Thursday, March 5, 2009
This is not to suggest that she won’t be prime minister after the next election, but that will happen only in the context of the fact that any ambitious politician can indeed become PM, given the right kind of political arithmetic or stalemate.
For now, we need to understand why Mayawati’s magic has worked so far, and why it may not always work. The message from Bhadohi is clear: Mayawati cannot hold on to her caste alliance of Dalits, Brahmins and some Muslims forever.
At Bhadohi, Mayawati’s candidate lost by 5,365 votes. The BJP took away a significant chunk of the vote (14,258 votes) and the Congress lost its deposit.
After the loss, Mayawati is understood to have fulminated against party leaders for letting her down and asked them to fight every seat as though she was contesting from it. When paranoia combines with megalomania, it’s a sure sign of weakness, not strength. She is making a big mistake in believing that people are voting for her rather than her salad-bowl alliance of castes and communities.
In the India situation, no caste leader can presume to speak on behalf of all castes when she is herself a caste leader. In a rainbow coalition, every represented caste or community carries its own agency. Muslims, for example, may be going along with Mayawati, but ultimately they will seek to negotiate their requirements with her as equals.
The formula that works is Malaysia’s ruling UMNO coalition — where a Muslim party heads the government, but each group speaks on behalf of its own members. UMNO is merely a representative of the dominant Muslim community.
Mayawati’s coalition will survive only if she recognises this reality. Let’s go back to where she started. Her biggest strategic move to expand her base beyond Dalits was to make a direct pitch to Brahmins: join me and reap the dividends.
With a significant 8 to 9 per cent of the UP vote, Brahmins found that they were marginalised when the mainstream national parties, Congress and BJP, declined. In Mayawati, they sniffed an opportunity. With the national parties, they would always be taken for granted; with a Dalit boss, they would be wooed and serenaded. Little wonder, they took the risk and plunged headlong.
But power is a strange thing. Once Brahmins rediscover their collective voting power, they may well use it anyway they want. They know that Mayawati needs them, and hence it makes sense for them to show her they do matter.
They cannot be taken for granted. The Congress and BJP took them for granted, and they did a deal with Maya. Now, the same thing could happen in reverse with Mayawati.
Now let’s look at the Dalit side of the equation. We can safely assume that for most Dalits in UP, it would be a dream come true to see Mayawati as empress of Delhi. It’s almost worth the pain and economic hardship they go through in their daily lives. But while they may be willing to make short-term personal sacrifices to see a Dalit as PM, they cannot put their economic aspirations in cold storage forever.
There is a tension between Dalit radicalism, which wants to position itself in antagonism to the upper castes, and Mayawati’s political need to sup with them. Sooner or later, Dalits will have to make a choice, and Mayawati’s ability to ride both horses will become tougher. Some day even Dalits will want to tell Mayawati the same things Brahmins are telling her: don’t take us for granted.
The Congress, which used the same caste-community combo of upper castes, Dalits and minorities to stay in power for five decades, could not hold the alliance together after the initial glow of independence evaporated. First, under Kanshi Ram, the Dalits banded together to assert their independence. After Ayodhya, Muslims also decided that their vote should not be taken for granted.
The moral is clear: caste and community alliances are short-term in nature, and no single political party can hope to represent any group other than its own for lengths of time. Ultimately, you will either alienate your base voter, or your alliance partner.
It is thus futile for Mayawati to want to represent Brahmins or Muslims even while retaining her core Dalit votebank. She will have to choose between being a caste representative and a broader, secular identity. When that happens, Dalits, Brahmins or Muslims will vote on the basis of what they expect her to deliver, not on the basis of caste and communal identities alone.
We started this topic with Bhadohi, and so it may be right to end it on the same note. Mayawati’s candidate lost by 5,365 votes. But a local party called Pargatisheel ManavSamaj won 4,200 votes. Looks like more voters are getting organised.
Every constituency will be hard-fought in the next election. It’s not going to be easy even for a Mayawati to count her chickens before they are hatched.