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Aditi Phadnis: The battle lines for Behenji

Have the Dalits disowned Mayawati entirely or will they return to save her?

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Time is running out for Mayawati,” say reporters returning to Delhi after touring Uttar Pradesh. Their prediction is based on the premise that five years after its historic victory in Uttar Pradesh, riding on a rainbow coalition of the low and high castes, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) led by allowed itself to be caught in a dilemma — whether to continue its inclusive agenda or revert to her core Dalit base.

In 2007, Mayawati adopted the new social engineering formula of “sarvajan” that included upper castes in her support base. But this inclusive agenda did not seem to work in the in 2009 when the party managed to win only 20 of the state’s 80 seats. BSP’s vote share also actually went down from 30.4 per cent in 2007 to 27 per cent in the Lok Sabha elections of 2009.

(constituting 21 per cent of the state’s population), Muslims (making up 19 per cent) and Brahmins (nine per cent) had voted in large numbers for the in 2007. Of the BSP’s 203 legislators, 61 were Dalits, 51 Brahmins and 26 Muslims.

So where did they go in 2009? And have they returned?

The answer to the second question might be in one factoid relating to turnout. In Sitapur that has the highest concentration of Dalits among all UP districts – constituting as much as 32 per cent of the population – the turnout has been 72 per cent.

This can only mean one of two things: that the Dalits have disowned Mayawati entirely and voters of other parties have eclipsed the Dalits in turning out to vote; or that Dalits are returning to Mayawati to save her.

The first hypothesis doesn’t sound credible. In a typical UP village, till the late 1990s, a dalit having tea at a tea shop would be asked to wash his own cup; or be asked to drink out of an earthenware cup.

That is happening less and less. So Mayawati has broken one taboo — her elevation has lifted the Dalit out of the morass of acquiescence to discrimination into which he had fallen. The sense of inferiority that had dogged him is slowly disappearing because he understands that he has managed to install no less than a chief minister in power.

But with this realisation is dawning the recognition that while the political battle has been won, winning the societal war will need another big push.

This is the problem that Dalits are grappling with. How far should they go in collaborating with the upper castes in politics when the society in which they live is not changing as fast?

In 2007, among the first statements Mayawati made was the promise of job reservation for the upper caste poor. To hear this was awkward and baffling for Dalits. For, from the upper caste representatives in her government, there was no corresponding promise of launching a campaign in their community to prevent or eradicate untouchability.

Social engineering experiments have to be negotiated. So the Dalits reckoned that while the Brahmin poor were getting the benefits of Behenji’s policies, they were still stuck where they had been on the social mobility ladder: with Brahmins and Thakurs drawing a line at sharing a table with Dalits; or their wives allowing them in their kitchens.

And then, the Mayawati government simply did not heed the larger Dalit project: like protecting the rights of Dalit women who are exploited thrice over — by men of their own caste, men of other castes and as Dalits. The BSP government had no cogent thoughts on reservation for Dalits in higher education and in the private sector. And there has been no movement on giving Dalits the rights on land. Dalits hold titles to land but not its physical ownership.

Here’s what Rajesh Saraiya, who owns a multi-national company in Ukraine, (SteelMont Pvt Ltd, that trades in metals) and is the first Dalit billionaire in India, had to say: “People have to change from inside. They have to change their ideology, their mentality and look around the world for what is happening. There are so many opportunities.” Saraiya was given the first (and only) Kanshi Ramji Export Award instituted by Mayawati. Incidentally, although there is a sizeable Dalit population engaged in export of shoes from the leather industry hub in Agra, the award was given only once in her five-year tenure, for reasons best known to Mayawati.

If Sitapur is the trend and Mayawati is returning to power, this would be a good time for her to assess who her allies could – and should – be. The Dalits are changing their outlook. It is important for her to force others to change theirs as well.

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