Around the time Prime Minister Narendra Modi was being dismissive of the Samajwadi Party at his rally in Jaunpur on Saturday and Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi had just begun their roadshow in Varanasi, Bahujan Samajwadi Party chief aka Behenji Mayawati was speaking to her committed cadres near Jagatpur.
“The Prime Minister can try and go to all the temples he wants, but he or the BJP are not going to be successful in winning these elections,” Mayawati said to her enormous throng of lustily cheering supporters.
Behenji is Not Lying Low
Few in the media covered this rally because of the larger star power concentrated in Varanasi at the same time. For that matter, the BSP leader has largely been ignored in this Uttar Pradesh election. But the truth is that despite the bipolar contest it has largely become, Behenji is refusing to lie low and retreat into the woodwork.
Like in Jagatpur, Mayawati’s rally in Mirzapur – on the other side of the Ganga from Varanasi – the day before, was characterised by thousands of women supporters who had simply come to see her. Let the others go to Kashi Vishwanath or Kaal Bhairav, their “Dalit ki beti” was no less deserving of a “ darshan”.
One woman told me Behenji was like a goddess who had abandoned her home and hearth, refusing to get married or have children, just so she could give voice to the lowliest of low on Hinduism’s horrifying caste scale.
Also Read: Inside Mayawati’s Quest to Unite UP’s Dalits
Mayawati’s Female Fans
Actually, Behenji is even better than a goddess – although similarly inaccessible. At least she’s flesh and blood, a vision that can be confirmed with your own eyes. From the time her helicopter strays into the near distance, the crowd melts into a mangled roar. She is here. Indeed, she is here.
All the trappings of upper-caste leaders are on display. A screen-shade from the chopper to the stage about 15 feet away – is she straightening her shawl, perhaps combing her hair? – cuts out prying eyes.
On the stage, the SPG commandos take their positions. She finally emerges, in her trademark cream salwar-kameez and dyed black hair, acknowledging the frenzied crowd with several waves of the hand. Once she stands at the podium to deliver her speech, two air conditioners fitted next to the podium, throw out cool air.
As always, her female supporters occupy place of pride, right in the front rows. They are furious with the news cameramen blocking their view. Dressed in all the shades of pink, red, orange and purple, some are suckling their male children (yes, the girl children have been left behind at home in the village).
They have come from all the villages near Mirzapur, mostly wives who look after the home and hearth while their husbands work in the dying carpet and sari looms industry.
Banking on the Muslim Vote Bank
In Mirzapur constituency, Mayawati has put up Pervez Khan as the BSP candidate, in consideration of the large numbers of Muslims in the area. There are hundreds at the rally too – a confirmation of the Muslim-Dalit vote combination that she is trying to create, or more specifically, a Muslim-Jatav vote combination. The Jatavs, or Chamar, caste to which Mayawati belongs, is one of several castes that comprise the Dalit rubric.
Mayawati has, in fact, played an audacious gamble in this UP election, giving as many as 97 tickets to Muslims out of 403 seats in the Assembly. She knows that the Samajwadi Party is also wooing Muslims, in its attempt to create a Muslim-Yadav vote combination, and that the BJP has its heart set on wooing the non-Jatav Dalit voters away from her.
Uttar Pradesh’s Muslims comprise 18 percent of the population, while its Dalits consist of 20.5 percent of the population. It’s a no-brainer that the en bloc caste vote that moves towards one party will give it the winning edge.
Fight for the Dalit Vote
Mayawati’s speeches are peppered with insults aimed at both the parties, although she reserves special scorn for Narendra Modi. The tension between the Dalits and the pro-Yadav Samajwadi Party is inevitable, because the Yadavs are agriculturists while the Dalits are mostly landless labourers, thereby keeping the two parties at different ends of the spectrum.
This, then, is the great triangular caste arithmetic that has played out in this election. The BJP has tried to steal Mayawati’s Dalit vote, while Mayawati has tried to keep her own and simultaneously appropriate the Muslim vote. But the latter, in turn, tended to gravitate towards the Samajwadi Party.
Certainly, this squabble has ended up dividing the Muslim vote, which in a highly complex election like this one, can result in formidable consequences. The BJP knows it is in the happy position of being disdainful of a vote bank which is being divided between its major opponents, the SP and the BSP.
Poll Advantage from Merger with Quami Ekta Dal
In several parts of Poorvanchal, the descendants of the Ansari family – who were freedom fighters and one of them was even president of the Congress – are fighting on BSP tickets. Sibhghatullah Ansari is standing from Mohameddabad, while his younger brother Mukhtar Ansari – currently in jail – is fighting from Mau, and Mukhtar’s son Abbas is fighting from Ghosi.
Around the Grand Trunk Road in this region, the Ansari brothers are expected to manage at least 10 seats.
Mukhtar is in jail for having allegedly murdered BJP leader Krishnanand Rai. Rai’s widow, Alka, is in a straight fight with Sibhghatullah in Mohamaddabad, where the SP hasn’t put up a candidate.
Law & Order USP of Mayawati’s Previous Regimes
At the Mirzapur rally, a UP policeman confesses that he’s in favour of Behenji because he got into the police force only by filling in a Rs 50 form. “The form to apply cost Rs 50. I didn’t have to pay a single rupee to anyone,” says the young policeman.
The cop points out that Mukhtar Ansari is often accused of being a don in the Poorvanchal, “but that’s only for big people. For us chhotey log, smaller people, he is like God. He is extremely helpful to everyone.”
Even Mayawati’s worst opponents agree that under her chief ministership, from 2007-12, law and order in UP was under control. That the bahubalis were contained and the mafia was weakened.
Question is, if that respect will translate into votes on 8 March, and if those votes will have an impact on 11 March.
Clearly, though, Mayawati is in for the long haul. Win or lose on 11 March, her influence on UP politics isn’t disappearing anytime soon.
(The writer is a journalist based in New Delhi and writes on the overlap between domestic politics and foreign affairs. She can be reached @jomalhotra.)