After four consecutive electoral debacles, Mayawati is at a crossroads
Amita Shah | 05 Jul, 2019
ON A NOVEMBER afternoon in 2016, a few journalists were led into a long conference hall at Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) supremo Mayawati’s 3 Tyagraj Marg residence in the capital. She had decided to give interviews to the media, vacillating from her characteristic reluctance. One by one, an aide escorted a person inside—without bags, cell phones, cameras, pens or notepads—a small adjoining room. At the entrance, shoes or chappals had to be taken off. Inside, Mayawati, seated against a wall with a Buddha portrait on it, greeted us with a warm smile. Confident and composed, she answered all questions, showing no signs of impatience, till an aide, who took down answers and later mailed the notes, gestured that it was time to end the interaction. At that time, when Uttar Pradesh (UP) was heading for Assembly elections in February 2017, the Samajwadi Party (SP) was as big a foe of the BSP as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
A few months later, driving along the sprawling Ambedkar memorial in Lucknow, with its domes, statues of Dalit leaders— BR Ambedkar, Kanshi Ram and Mayawati herself—and carved elephants, the BSP’s party symbol, on pillars, my taxi driver said, “If Mayawati had not built these parks, she would have won again. Law and order was much better under her.” The statues returned to haunt her, not just politically, but also legally. In January this year, the Enforcement Directorate (ED) conducted searches across seven locations in UP in connection with alleged financial irregularities of Rs 111 crore in construction of memorials and statues built at a cost of Rs 2,600 crore during Mayawati’s tenure as chief minister.
In the Assembly polls held in 2017, the ruling SP had suffered a humiliating defeat. So did Mayawati. The defeat pushed her to do the incomprehensible: enter into an alliance with the SP to take on the BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. It lasted till another defeat. It did not take too long for Mayawati to call off the alliance, reinforcing her reputation as an unpredictable ally. Today, the BSP and SP are rivals again, after their political affiliations made two somersaults over the past six months: forming an alliance to fight the Lok Sabha elections and then splitting to go different ways, after the BJP again swept UP, winning 62 seats. Mayawati’s experiment had failed, leaving her staring into an uncertain future. After four consecutive electoral debacles—2012, 2014, 2017 and 2019—at 63, she is at odds with herself, indulging in what she and her mentor Kanshi Ram shunned. She has announced her brother Anand Kumar would be the BSP national vice-president, and 24-year-old nephew Akash Anand, the national coordinator. The move has raised eyebrows.
Opponents and some political pundits dub it as a strategy to secure the ‘empire’, built by the four-time chief minister over decades of being in and out of power, turning it into a family fiefdom. “Her focus is now on the wealth she has acquired, not on the path of Kanshi Ram’s Ambedkarite principles. She is now trying to save her property, not her party,” says UP Minister Brajesh Pathak, who quit the BSP in 2016, after 12 years in the party.
Another former BSP leader, on condition of anonymity, recalls how Mayawati paid attention to every detail, including what was being cooked in the kitchen in her house. She has a fetish about cleanliness and if she decides to change a wall or the flooring it is done almost overnight. According to this leader, Mayawati eats simple vegetarian food, but has a penchant for luxurious houses and spends lavishly on them.
In Badalpur, her native village in Gautam Buddh Nagar district of UP, she has built a palatial house. The fortress-like estate wears a deserted look as Mayawati, who grew up in Inderpuri in Delhi, never lives there. She shuttles mostly between Delhi and Lucknow, where also she reportedly has sprawling properties in upscale localities. In 2017, the Allahabad High Court issued notices to Mayawati, her brother Anand Kumar and relative Prabhu Dayal in a case of alleged manipulation to declare a 47,433 sq m plot in Badalpur as ‘abadi’ (area under habitation). In 2018, however, the court rejected a public interest litigation seeking a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) inquiry into the land-use scam. In her affidavit filed during the Rajya Sabha nomination in March 2012, Mayawati declared assets worth Rs 111.26 crore. In 2007-2008, having paid an income tax of Rs 26 crore, she was among the top 20 in the country. The CBI, which in 2004 filed a disproportionate assets (DA) case against her, claimed four years later that her assets had increased to Rs 50 crore from Rs 1.12 crore in 1995-2003. In its affidavit before the Supreme Court, it also mentioned 96 plots, houses and orchards acquired by her and her close relatives between 1998 and 2003. Mayawati and her party claimed that her income came from gifts and small contributions made by party workers and supporters. A Supreme Court bench in 2012 quashed the DA case, an offshoot of the Taj corridor case, saying it was unwarranted. The cases keep appearing and disappearing from the spotlight, keeping Mayawati on tenterhooks. She may have hedged the law, but the shadow of the cases has loomed over her.The controversial cases, memorials, Mayawati’s ostentatious birthday celebrations and her political manoeuvres overshadowed projects like the six-lane Yamuna Expressway, proposing the Jewar airport in Greater Noida and laying out framework for Ganga Expressway undertaken during her tenure as chief minister from 2007 to 2012Hers is a sui generis story. A fearless, gritty girl from a humble background, who defeated caste and gender discrimination to enter the male-dominated world of politics in the country’s most crucial state electorally, grew into one of the most powerful politicians, appearing at times overconfident and at times insecure. A mercurial Mayawati has baited and switched—built parks worth crores and pledged against such extravagance, castigated dynasty politics and yet succumbed to it, warmed up to the SP and turned a cold shoulder to it, resisted fighting bypolls and is set to fight every election.
“Over the years, time has moved faster than her. She is becoming thoughtless day by day. She will slip out of the memory of modern Dalits,” says Dalit ideologue Chandra Bhan Prasad. According to him, there was a time when the ‘Dalit ki beti CM’ (daughter of a Dalit as chief minister) slogan made sense, but that phase has lapsed. He recalls that in 2008, when Mayawati was chief minister, two foreign journalists from the New York Times andWashington Post wanted to meet her. Prasad got an interaction arranged for them, on the condition that they will not publish anything. The journalists asked her what she saw as the biggest challenge for Dalits, and Mayawati replied “poonjiwaad ” (capitalism). According to Prasad, Mayawati may have confused feudalism with capitalism. “The chief minister of the biggest state could not differentiate between the two,” he says. Prasad goes to the extent of dubbing her as the symbol of crises in the community.
The BSP, however, counters that Mayawati has acquiesced to dynasty politics. “Her brother Anand Kumar has been active for around two decades, organising campaigns, etcetera, and knows the party workers. He has been entrusted with the responsibility by virtue of his role in the party and not because he is family,” says BSP leader Sudhindra Bhadoria. On the appointment of Akash, the eldest of Anand’s three children, Bhadoria says he is a bright, energetic youth who can infuse young blood in a party which has gone through several highs and lows.
Mayawati’s eyes are now set on 2022, when UP goes to polls. While her nephew’s anointment, who has often been seen with her at political events since 2017, has not come as a surprise, her decision to reappoint her brother, a year after declaring that her family members will not be given party posts, has sparked off speculation about her priorities. As Mayawati took charge as UP chief minister in 2007, Anand Kumar, who is under the scanner of the CBI, income-tax department and ED, was allegedly linked to a network of ghost companies through which hundreds of crores were routed. The money trail reportedly showed that almost Rs 1,200 crore was received by seven companies and a limited liability partnership that was opened after 2012, when the SP swept the state election.
“Mayawati’s giving her family members party posts goes against the ideology of Kanshi Ram, who kept away from family and property,” says RK Chaudhary, a former BSP leader, who fought the 2019 election on a Congress ticket but lost. After spending nearly two decades in the BSP, Chaudhary was sacked by Mayawati in 2001, along with two other veterans, Krishnapal Singh and Barkhulal Verma, alleging they were against reservation for Scheduled Castes. At that time, Mayawati was reaching out beyond her core support base. In 2013, she called him back to fight Lok Sabha elections, which he lost like all her other party candidates. Sensing that she will again throw him out of the party, he quit in 2016.
The move to bring in Mayawati’s relatives reflects her own sense of insecurity in the aftermath of her electoral defeat about running the party all by herself
According to Ajoy Bose, the author of Behenji: The Rise and Fall of Mayawati, the move to bring in her relatives reflects her own sense of insecurity in the aftermath of her electoral defeat about running the party all by herself. “She is looking to her family to bolster her slim political prospects. At a time when even among her core Jatav base there is a growing sense, particularly among the young, of Mayawati being yesterday’s leader who could be replaced by more recent rivals like Chandrashekhar Azad of Bhim Army, she is bringing her younger brother and nephew to the forefront to counter this impression,” he says. Bose is of the view that this is unlikely to work since the political paradigm in UP has changed and Mayawati’s future is on the slide.
It was Kanshi Ram who had convinced Mayawati, a teacher studying for civil services exams, to join politics. ‘As a matter of fact, he chose Mayawati with the specific intention of filling the leadership vacuum inUttar Pradesh where none of the Dalit and backward leaders he had recruited really fitted the bill,’ Bose wrote in his book. At 45, Kanshi Ram gave full charge of the BSP to Mayawati in 2001, 17 years after he founded the party.
From slogans like ‘Thakur, Brahmin, Baniya chhod, baki sab hai DS4’ and ‘Tilak, taraaju aur talwaar, inko maaro joote chaar’ during the BSP’s earlier avatar as Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti (DS4) to ‘Haathi nahi Ganesh hai, Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh hai’ to reach out to Brahmins as part of her new social engineering formula ahead of the 2007 UP elections, Mayawati has shown resilience in making tactical shifts in strategy. Confident of her core voters’ loyalty, ‘Behenji’, as she came to be called by her cadre, went on to expand the party’s footprint among Brahmins, who were disillusioned then with the BJP. After the 2009 Lok Sabha results, which shattered her prime-ministerial ambitions and more alarmingly showed an erosion in her Dalit vote base, she again changed strategy and turned her focus towards Dalits, administratively and politically. While Mayawati has managed to retain her Jatav allegiance, her vote share has shown a marginal decline. In 2014, the BSP’s vote share fell below 20 per cent, to 19.6 per cent, for the first time since 1996.
A former BSP leader says money power played a big role and workers often got busy collecting money for the party, which distracted them from the movement. The controversial cases, memorials, Mayawati’s ostentatious birthday celebrations and her political manoeuvres overshadowed projects like the six- lane Yamuna Expressway connecting Delhi to Agra, proposing the Jewar airport in Greater Noida and laying out framework for Ganga Expressway undertaken during her tenure as chief minister from 2007 to 2012.
Her inherent contradictions have both helped and hurt her. For Mayawati, friends have turned foes and foes have turned friends, at times overnight. She put behind a bitter parting with the SP in 1995 and joined hands with it, under the leadership of Akhilesh Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav’s son. Within days of the Lok Sabha results, she broke off with the SP and went on the offensive alleging that the party had failed to transfer its votes to her candidates. Ironically, it was the SP which was the bigger loser, retaining just five seats, while the BSP, which had drawn a blank in 2014, got 10. The SP won 13.7 per cent of the seats it contested, the BSP, 26.3 per cent.
RIGHT AT THE outset, when she dictated the terms of engagement with the SP and Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), Mayawati made it a point to remind her ally of the guesthouse scandal. The Mahagathbandhan, a combination of motley forces, was hoping for a larger consolidation of Yadavs, Muslims and Jatavs, banking on an ‘anti-incumbency’ wave against the BJP, ruling at the Centre and state. Mayawati even made 63-year-old RLD leader Ajit Singh take off his shoes while getting on to the dais for a rally. But with Mayawati, alliances hang by a thread.
Her snapping ties with the SP could come as another shot in the arm for the BJP, going by the arithmetic of the 2019 election results. The upcoming elections to 12 Assembly seats in UP, after 11 Members of Legislative Assembly (MLA) were elected to Lok Sabha and BJP’s Hamirpur MLA Ashok Kumar Singh Chandel was disqualified following his conviction, will be a litmus test for her new strategy. “The split of the SP-BSP alliance will ultimately help the BJP,” says political analyst Sudhir Panwar. He says Mayawati has belied the aspirations of Dalits who were longing to be part of the power structure in the BSP, by giving party posts to her family members.
Her strategy to capture the SP’s Muslim votes was spelt out when Mayawati lashed out at Akhilesh Yadav, alleging he had asked her not to give tickets to Muslims as it would result in religious polarisation. There is apparently no love lost. Recently, she also accused the SP of being hand-in-glove with the BJP in “framing” her in the 2003 Taj corridor case, when she had suddenly snapped her ties with the BJP. Around Rs 17 crore had been released for the project, which allegedly was started without environmental clearances.
Mayawati has now decided to return to solo politics. It was power and the promise of empowerment of the underdog that helped her consolidate her constituency. But, as Chandra Bhan Prasad says, “She is now fighting for herself and her family. Dalits are no longer on her radar.”