The next general election looks certain to produce another hung Parliament. This will give many politicians a chance to cobble together coalitions and become prime minister. At a recent office discussion, I opined that Mayawati, head of the BSP, had the best chance.
Some youngsters in my office found this disturbing. One said, “If Mayawati becomes PM, won’t that lower India’s prestige? She is corrupt, crude and unprincipled. Doesn’t India need a prime minister who is more presentable to the world?”
I explained that Mayawati was actually the most presentable candidate by far. If she becomes PM, India can claim to be the most empowering democracy in the world. Nowhere else has a woman from the bottom of the social and gender ladders risen to the top.
Women are oppressed in India, and Dalits are the most oppressed caste. For a Dalit to rise to the top would be miraculous. For a female Dalit to do so would be doubly miraculous. If Mayawati becomes prime minister, she will become a beacon of hope for oppressed people across the world.
Many middle class Indians want a prime minister from their class who is honest, principled and erudite; who can debate intellectual issues with the best in the world. Mayawati does not qualify. Jawaharlal Nehru had all these qualifications, and so is still admired. Yet, the world has seen many leaders from eminent families, blessed with wealth, status and foreign education. Never before has the world seen a Dalit woman rising to Nehru’s level.
isited Pakistan in 2003, he was a huge hit. Pakistanis had seen many Indian politicians from top families. They were utterly unprepared for and thrilled by this man who made a virtue of his humble antecedents, who used earthy language and rural aphorisms utterly unlike the sophisticated prattle of the chattering classes. No Pakistani of his class could ever aspire to political stardom, and for that reason Lalu was viewed as a superstar. Ditto for Mayawati.
Dynastic politics has enabled many women to rise to the top in the sub-continent. Consider Indira and Sonia Gandhi in India, Begums Khaleda and Hasina in Bangladesh, Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, and Srimavo Banadaranaike and Chandrika Kumaratunge in Sri Lanka. All became prime ministers because of their dynastic lineage.
Mayawati has no such lineage. She grew up in a Dalit shanty town, daughter of a lowly clerk. Most Dalit women don’t dare speak in public. But Mayawati became a school teacher, spitting fire at public meetings. This brought her to the attention of Kanshi Ram, who was organising a Dalit political party. Kanshi Ram persuaded Mayawati to abandon her plans to join the civil service, and plunge into politics instead. The rest is history.
She may be a symbol of what democracy can achieve. Yet, her own behaviour within the BSP is utterly autocratic. She has mercilessly purged old comrades who dared dissent. She is seen as unprincipled since she has first teamed up with and then broken with every political party in sight, for short-term gains.
I once asked Kanshi Ram whether he was rightist or leftist. He replied, “Neither: I am opportunist.” So is Mayawati. Her only guiding principle is to promote the interest of Dalits and herself. Everything else is negotiable. She started by castigating Brahmins as oppressors of Dalits. Yet, today she has stitched together a convenient alliance with those very Brahmins.
She can be crude, abusive and arbitrary, and so has antagonised all other parties. Yet, she remains politically attractive. When she allies with another party, her Dalit votes get transferred to the ally’s candidates. No other party can guarantee this transferability. That makes her an awesome ally. An election jingle says it all: Auron ki majboori hai, Mayawati zaroori hai. (It’s the misfortune of others, Mayawati is indispensable).
Like many other politicians, she faces several criminal cases, notably the Taj Corridor case. Other politicians seek to hide their ill-gotten wealth, but Mayawati glories in it. Her Dalit followers view her wealth as a symbol not of corruption but Dalit empowerment: she has beaten the upper castes at their own corrupt game.
Her self-declared assets rose from Rs 16 crore before the 2004 general election to Rs 52 crore before the UP election in 2007. This made her far richer than other chief ministers such as Prakash Singh Badal (Rs 9.2 crore), Karunanidhi (Rs 22 crore) or Chandrababu Naidu (Rs 21 crore).
She paid income tax of Rs 26 crore in 2007-08, making her one of the top taxpayers in India, in the company of film stars and industrialists. Mayawati has faced prosecution for having wealth disproportionate to income. She says the money represents gifts from well wishers. And a tax tribunal recently upheld her contention.
The world is not interested in the gory details. Politicians everywhere face sundry charges, and the world notices only if this results in political dismissal. So, if Mayawati becomes PM, the world will lionise her as a Dalit heroine. And it will lionise India as a democracy without parallel.