Saturday, May 12, 2007

BMW’s elephant stomps through the Gangetic plains

Full disclosure: I am not a fan of Behen Mayawati (BMW) or a voter for the BSP. Yet over the years, I have developed a grudging respect for this pugnacious grass-roots leader.

Much is already being said about Bahujan Samaj Party’s resounding victory in the Uttar Pradesh legislative polls. Numbers are being examined, caste configurations revisted yet again, Congress is once again pronouncing its defeat as a victory for Rahul Gandhi (won’t they EVER learn?), and the RSS mouthpiece Organiser has already started explaining how BSP’s “soft Hindutva” has trounced BJP’s “half-hearted” Hindutva flip-flop. Of course, the Western papers are too busy explaining how it is a “lower caste” victory and painting it in usual colours of imaginary caste wars. All these have their place, but I wonder why a couple of simple ideas have been left out of the equation.

In the past thirty years, India has relentlessly moved towards aspirational values, privileging these over inherited power and status. While calling us a meritocracy would be going a bit too far, a look at the country’s elite tosses up more “self-made” leaders in most fields – APJ Kalam, Narayanamurthi, Sabeer Bhatia, Shahrukh Khan, and of course the political leadership of people like Mayawati. Beyond their individual achievements, these are all people who made ambition acceptable again for Indians. These men and women are living proofs that old princely privileges maintained by collaboration, or newly gained by toeing Macauley-ists lines are no longer acceptable to the bulk of Indians. And most of India - born in the past forty years - took their lesson to heart. Blame it on the generational shift if you will.

Through out the UP electoral campaign, Rahul Gandhi sounded much like the kids from the recent film Tara Rum Pum: “My daddy is the bestest father, bestest husband, and the fastest racer in the world.” Not a word on his own achievements. There aren't many of those, other than of course enjoying the wealth and status, and showing off the entitlement that is part of his inheritance.

BJP’s “Congress-ification” seems to have been completed in the past years as it reneged on its idea of "party with a difference" and follows the long-standing Congress tradition of sidelining leaders with a mass voter bass (think Uma Bharati amongst others) to keep the fossilized old men in tottering top party office (can we just get MM Joshi and Advani to go away: think Gollum: “Go aways and nevers come back!!!!). Not only are these old men out of touch with the people’s pulse, their constant flip-flopping on core party issues such as UCC and Article 370 is now a tiresome roadshow of power-hungry politicking. Meanwhile, younger leaders with mass appeal are marginalized in favour of insipid foisted-from-the-top names (why has Rajnath Singh president other than because he poses no threat to anyone but the BJP?).

Contrast this to the BSP’s list of candidates who were drawn from the masses. No “raja sahibs” and princelings, or Oxbridge types here. Just plain old-fashioned grassroots activists with a hankering to claim a piece of the national power pie! Is it a surprise that they speak for the bulk of the country that is young, ambitious, and desperate for success?

Is it any surprise that they chose Mayawati? With her humble beginnings, an incredible tenacity and drive as shown by nearly three decades of striving for political power, she stands for more than just Dalit ambition. During her campaign, she spoke of her prime ministerial ambitions. It should be no surprise. She lives in a land and in times, where not only such aspirations are acceptable if not downright desireable. Besides, with each passing day of changes, there is a good chance of achieving ambition, no matter how grand they may appear. As such, and whether she likes it or not, Mayawati embodies the post-emergency, post-Congress India where ambition, ability, and graft can upset older equations of family and entitlements.

There is another point to be noted even as most commentrators talk of caste politics in the heart-land. BSP’s warlike slogan “Tilak, tarazu aur talwar, inpe maro joote char” that had alienated the Brahmin, Kshatriya and Vaishya voters in the 1990’s has been replaced by the far more inclusive (and “Hindu” as the Organiser pointed out)“Haathi nahin Ganesh hai, Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh hai” for the recent elections. The BSP choice of candidates also shows a comprehensive inclusion of castes and religions, ensuring that no section of the populace would be left out of the final power-pie in Lucknow. Mayawati’s speeches – as well as her crack team of advisers – reflects the same inclusive logic. And it is this inclusionary politics that have paid off! And how! After 14 years of hung assembly, UP has thrown up a clear majority in favour of a single party.

If the voters in Bihar had rejected fragmented politics of caste and creed with the last RJD defeat, UP has followed suit. And that bodes well for years to come.

Intellectuals would talk of the “impossibility of the outsider” in India, or point to the historical paucity of social “revolutions” in favour of “reformations” in the land. But the simple fact is that India makes little long-term space for radical ideologies, preferring to absorb all ideas into a “middle way.” So isn’t it ironic that a “self-made” leader like Mayawati has comprehended that basic voter logic better than the “grand old men” of the BJP and Congress’s political “aristocracy”?

One last point: UP results have been announced in the same week as the French presidential ones, and the results could not be more different. Compare the woman-leader from the humblest beginnings who has fought her way into the corridors of power, Mayawati, to the entitled heir of the Austro-Hungarian nobility with ties to the American corridors of power, Sarkozy. I know that we Indians like to crib about our systems, but after watching the political closed-shop that operates in Western Europe, I would take the internal mobility of India!