As we approach the 2024 parliamentary elections, many are asking — where has Mayawati disappeared? A politician, who was the first female dalit chief minister of UP, not once but four times, and in 2007, after winning with an absolute majority, was the first CM to complete a full five-year term, seems to have gone into relative political oblivion. In 1995, when she became CM of UP, she was the youngest-ever CM of the state. In 1989, when she was elected to the Lok Sabha from Bijnor, she was just 33 years old. Since then, she has been a member of both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha several times.
Mayawati had no political godfathers. Her father worked in the post-office in a village near Dadri in UP. But she persevered with her education, graduating from Kalindi College in Delhi, acquiring a law degree from the Law Faculty of Delhi University, as also a BEd from Meerut University. She was preparing for the civil services exam when in 1977 she met her mentor Kanshi Ram. Kanshi Ram had a vision to ensure a more socially just India, and Dr Manmohan Singh has rightly described him as “one of the greatest social reformers of out time”.
Ram saw the potential in Mayawati. He persuaded her to enter politics, where instead of being an IAS officer, a line of IAS officers would report to her. His prophesy came dramatically true. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) was founded in 1984. By 1989, Mayawati was already in the Lok Sabha. Six years later she was the CM of UP. In 2001, Kanshi Ram announced that Behenji would be his successor, and she became the president of the BSP.
Mayawati’s meteoric rise may appear miraculous, but there was a reason for her success. The Scheduled Castes (SC) constitute one of the single largest vote banks across India, totaling about 25 crores. In UP, they consist of some 17 per cent of the population, while the Yadavs, in comparison, are only about eight per cent. In Punjab, where Kanshi Ram was born, the dalit population is 32 per cent, the highest in the country.
The SCs thus have a key role in pan-Indian politics, and Mayawati is their most successful icon. But her task is far from complete. In spite of reservations, and other measures, Dalits are still exploited and humiliated, and the victims of upper caste violence. The memory of seven Dalits being publicly flogged in Una by upper caste men in Gujarat in 2016 is still vivid. In fact, the perpetrators had the impunity to proudly upload the video of their bestiality on social media. In 2017, a bright young PhD student of University of Hyderabad, Rohit Vemula, committed suicide. In his suicide note, he said that he could not bear anymore the discrimination in the university against dalits and lower castes. But while these cases created a national outrage, statistics show that an atrocity against a dalit takes place every 18 minutes. In 2019, a young dalit was thrashed to death in Tehri, Uttarakhand, for eating in front of upper castes at a wedding ceremony. In the same year, a dalit minor was stripped and beaten to death in Pali, Rajasthan for entering a temple. In December 2020, a dalit man was beaten to death in Chhattarpur, Madhya Pradesh (MP), for touching food meant for upper castes. In the same month, a dalit groom was forced to get down from a horse at Shivpur in Rajasthan. A most recent case from the same state is that of a dalit man castigated for the temerity of wearing dark glasses.
According to the National Crime Research Bureau (NCRB), crimes against the SCs increased in 2021 over that in 2020. At 25.2 per cent, UP has the highest number of atrocities committed against Dalits; Rajasthan in next at 14.7 per cent; MP is almost at the same level at 14.1 per cent; and Bihar is not lagging far behind at 11.1 per cent. Where dalit women are concerned, the NCRB data is even more shocking: almost ten dalit women and girls are raped in India every day.
Mayawati’s original strategic mistake was to reduce Kanshi Ram’s vision of a pan-India Bahujan movement largely to UP. Now, in UP too, she has become a marginal player. What could be constraining her? As the CM from 2007 to 2012, she ran, by all accounts, an efficient government, marked by improved law and order, fewest riots, lowest rapes, far more schemes for the poorest and least corruption compared to previous governments. She also corrected the historical narrative, by paying tribute to hitherto-ignored backward class icons. It is true that questions were raised about her growing personal wealth. In 2007-8, she paid an income tax of Rs 26 crores, among the highest in the country. The CBI filed a case of disproportionate assets compared to known sources of income, but Mayawati could provide full details of the donations she had received, and the Supreme Court (SC) upheld her view. She was also accused of corruption in the building of the Taj Corridor, but again the SC upheld her defense. Critics highlight the extravagant manner in which she celebrated her birthdays, but which political leader of any political party can be credited with austerity in promoting their own personality cult?
The question then remains: Why has Mayawati become politically dormant? Rumour has it that the BJP has culpable information on her finances and, therefore, she has chosen to take a back seat. Certainly, her declaration of personal wealth in her Rajya Sabha nomination form raises eyebrows, but which political leader’s assets, if honestly given, would not? The truth is that her original winning combination — Scheduled Castes, Brahmins, and Muslims — is still a winning electoral formula. In the 2019 parliamentary elections, the BSP won 10 seats, twice that of alliance partner, the Samajwadi Party (SP). Clearly, she still has an important role to play. Will she rise to accept this challenge in 2024?