The meaning of Maywati for the Dalit movement

Mayawati and the Meaning of her Victory


Anand Teltumbde is an eminent Dalit theoretician who is respected and influential. He is among the few intellectuals who is also self-critical; someone who does not necessarily believe in ‘closing ranks’. Compared to Dalit intellectuals who think criticizing Dalit politics and social movements will always necessarily be used for anti-Dalit politics, and that Dalit politics could do without self-critical exercises, he is perhaps an exception in coming up with trenchant criticisms of Dalit politics, movements and perspectives from time to time. Most times, both well-meaning, pro- but non-Dalit intellectuals and Dalit intellectuals think it is dangerous to even air legitimate criticism of anything Dalit. Thus Teltumbde is also a lonely Dalit intellectual. His position is unenviable. Almost everything Dalits do or think is either unfairly dismissed and criticized or not given sufficient credit by the media and the dominant progressive-liberal left. Intellectuals like Chandrabhan Prasad or Kancha Ilaiah focus exclusively on exposing the hypocrisy of so-called progressive intellectuals and highlighting the admirable features of Dalit life and politics. Reading Teltumbde is complementary and sometimes corrective to the work of both Ilaiah and Chandra Bhan Prasad. What is missing in the latters’ intellectual practice is that they don’t entertain any sustained self-critical perspective of Dalit politics and movements and lines of thought.

However, having read Teltumbde’s recent attack on Mayawati—circulated on e-mail, posted on ZEST-Caste, and copied below—I feel the need to critically engage with his ideas, which in this case are far from acceptable. At the outset, let me say that such a critical posture is almost unique in the context of the celebratory reception of the news of Mayawati’s victory by upper caste progressives and Dalit intellectuals alike. His critique is not just unique, but is necessary and useful. That does not mean the burden of his argument is fair and acceptable. He does not posit any acceptable formulation or new revelation but reminds us of the basic fact that doing political theory is not the same as participating in celebrations but thinking a bit beyond.

First, he points to the fact that Mayawati does not have a comprehensive plan that includes such programs as land and resource redistribution and enhancement or at least does not reveal any such project either before or after the elections. It is unusual for a politician who has spent well over three decades in politics to be without any such agenda. It is equally unusual for the left and progressive intellectuals to uncritically celebrate such a politician’s victory in so unqualified a manner. I hazard an attribution to the beginnings of a conspiracy whose effects will be known only after Mayawati’s future failure. The conspiracy is simply that of undeserved praise being heaped on a personality and politics that are not going to deliver any great results, only to be withdrawn in the aftermath of the loss of the luster she now undoubtedly possesses. This praise on the part of the progressives is irresponsible for it neither points to the obvious ambiguities of her victory and politics nor offers any prescriptions to avoid the danger of being viewed as patronising.

So the question is what Mayawati can do, combined with the question of what a state government can do in the kind of system we have. And it is to be supplemented with what she wants to do, what she should do. Teltumbde does not appreciate one paradoxical difficulty she is bound to face if at all she is serious about her basic mandate: empowering the Dalits and putting an end to the discrimination against them. Unfortunately in our history the upliftment or empowerment of Dalits results in a simultaneous increase in the oppression of Dalits. The development of others too results in an increase in violence against Dalits. Of course, it is yet to be seen how much Mayawati’s emphasis on rule of law can work to prevent attacks on Dalits in the course of development and make social conflicts less violent. She has already made it clear through three government circulars that filing of cases under the SC/ST Act will not be encouraged unless in the worst of cases. She is going to have a tough time particularly in uplifting many backward communities which have been consistently showing a pattern of behavior in the course of their upward mobility: an eagerness to distinguish themselves from Dalits by means of discriminating against them and attacking them to assert their newly gained upliftment. The tragedy of Sudra ascendancy is that many Sudra communities in that phase very soon realize the difficulty of beating the upper castes in the realm of culture, public visibility, media, educational institutions, services and in fact try to imitate the upper castes rather than compete with them. The only way out they could imagine is to construct an ugly substitute of degrading the Dalits in order to feel certain ‘above-ness’ in relation to the Dalits.

The greatest challenge for Mayawati would undoubtedly be the problem of the ‘middle’. In terms of caste, it is the OBCs. In a class scale, it is the middle peasants. No party can think of winning elections without the support of this numerically substantial, resource-rich and power-seeking constituency. How Mayawati can reach out to this constituency is a big problem. It should not be forgotten that Mayawati, even in the moment of her highest triumph, could not cut much into this constituency, which remained firmly with Mulayam Singh Yadav.

Teltumbde very usefully calls our attention to the media-created myth based on Mayawati’s victory that upper caste votes are very important and that even they could be decisive. It is true that UP has a higher percentage of brahmin votes relative to other states and that they are important in deciding the victor in the elections. On an all-India scale, this is causing a new kind of ‘sensitisation’ among politicians in other states. What Telugu Desam Party’s Chandrababu Naidu said in his recent party’s conclave (Mahanadu) bears testimony to this Uttar Pradesh after effect. He for the first time addressed the issue of doing something for the upper castes; and his choice of words is unmistakably similar to that of Mayawati’s. The self-defeating dynamic inherent to such inflated importance bestowed on the so-called upper caste constituency is that it repeatedly calls everybody’s attention to their numerical minority and the marginal importance of their votes for winning elections. I think we should welcome it. But with the media’s shameless and unrepentant bias in favor of upper castes it is going to be a problem in the short run. It is particularly dangerous because most of our progressive social movements and political assertions express themselves in the vocabulary of anti-upper-caste struggles. Faced with the political incorrectness stigma to their rhetoric, which will soon follow the policy of upper caste appeasement on the part of political class, many subaltern social movements and political expressions will face difficult problems in legitimating their grievances and be forced to express their views in some liberal vocabulary which might be not so appealing to the purposes of mass mobilizations. Such discursive controls will result in some unproductive tension between media and social movements.

Many false paradoxes are pointed out in media analyses of the BSP victory in Uttar Pradesh. The most frequent of them is the idea of Brahmins and Dalits coming together to vote for BSP. Nothing could be farther from common sense. Unlike journalistic analysts and progressive intellectuals, the common people do not see the caste system as a textual entity. It is a matter of life and death; not an idea or ideology coded in ‘sacred texts’. It is not a superstition that has outlived its time (as urbanites tend to project it) and causes embarrassment to one’s sense of being enlightened. It is a lived practice enmeshed in the questions of power and resources. For ordinary Dalits, what texts the Brahmins take pride in are not important but the everyday encounter with the dominant Sudras on whom they are at once dependent and whom they also resist. Electoral alliances are not about deep social psychological transformations. People know very well that they will not be solved at the level of culture alone without reference to power. Thus they find no problem in aligning with Brahmins as opposed to dominant Sudras and even OBCs. None of this is lost sight of by Teltumbde. However, he fails to show the lesson the Dalit-Brahman-MBC alliance teaches the intelligentsia for whom the caste is a problem of texts and beliefs. Teltumbde should have used this as an opportunity not just to write diatribes against Mayawati but to confront the most damaging superstition of the intelligentsia that caste is merely an absurd idea still lingering among backward people. If Mayawati is praised for being everybody’s leader then Teltumbde objects to it by saying that her solid support base is just Dalits and that the other support is volatile. If you claim that she demonstrates Dalit power he would plausibly point to the possibility of she being poised to implement non-Dalit agenda and protect anti-Dalit interests because she has won with the support of non-Dalit votes. If his pessimism, which borders at cynicism, is true, he is not in fact seeing any genuine problem faced by this leader. Given such real-politik complexities, whatever contradiction is faced by Mayawati, Teltumbde sees scope only for her opportunism there and nothing else.

At one point in his essay he says, “there is an intrinsic conceptual error in assuming that the BSP as a dalit party. “At no time BSP, even from the times of its precursor movements like BAMCEF and DS4, had claimed to be a Dalit party. As its name eloquently suggests, it is a bahujan party.” However, at another point he contradicts himself: “Even though the BSP likes to don the bahujan identity, in reality its base has been dalits. It is they who provide a foundation for its victories.”

The most bizarre formulation of all is his characterization of the construction of Dalit identity in UP. For him, it is just with abusive slogans, casteism, and propagation of Dalit icons that the BSP constructed Dalit identity in the state.( He writes, in what could be termed as the most insensitive and inaccurate passage in the whole article, “The process of constructing a rock solid constituency of this mass of Dalits comprised systematic operation of exclusivist strategy with a rhetoric of manuvad, an offensive lingo against the dwija castes and later use of political power to reinforce Dalit identity by promoting Dalit icons.” Every Dalit knows that it is upper castes that construct Dalitidentity while the latter are always ready to at least forget and generally ready to relinquish the claims to a separate identity. He misses the significance of the early attempts by Kanshi Ram to organize Dalits as a separate political entity while they were of course already a separated social community with out any sympathy or understanding. Teltumbde merely notes, without any adverse qualification, perhaps with the hope that it would be disgusting enough for a left-liberal sensibility, that Kanshi Ram used to ask the upper castes among the audience to leave his meetings. He however forgets to add that even at the height of BSP’s power it does not entertain the idea of asking the upper castes to leave their places from villages. In fact, Teltumbde’s complaint is precisely that the upper castes were over-represented in her party and government. If Mayawati is exclusivist, it is a problem; even if she is inclusive she is the villain for our comrade. What appears to be consistent in such a contradictory attack is nothing more than an uncompromising hatred for her.

What angers Teltumbde is not exactly what is involved in Mayawati’s victory rather the descriptions it is receiving from the upper-caste intelligentsia. For him, a revolution is a precise political-scientific term. He frowns at the misuse of such a term. A Dalit woman’s power doesn’t automatically mean the power of Dalits and it cannot be equated with revolution. Fair enough. But it does not stop him from characterizing the victory of BSP, which included upper caste votes and disproportionate representation in party and government ranks, as ‘counter- revolution’. The representation of individuals belonging to upper castes in her party and government somehow becomes the power of the upper castes and what is more, it miraculously becomes a ‘counter-revolution’! He objects to imprecise use of political jargon only if it is used in favor of Mayawati, and doesn’t mind diluting the same if it is to dismiss her. Though he seems to be lamenting only her recent moves as degeneration of BSP politics, he seems to also disapprove of the early, movement phase of BSP’s actions since the BAMCEF days.

All in all, he is disappointed with Mayawati for her not being a communist and not implementing socialism. It does not occur to him that even CPI-M with its three decades of uninterrupted power in West Bengal, strong organisation and ideological indoctrination could not behave the way it wants largely because it is caught up in a quasi-federal system whose meta-logic is for everybody to obey. If he were to think that without the socialist restructuring of society Dalit problems could not be solved, he should say that. Then his argument would be to say that the problems of Dalits are structural and cannot be solved at electoral and governmental level. It does not have to depend much on attributing the opportunism of the Dalit leaders and mobilizations that do not think so. Teltumbde’s fixed solutions don’t grant any credit to the struggles and compromises of Dalit movements, politics and its leaders with the hope of improving their lot with the available means under the prevailing conditions. Perhaps Teltumbde needs to be reminded of Marx’s famous passage: “Therefore mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely, it will always be found that the tasks itself arises only when the material conditions of its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation.” The Dalits wait, unlike intellectuals, until the ultimate moment of socialist revolution. This small section of humanity sets certain realistic goals for itself and sees what it can achieve. Sometimes, like in UP, they even manage achieve a little.

Not only this, he fails to appreciate the gestures (yes, just gestures neither programs nor manifestos) of Mayawati ever since she assumed office. He did not have the heart to hail her very first speech in which she thanked the upper castes and assured benefits for the poor among them. It was a Mandelian moment! An oppressed community’s leader on the eve of transfer of power assures the former tormentors full safety. Yes, the scale, impact and the nature and stature of the politician and the gesture are incomparably varied. But the poignancy of the moment is unmistakable and deserves all praise.

Forging coalitions and maneuvering numbers in elections amount to opportunistic politics for Teltumbde. One wonders what he thinks of a revolution whose calculations involve weapons, brute force and military matters. All said and done, the so-called electioneering and that insensitive phrase, ‘social engineering’, are ways of dealing with people not coercing them. Getting people to vote may be a less edifying task then talking them into taking up arms but it is no crime either.

Teltumbde admits that the daughter of the most oppressed section of the most unequal country assuming office is a gratifying sight. However, he grossly underestimates the meaning of such an event. Politics and social processes are not dead objects. Inversions are not mere retentions of the same. It is no secret that Teltumbde prefers class-based politics to a caste-based one. His own writings have underscored the importance of interpenetration of the two. If he is a realist, as his piece appears to emphasise, he should know that to assume power in this country you not only win the confidence of the masses but also convince the ruling sections of society that you are not going to harm them much. It is now fairly clear that Mayawati has achieved this two-pronged, contradictory but necessary task. He grossly underestimates the relative autonomy of the state in relation to economy and society even in these days of globalization. If many of the exclusions Dalits face are structurally not inevitable and something can be dealt with through state power, winning elections is the shortest route toit. Social movements are, of course, a much better way to achieve such objectives. Nevertheless, Dalit movements have one inherent defect to them: almost everywhere at every level, from national to village level, Dalits are a minority group. And, against them even the otherwise passive or conflicting communities come together. Any politics based completely and solely on the mobilization of Dalits runs the risk of antagonizing the majority of the given unit of society. So far, all unifying social movements could do so only by sidelining the problems of the Dalits. In such unfortunate circumstances state power alone can achieve certain necessary, though not sufficient tasks of Dalits and Dalit movements. One of them is eliminating thesymbolic disqualification of Dalits to be in important positions in the public space. Achieving the office and using it to dispel the myth of Dalit inability is an end in itself. Even if it is dangerous to believe in the state’s capacity to transform, the best education in this regard comes by trying that means rather than by hurling copies of Lenin’s State and Revolution at ordinary Dalits without whose support no revolution worth its name can happen in India.

Perhaps Teltumbde evaluates the importance of the fact of Ambedkar writing the Constitution of India and K.R. Narayanan serving as the president only in terms of what they achieved or failed to achieve. They played a much bigger role than any rigidly biographical or historical account can capture. Like it or not, such facts have been, and continue to be, the source of confidence and self-worth among Dalits. Such an impact of the lives of Dalits goes beyond the actual doings of these representative figures. However unsavory it might seem to our rational mind, they contributed more to Dalits as symbols than by what they actually were. Mayawati is now doing something akin to that. She is proving that Dalits can rule a state on their own and not as an appointee of some other party.

Besides the question of causes and consequences of Mayawati’s victory, there is an equally important issue of the meaning of the victory which cannot be equated to or exhausted by causes and consequences of the event . For Teltumbde, the symbolic is simply what is not real or what is mistaken or substituted for the real. Whatever be the merits of such an approach, he simply cannot imagine the continuities and translatability of the real and symbolic. It is obvious that he thinks that such thinking is marxism. Even if we forgive him for such an impoverished idea of marxism, one element of his analysis should be vigorously contested. He finds no problems with the existing, even popular yardsticks to measure a political phenomenon. That is dangerous. That is giving away the dominance in the debates to our enemies.

Teltumbde fails to appreciate the single most important fate of being a Dalit politician. So far, Dalits could be legislators, mostly in reserved constituencies. Given the fact that most of the voters are non-Dalits while all the contestants are Dalits it is only the candidate most appealing to or least objectionable to non-Dalit voters who wins the election. It is at the root of the comprador and ineffective nature of our Dalit politicians rather than class dominating caste in their political behaviour . Mayawati emerged from within such structural limitations imposed on Dalit politicians in the country. We must also remember that of the 93 Dalit candidates fielded by the BSP only four were fielded in general constituencies. And of the four none could win, whereas 62 of the 89 fielded in reserved constituencies won. This shows that even today the ‘sarvajan’ support to BSP is not unconditional; a Dalit, even in Mayawati’s UP, is expected to contest and win only from reserved areas; in general constituencies, neither the brahmins, MBCs nor others seem to support Dalits. Despite such structural limitations, Mayawati today is there as chief minister with mostly non-Dalit votes. What is true of a legislator in her constituency is true for her at the state level. That is the fate of the dalit leaders in our democracy. They are a universal minority. Without resources, but only votes and the power to be organized, they are condemned to be a mere minority and not a powerful bloc. Any assertion or attempt at upward mobility has to take up the issue of some symbolic clearing. As the social practices in our country are based on systematic and totalitarian insults to Dalits even in the most unimportant aspects of daily life, it is simply not possible for Dalits not to take up such issues. This results in all the non-dalit sections of society uniting against them. Many groups, though not all groups, can afford to live parallel to each other. Dalits do not enjoy such an opportunity. Many a shrewd politician and party can please various groups separately and gain from such a policy. With Dalits, it is not a possibility. You cannot empower Dalits without angering the others. Many communities have learnt the manner of evaluating the status of their well being in terms of how well they are doing in comparison with the lowest denominator—Dalits.

How do you do politics in such a crooked world? Communists quickly learnt the hard lesson. Though their initial blindness to Dalit question was due to their brahminical prejudices and groundless hope of withering away of feudal vestiges, later some honest attempts were made to address the question of Dalits. However, they were quick to learn that you can’t command the loyalty of the rest of the society if you take Dalit issues seriously. Most of the so-called hypocrisy of the communists in the face of Dalit question can be explained by this, rather than by any essentialist understanding of its leadership’s caste origins. In fact, all enduring groups in India are minorities given the size and diversity of the country. While most other groups are allowed to be indifferent and coexist parallel to each other, it is only Dalits who are not permitted to coexist peacefully. Contempt and comparison are imposed on them relentlessly.

Such complexities do not matter to Teltumbde. He simply asks for a comprehensive program for development and resource redistribution. When he talks about this very fundamental question, he somehow gives the impression that here he thinks only about ‘class’ and not about the relational concept ‘caste’. Besides providing for the basic necessities of the people, a politician with long-term goals should also think of issues of perception. This is a society in which a caste or a group evaluates its situation not in terms of development or well being in absolute terms or comparatively with its own past, but in relative terms by assessing who are supposed to be above and below. It is suicidal for a politician to come up with a context-blind concept of development. One example I have noticed repeatedly in my home state Andhra Pradesh is telling: in many a village the absence of a school causes less protest than the construction of it near a Dalit street. I am not claiming that Mayawati might have all these factors in mind in keeping the cards close to her chest about the economic policy she is going to pursue. Perhaps she is just as clueless about economic policies as Teltumbde appears to fear Or perhaps her economic policy is not going to be much different from what obtains in other states.

With all my differences and dismay at his diatribe against the first woman Dalit chief minister of the country, we must be thankful to Teltumbde for his timely reminder that our Mayawati not so long ago campaigned for Narendra Modi and aligned with the BJP twice. Nothing can excuse her for doing this; it will forever be a black spot on her otherwise impressive career. Her chant hati nahee hai ganesh hai (It’s a Ganesha not an elephant) is one of the most dangerous slogans in recent times by any politician. The triumvirate Brahma Vishnu Mahesh is all-Hindu and too brazen for anyone to be missed. This degeneration is hopefully only a result of political shortsightedness and not going to be an enduring trend. It is clear case of ‘Congressification’ of BSP and its end point is playing into the hands of the BJP.

On the whole, it is heartening to see that a Dalit theoretician has highlighted this aspect at the very moment of the dalit leader’s victory; a courage the likes of Aijaz Ahmed or Prabhat Patnaik did not show when CPI-M and CPI came together with the BJP to form a government at the center which led to the eventual victory of the BJP and its subsequent influential position in India. Teltumbde deserves our salute for his courage and timing and it is even more praiseworthy given that most of the Dalit intellectuals of the country seem to be suffering from a ‘closing the ranks mentality’ all the time.

Then what is the meaning and significance of Mayawati’s victory?

We should not equate the government with the state and the state with society and economy. Then, there is the relative autonomy of the state and its fallout: autonomy of the government. We have an amazingly enlightened constitution given the overall backwardness of the society and culture. The Dalit contribution to it is well known. Here is an opportunity to even implement it. Implementing the basic constitutional provisions amounts to a radical program. I don’t think she will be able to make the best of these provisions even if she wants to. But what she can really achieve by being simply the chief minister is this: Many atrocities against Dalits are perpetrated not because the culprits are very strong but because Dalits are weak. Such elements will get an exaggerated idea of Dalit power and it will have some deterring effect. A government that is not anti-Dalit will surely make a difference in this regard.

Rather than narrowly focusing on what Mayawati government will do or will not do, it is better to think about the ways in which the Dalits of UP can benefit from the symbolic opportunity for them. The much bigger question is weather the UP Dalits can use this opportunity and achieve higher levels of education, conversion, mobility, visibility. The question is not what Mayawati can do to UP Dalits but what they can do to themselves with BSP around. It is here the role of organizations, social movements and intellectuals become important. Will the Dalit intellectual class provide such a direction, inspiration and participation for the Dalits on the street or field or it simply waits for the government to do everything is the question. It also opens up a unique and unprecedented opportunity for Dalits: Dalits are the only group whose emancipation cannot be achieved without enlightening the entire society. It is in the best interests of the Dalits to lead the rest of the society towards enlightenment. To such a task somebody like Teltumbde can contribute more than Mayawati can. Now, the Dalits of UP should invent creative ways in which they can conduct their rightful assertion less spectacularly but deeply. Jews provided despite their universal marginality the intellectual leadership to the West. Perhaps we can draw instructive lessons from that history. Mayawati’s victory is objectively and potentially no more than removing certain hurdles to Dalits. If the ruling complex of classes and castes cannot dethrone Mayawati in the next elections or stop her from becoming the Prime Minister in the future, they will definitely try to strike a deal with her. Such a bargain would be similar to the CPI-M’s implicit agreement with capitalist and business classes. Then, the Dalit party will be the most effective container of Dalit assertion. Just like the CPI-M is the most reliable and effective container of proletarian unrest in the country. The only immunity from such a nightmarish future for Dalit politics is the intense and effective educational and cultural movements in UP which alone can create a Dalit constituency that can take the smoothest road to social transformation—educational and cultural movements. Only the emergence of such an enlightened Dalit constituency can preclude the possible future temptations to exchange Dalit loyalty to the office for Dalit leaders and parties. Therefore, the question is not what Mayawati can do to us but what we can do to ourselves.

(I would like to thank S. Anand and Ravikumar of Navayana for suggesting this article, and Anand for editorial assistance.)

*The author is an independent researcher studying genocides. He recently completed a journalism course from Asian College of Journalism, Chennai.

“… No doubt, it would be a matter of great delight for the entire progressive world to see a daughter of a humble Dalit dislodging the traditional upper castes from the throne of the most unequal country on the planet. But would it be a dalit raj? Would it be a revolution? The answer to such questions may sadly be all negatives.”

A Mayawi Revolution in UP

By Anand Teltumbde

The BSP win in the recent assembly elections in UP has let loose high pitched euphoria. It is understandable that the supporters of the BSP celebrate their victory and common folks ‘worship the victor’. But what about the intellectual class, who is supposed to see beyond the surface reality and present the meaning of events? They appear to have even overtaken the common masses in their excitement. Our political analysts tend to see a ‘social revolution’ in this BSP victory, while some scholars take it as de-castization and even de-classization of Indian politics.

The kind of praise being showered on Mayawati is beyond comment. Diapankar Gupta, in his article in Hindustan Times (10.4.2007) had gone to the extent of comparing Mayawati with Mao as a strategist. He cites parallels in Mao’s and Mayawati’s incessant search of strategic partners; in their criticisms- when Mao allied with rich peasants and a section of landlords and when Mayawati joined hands with the BJP; and also in their foci, as Mao never lost sight of the poor peasants, Mayawati her poor Dalits. Prof Gupta ought to have searched for objectives, the prerequisite for strategies, before seeing parallels in them. While Mao had never compromised his objective to bring about new democratic revolution in China, Mayawati had never disclosed her, save for the implicit one -grabbing the power by any means. If the elections were a game, then there is no doubt that Mayawati has grounded all the veteran players. If they were a medium of securing personal power, then there is again no doubt that she has left everybody far behind in the race. But if they were taken as a vehicle to bring about a change in the caste/class relations to the benefit of oppressed and poor people, then Mayawati’s unscrupulous handling of them throws up a galore of serious suspicions. Mayawati’s strategy to create a constituency with Dalits, Muslims and Brahmins is eulogized as social revolution. One forgets that this is the precise strategy followed by Congress to rule for more than four decades after independence. Nobody would dare to call that rule a revolution, social or otherwise.

Why then Mayawati’s? It is explained that during the Congress rule, the strings of power were in the hands of the upper caste/class people whereas in the BSP’s case, it would be in the hands of dalits. Strictly speaking, the latter is not true. If it meant a dalit chief minister holding the strings of power, even the Congress had propped up dalit mascots to such positions. An example of Damodar Sanjivayya, who became the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh in the 1960s, may be an apt reminder. Indeed, there have been many dalit chief ministers including Mayawati thereafter but it hardly meant that the power strings had come into the hands of dalits. Besides the error of equating an individual with the party or his caste, there is an intrinsic conceptual error in assuming the BSP as a dalit party. At no time BSP, even from the times of its precursor movements like Bamcef and DS4, had claimed to be a Dalit party. As its name eloquently suggests, it is a bahujan party. Now that BSP won as a party of sarvajan,
it no more remains even that. Consequently, the strings of power that it held thus no more belong even to the bahujans. Just because Kanshiram and Mayawati belonged to dalits, BSP power does not become dalit power; it strictly belongs to sarvajan, the upper castes included. Social revolution, which is transformation of basic caste or class relations, cannot come through the first-past-the- post type of elections we adopted. While election victories in India do not need even a passive affirmation of majority of people, social revolution needs their active participation. With growing fragmentation of polity into interest groups associated with the process of uneven development, which expresses itself through the existing fault lines like castes, the percentage vote required to rule has already gone down to ridiculous levels. BSP, in the present case just got 13.8 percent of total votes in UP, which means 86.2 percent voters either are passive or against it. The election victory can certainly be an enabler to mobilize peoples’ participation but cannot itself mean it. Mayawati’s rainbow politics merely represents shrewd electoral arithmetic and hence should not be confused with social revolution. Her kind of caste-based coalition rather ends up deepening castism, as the experience in UP amply demonstrates, which is antithetical to any social revolution.

Even though the BSP likes to don the bahujan identity, in reality its base has been dalits. It is they who provide a foundation for its victories. BSP has built this strong foundation labouriously over the years through its Bamcef and DS4 days. Dalits are about 21 per cent in UP, far more than the national average of 16 per cent. The process of constructing a rock solid constituency of this mass of dalits comprised systematic operation of exclusivist strategy with a rhetoric of manuwad, an offensive lingo against the dwija castes and later use of political power to reinforce dalit identity by promoting dalit icons. In the early election days of BSP, Kanshiram used to publicly ask the upper castes in the audience to leave the place. Those days, BSP had several abusive slogans against the dwija castes. This offensive strategy cultivated identity and created self-confidence among Dalits. Having created this core, BSP could attract some Muslims and lower castes and made its mark in elections.

When it maneuvered to actually sit a dalit’s beti in the gaddi of UP’s chief minister, it meant realization of a dream for dalits. They felt as though they became the rulers of the state. With this unshakable dalit base of 21 percent voters, the BSP could try any kind of strategic acrobatics with impunity. When it realized that it has reached the limits of its constituency and that a little increment could win it far more seats, it took a complete somersault and decided to befriend the upper castes. Dalits stood by it rock solid, when BSP allied with BJP, when Mayawati canvassed for Narendra Modi in Gujarat at the time when the entire world despised him for having catalyzed the heinous carnage of Muslims; when the blue elephant of BSP ceased to be a symbol of Ambedkar’s struggle or emerging dalit strength and became a Ganesha and later a trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh of Hindus and now when Mayawati has come full circle discarding the bahujan garbs and joining hands with the very same people whom she disparaged as Manuwadis.

What does this party of sarvajan mean? None of the political analysts appear to ask this question. This term indicative of collaboration of castes and classes should be fundamentally inimical to the caste or class struggle of the oppressed and exploited. It assumes away the contradictions in the society. If so, what would be the premise, one may ask, for the existence of BSP? How could there be a dalit struggle without the definition of its friends and foes? By pushing such issues under carpet, it actually negates the dalit struggle itself. This approach becomes the ruling class parties’ as they have to cover up the contradictions in the society and seek to take shelter under such slippery terms to protect their class interests. They cannot be useful to the lower classes that have to target these contradictions in their struggle. Sarvajan smacks of samarasata of sangh Parivar. As such, when BSP claims to have become a party of sarvajan, it is admitting that it has not only become a ruling class party, it is also a ruling caste party.

Besides the rock solid support of dalits, specific situational factors in UP can be seen conributing to the BSP win. The misrule of Mulayam Singh Yadav had alienated most sections of populations beyond the SP’s loyal support base. They wanted a winning horse, which they found in the form of the BSP. The other two mainstream parties, viz., Congress and BJP were far too weak to pose as alternatives. Mayawati’s image as a sworn enemy of Mulayam Singh, her aggressive demeanour matching the goondagiri of Yadavs, and her solid support base among Dalits easily scored over them and became a choice of people. Mayawati’s social engineering to get the much wanted incremental votes for her has worked perfectly in this congenial electoral climate. The strategy of social alliance with the upper castes, giving them disproportionately more number of seats than their numbers deserved, helped this consideration greatly and brought the BSP that crucial incremental vote for getting catapulted to power.

This strategy is attributed to the political genius of Mayawati forgetting the fact that it could well be Brahmins’. If one considers the amount of decline in the status of the Brahmins, from the ruling caste to the political non-entity in UP, their anxiety to regain their lost status of ruling caste would perhaps be more intense than that of Mayawati. Their traditional party, BJP, stood no chance of coming to power in near future. Indeed, the strategy strikingly resembles the RSS strategy of samarasata to have a broader unity of all Hindus. Whatever the source, for the Brahmins and the upper castes, the only viable alternative available was joining hands with Mayawati. If they had indeed decided to capture the state power piggybacking Mayawati’s BSP, would it not be amounting to turning the wheel of history in reverse direction? Instead of Mayawati’s social revolution, would it not be the counter revolution of Brahmans? The marriage of convenience between Dalits and Brahmans had least hurdles on ground. Because, these two castes placed at the two ends of the caste continuum, do not have much social interaction and hence no ostensible ontradiction. It is therefore seen by many as potentially replicable in many other states. The politicians have already begun dreaming of such combinations in their states for coming elections. Unfortunately for them, this experiment may not be replicable elsewhere for the simple reason that none of the conditions that produced this dazzling result in UP may be encountered anywhere. However, it could certainly increase the influence of BSP everywhere.

Mayawati has set her eyes at Delhi. While she has not spelt out the timeframe, the Dalits have already started dreaming her as the prime minister in 2009. As the trend shows up, the next general elections will have strong anti-incumbency wave but its benefits are unlikely to accrue to any mainstream party. The largest beneficiary would certainly be the BSP. Thus seen, this dalit dream may materialize far sooner than anybody ever guessed. No doubt, it would be a matter of great delight for the entire progressive world to see a daughter of a humble Dalit dislodging the traditional upper castes from the throne of the most unequal country on the planet. But would it be a dalit raj? Would it be a revolution? The answer to such questions may sadly be all negatives.

21 thoughts on “The meaning of Maywati for the Dalit movement”

  1. Thanks Shivam for this brilliant analysis and critique by Chittibabu Padavala. I am not only almost completely in agreement with his analysis of the complex moment that Mayawati’s victory represents – I am also quite persuaded by his critical appreciation of the limitations, which are not strictly reducible (as he rightly points out) to the ‘structural constraints’ of ‘the system’. I am also quite persuaded by the analysis of the possibility (indeed possibilities) immanent in this moment and the strategic move of allying with the upper castes: from Naidu’s assertion (in the present), that he too should do the same, to the eventuality that like the CPM, the BSP could in fact, become the most effective ‘container’ of the movement and of Dalit aspirations (in the future). Important in this respect, I believe, are critiques like Chittibabu’s which alert us to the need to be intellectually critical at all times, even, or especially, in times of victory. A mere uncritical celebration can lead us into believing that the immediate victories are all that really matter. Thanks once again.


  2. I think both Anand Teltumbde and Chittibabu have brought some key insights into this discussion. Unlike, Chittibabu, I did not feel that it was a diatribe against Mayawati, though. The point that Anand raised is very valid- and it ties in with the conclusion that Chittibabu has indicated– that of space being created for a Dalit intelligentsia following BSP’s coming to power in UP.

    In the face of the lack of a substantial programme for either Dalits or UP, what if Mayawati’s government does not deliver? Will there be a disillusionment and a confirmation that “See, these people cannot rule”. Will the BJP hijack the leadership then? A failure can actually push the movement a step back.


  3. Bhupinder, the problem really is that the people who are rejoicing Mayawati’s victory – especially intellectuals like Dipankar Gupta, whom Anand Teltumbde is criticizing – is that they come from a very suspect position which hates to speak of caste and of course, affirmative action and wishes that a simple economic solution can be found to the problem of Dalit oppression. For them, Mayawati’s victory is just a peg to hang their own pet theories on, especially now that she has also come out as an advocate of reservations for poorer upper caste people. This has a specific meaning in the special political context in UP when she proposes it. For others to present it as a vindication of their own ostrich-like avoidance of caste matters is a kind of surreptitious attempt to appropriate and mobilize Mayawati to fight their battles. Surely, if poor upper caste people should have reservations, we must begin by first identifying the creamy layer among the upper castes i.e. ALL OF US! Are we, Dipankar Gupta and many other blessed souls – especially in the higher rungs of the judiciary – prepared to concede that the creamy layer is not only a Dalit or OBC phenomenon. This is where I would agree with a part (only a part) of Anand’s critique of Gupta. I would not actually call it a critique as Anand does not really uncover the logic of these celebrations; he merely criticizes them.
    I think that his argument becomes weak here because he practically reads Mayawati and Gupta in the same register – and straight off. Even though Gupta celebrates Mayawati, he is simply using her to hang his own tale there and Mao is just a red herring that Anand has taken too seriously.
    I also think that the meaning of Mayawati (the symbol) in North India and especially UP, is far far more complex and radical than we can often imagine. She herself may not be able to contain the range of meanings condensed into the symbol that bears the name ‘Mayawati’. A bit like those Chauri Chaura accused who claimed that ‘Gandhi baba’ had appeared in their dreams and exhorted them to take up arms. The poor apostle of non-violence!! This is a point underlined quite strongly in Chitti Babu’s article.


  4. those who are unable to win as a village presedent they are now criticising mayawathi’s victory i request my dalit intellectual to be silent on the issue and accept the mayathi victory as a xeperiment. wait and watch.mayawathi is better than many other dalit leaders who associated with congress and other upper caste parties


  5. Dear Sir,

    Power is the ultimate weapon of intiating change. Election after election we see oily leaders and their minions of the so called ‘mainstream’ political dispensation seek the vote which empowers them.

    Mayawati maybe the latest to join that list. Maybe she also has a genuine agenda addressing to her core dalit and now sarvajan constituency. Why not give her credit where it is due and not read too much into her sarvajan agenda. She in any case does not make bones of her quest for power unlike so may other self serving and self seeking hypocritical ‘netas’that abound this great land.

    Lest we forget that the narrow, divisive,potentialy destabilising and dangerous Hindutva agenda has been halted in its track in the politically most vital state of India.Give the devil its due. Pray that Mayawati with her magical agenda of fighting casteism with caste, rids this nation of this perennniely obnoxious system.


  6. Chittibabu’s piece is marked with enormous clarity and a very level-headed criticality. He has adeptly warned us about exaggerating Mayawati’s role in bringing about the long-awaited social changes which finally look possible in UP with her coming to power. The complex mobility-factors of the social structure, the necessities of electoral equations and the vagaries of power (exemplified by Mayawati’s ideologically scandalous hobnobbing with the BJP) are issues which need the kind of attention that Chittibabu has sensitively and acutely highlighted. When Mayawati won the last elections, I was jubilant enough to declare to friends how UP had voted more progressively than France. I was however disgusted by NDTV in particular. Prannoy Roy behaved like an elite technocrat and a political reactionary. He got his usual pets, Kapil Sibbal and Arun Jaitley, to speak on Mayawati’s victory in the prime time show after all results were declared. There was a political and upper-caste snobbery in their visible discomfort, as they spoke about Mayawati. Prannoy Roy asked, was such an election won without a manifesto and without taking the help of the media (which meant, a great psephologist like him), going to be the trend of the 21st century? There was a sarcastic smirk on all their faces in response to Roy’s utterly juvenile question. Roy, sitting in his posh NDTV news room, thinks this is where the 21st century resides. He thinks he and his media team symbolizes 21st century. Mayawati is certainly not the suave, psephology-literate politician whom Roy can admire and share intelligent smirks with. Mayawati is too out-of-place for Roy’s Doon School and Queen’s Mary College standards. There are many like and unlike him in this country who are equally hostile to Mayawati’s rising phenomenon. Roy has no clues and sensitivity about the historical content of Mayawati’s coming to power. Against the widespread national disease of upper-castiesm, Mayawati is the perfect symbol of a political renaissance. But Chittibabu wonders if this is going to translate more meaningfully into a social renaissance, even in the minimalist sense. We surely have to wait and see.


Comments are closed.