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NS Profile Mayawati

The "untouchable" and her rise to power in India

In the late 1960s, a little girl and her family set out from a Delhi shanty town to visit her grandparents in a distant village. It was a long journey, and her parents began to chat to other passengers on the bus. When they revealed their destination was the chamar mohalla – the area usually found on the outskirts of a village and inhabited by those at the lowest level of the Indian caste hierarchy – the bus fell silent. The little girl’s mother had to explain to her that other Indians considered the caste to which her family belonged to be unclean.

More than 40 years later, that little girl, known simply as Mayawati, is a political hero for lower-caste Indians throughout the north of the country. She is a Dalit, a member of the caste known historically as “untouchables”. And Dalits in the state of Uttar Pradesh hurry in their thousands to her rallies, where she tells them how proud she is to have been born into a Dalit family. “I am the daughter of a Chamar [a Dalit]. I am a Chamar. I am yours.” In May 2007, she became chief minister of Uttar Pradesh for the fourth time. On taking the oath of office, she declared that “nobody can stop me from becoming prime minister”. We shall find out soon enough if she is right: India goes to the polls in a general election in April and May this year.

Mayawati was born in 1956, the second of nine children from a family which originally hailed from the village of Badalpur in Uttar Pradesh. Unlike most of India’s Dalits, she grew up in a city, in the lower-middle-class Delhi suburb of Inderpuri, where her father was a clerk in the department of post and telegraphs.

The family was poor, yet was able to send her to a government school and then to university. After graduating with a teaching qualification, Mayawati worked as a teacher in Delhi, where she met Kanshi Ram, the founder of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Until Ram’s death in 2006, he and Mayawati worked together to forge a new politics of Dalit identity.

Central to this vision is the desire to end caste discrimination and build a society founded on ideals of equality and fairness. Officially, the practice of untouchability and caste discrimination was outlawed by the Indian constitution in 1950. Unofficially, however, little changed. A recent study by ActionAid illustrates the problems that Dalits continue to face. It found significant discrimination in the provision of public services, including the denial of barber services and separate seating and utensils in restaurants. In many of the villages surveyed, Dalits are banned from holding marriage processions on roads and from wearing brightly coloured clothes.

Physical violence against Dalits is common. The National Crime Records Bureau reports

that each day two Dalits are killed and three Dalit women are raped. In October 2007, a Dalit woman in a village in Madhya Pradesh refused to work alone to harvest an entire crop for a local farmer. The upper-caste farm owners tied her to a tree and beat her, fracturing her limbs. When the woman regained consciousness and asked for water, she was given urine to drink.

Under Indian law, segregation is illegal. The problem lies not with the law, but with the willingness of the state to implement it. Lacking either financial or political clout, many Dalits struggle to persuade the local police to register complaints against abusive landowners and others with money and influence. However, the BSP’s control of the police force and judiciary in Uttar Pradesh has helped to protect Dalits in that state against violence and intimidation.

The BSP has been active in politics in Uttar Pradesh since 1984, when it began to attract Dalits by speaking to them in a language with which they were familiar. Mayawati and Kanshi erected statues of Dalit heroes (themselves included) and asserted Dalits’ right to celebrate their identity in public spaces. A well-trained and committed BSP cadre travelled around the state spreading the message and enlisting support.

While upper-caste journalists mocked Maya­wati, the BSP grew stronger. From winning just 13 seats in the 1989 elections to the Uttar Pradesh Assembly, the party now has a majority. Mayawati’s early success came as a result of her ability to give political expression to the aspirations of Dalits. But their numbers (they make up a little more than 15 per cent of the Indian population) meant a narrow, caste-based identity politics, and no political party in India will ever win a national election by appealing to one particular caste or by campaigning on caste issues alone.

The 2007 state election demonstrated Mayawati’s ability to build cross-caste alliances on economic and social issues. Since 2002, for example, she has built support for the BSP among Brahmins, traditionally at the apex of the caste structure. Just as Dalits fear the landholding castes in the middle of the caste system, so Brahmins in Uttar Pradesh have felt their position threatened by this group. Mayawati showed herself just as capable of addressing Brahmin fears of middle-caste self-assertion as she was of mobilising Dalit identity.

The approach paid off; the party increased its share of Brahmin votes in the state election from 6 per cent in 2003 to 17 per cent in 2007. Mayawati campaigned on a platform of law and order, and on a promise of equal development, irrespective of caste. Coupled with some careful handing out of party tickets to ensure that all castes were well represented, it was enough to win her power.

Mayawati has chosen to fight for Dalit rights with the ballot box. However, some activists say the plight of the lower castes is so grave – 59 per cent of Dalits in Uttar Pradesh live below the poverty line – that only a violent overthrow of the state government will lead to lasting change. The BSP leadership rejects this and maintains that the costs of political violence are usually paid for disproportionately by the poor. They point to the neighbouring state of Bihar, where the Naxalite insurgency has led to the formation of upper-caste citizen armies, with devastating results for the poor and the vulnerable.

Since the decline of Congress Party dominance, it’s a brave person who tries to predict the outcome of an Indian election. At the last general election, in 2004, psephologists widely assumed that the Bharatiya Janata Party would win, with its “India Shining” campaign, Hindu nationalism and appeal to the new, aspirant middle class. Few thought to consider the relevance of a successful call-centre industry to a drought-stricken farmer, or what a bullish stock market might mean to a ragpicker.

Neither of the two major parties, Congress and the BJP, is likely to win sufficient votes to form government on its own at the coming general election. Recent state elections have brought success for both parties, the surprise being the significant number of votes going to the BSP.

The most likely result of the 2009 election is a hung parliament, not an unusual outcome in India. Of 543 seats in total at the last election, no single party won more than 145, far short of the 272 needed to form a government. If Mayawati’s BSP manages to win as many as 50 seats, she may find herself the leader of the third-largest party in the Lok Sabha, and both major parties will have to negotiate with her to form a government. Even then, they will still need the support of the regional and the communist parties (which are opposed to the BJP’s communalism and have not forgiven Congress for striking a nuclear deal with the United States).

Although the BSP won only 19 Lok Sabha seats in the most recent general election – all in Uttar Pradesh – much has changed since then. In 2004, Mayawati held only 98 seats in the Uttar Pradesh state legislative assembly. She now holds 206. In other state assembly elections last year, the BSP won six seats in Rajasthan (compared to two in 2003), two in Chattisgarh (the same as in 2003) and seven in Madhya Pradesh (compared to two in 2003). Based on these recent results, it is safe to assume that the BSP will improve

significantly on its 2004 Lok Sabha results.

Mayawati is an astute pol­itician and the BSP has shown itself to be extraordinarily well organised. The party had chosen more than 70 per cent of its candidates for the upcoming election by early last year, allowing each candidate time enough to get to know their constituency and introduce themselves to voters. Fifty seats is certainly not out of the question.

What is unpredictable, however, is Mayawati’s temperament. She cares little for what other pol­iticians or the media think of her, and does not hesitate to let them know. It is not clear if she will give her support to one of the major parties in order for them to form a government. If she does, she is likely to demand weighty concessions. It is possible that she will offer her support to either Congress or the BJP in return for the position of deputy prime minister. Working in a coalition again with a party she dislikes may not worry her unduly. She is a mistress of compromise, having formed alliances with every other major party in Uttar Pradesh over the past 14 years.

Yet there is another possibility – remote, but still a possibility. In this scenario, the BSP, the left and various regional parties come together to form a non-Congress, non-BJP coalition government, with Mayawati as prime minister. Such an alignment was nearly realised in 2008, when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government was forced to contest a vote of confidence in the Lok Sabha after the left withdrew its support, following the signing of the nuclear deal with the US.

It’s a long way from the chamar mohalla to the prime minister’s office. But if this Dalit ki beti (daughter of a Dalit) did take power, the hopes and aspirations of millions of Indians would shift irrevocably. l

Maxine Loynd is a PhD candidate in the department of political and social change, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University. This article is published in association with the online magazine Inside Story (

This article first appeared in the 09 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Planet Overload