Don’t go ga-ga over Mayawati

The Bahujan Samaj Party under Mayawati has won a remarkable absolute majority in the UP election. Such a big victory, against all predictions, merits loud applause.

Yet some analysts are going ga-ga, finding virtues in the lady which are not obvious from her track record. She has put together a rainbow coalition of all Hindu castes plus Muslims, so some analysts see in this a promise of social revolution in a traditionally caste-ridden state. Others believe she will put criminals in jail, overhaul the administration, and accelerate economic development.

Yogendra Yadav is normally India’s best electoral analyst. But on this occasion he claims that “the feeble voice of the ordinary Indian” can finally be heard through Mayawati’s victory. Really? Have all other elections been a democratic sham, drowning out the ordinary voter?

Yadav further portrays Mayawati’s victory as “a poor man’s rainbow”, since the bulk of her votes came from dalits and backward castes, not the upper castes. But the upper castes are a small numerical minority, so all elections are decided by the lower castes. So, every election result can be called a poor man’s rainbow, even victories spearheaded by rich Brahmins.

Whatever its sectarian core, every party seeks votes from other classes and castes to garner a majority. Electoral arithmetic ensures that parties attempt rainbow-making of some sort. It’s another matter that the promised pot of gold at the end of the rainbow usually turns out to be illusory. Will Mayawati’s pot of gold be any less illusory?

Those who think that Mayawati’s rainbow politics can transform class or caste relations in Uttar Pradesh are confusing electoral opportunism with social revolution. Only 46% of voters voted in UP, and Mayawati got only 30% of these votes. So, only 13.8% of eligible voters actually voted for her. In a first-past-the-post electoral system, this is enough for an election victory. But it is totally inadequate for engineering a social revolution.

Hordes of voters typically vote against incumbents across states and countries. Voters often engage in strategic voting—voting for the party regarded as most likely to defeat the incumbent. This benefited the BSP, which from the start looked the most likely to oust Mulayam. The BJP lost and Mayawati gained from such opportunistic voting this time. This may not be the case next time.

Yogendra Yadav is right in saying that the media have made too much of Mayawati wooing Brahmins. I attended one of her election rallies in the previous 2002 election. Even then she emphasized that she had given tickets to Brahmins, Muslims, OBCs and dalits in proportion to their population share.

But after becoming chief Minister in 2002 she was scuttled by defectors from her party, who were overwhelmingly non-dalit. She must know from experience that a harmonious rainbow is difficult to sustain even within her party, let alone the whole state.

Mulayam Singh Yadav is widely criticized for goonda-raj and Yadav-raj. He certainly subverted the administration and police. But will Mayawati really change the system? Within two days of being elected, she transferred over 200 bureaucrats. Two officers were suspended for not maintaining Ambedkar parks. She appointed a personal chum from outside the IAS as Cabinet Secretary, a newly created post to undercut the Chief Secretary. This is not administrative overhaul or the ending of goonda-raj. It is a brazen grab for the levers of power and spoils of office.

VS Naipaul says that India is experiencing a million mutinies which will ultimately prove socially positive. Mayawati’s rise is such a mutiny. Yet the initial results of such mutinies tend to be negative. The rise of Laloo Yadav in Bihar, and of Mulayam and Mayawati in UP, have given a sense of empowerment to lower castes. This will doubtless yield long-run benefits, in economic and social terms.

But serious short-term losses flow from empowerment based on grabbing all levers of power and eroding independent institutions like the bureaucracy and police. UP needs more than charismatic social mutineers. It needs solid systems that function regardless of political whim.

Rajasthan has shown the way to go. Along with Bihar and UP, it has historically been among India’s poorest and most socially backward states. It has never had charismatic Chief Ministers like Laloo, Mulayam or Mayawati. Yet the state’s low-key Chief Ministers have, without fanfare, converted once-poor Rajasthan into one of India’s fastest-growing states.

Annual average growth of gross state domestic product (%)

1993-05 1980-91
Rajasthan 6.39 6.60
Uttar Pradesh 4.28 4.95
Bihar 4.89 4.66
Maharashtra 5.59 6.02

ALL INDIA
6.32 5.47

Take a look at the accompanying table. Between 1993 and 2005, Rajasthan’s economic growth was 6.39% per year, higher than the national average (6.32%) and higher even than that of Maharashtra (5.59%). By contrast, Bihar (4.89%) and UP (4.28%) both grew much more slowly than the national average. In the 1980s too, Rajasthan grew rapidly, and Bihar and UP slowly.

Rajasthan has well-functioning systems. Its good administration explains why it is the only state that has properly implemented the employment guarantee scheme. UP today needs more than flashy talk of rainbow coalitions and dalit empowerment. It needs a solid, independent administration that delivers. Will Mayawati deliver that?

What do you think?