse, to their mind, than a betrayal of Kanshi Ram’s dream.