A Mayawati rally in Uttar Pradesh last year
Pawati village in the Chandpur Vidhan Sabha seat, Bijnor district, was an unexpected but pleasant locale to draw lessons on how the media ought to cover the ongoing elections of Uttar Pradesh. Here, Preetam Singh, a Jat farmer, accused the media of being “pro-Akhilesh Yadav” (the chief minister and Samajwadi Party president) and “pro-Narendra Modi” (Prime Minister) and “unfair” to Mayawati, the president of the Bahujan Samaj Party. Singh’s words were, “The media has advertised and built up Akhilesh as a celebrity youth. Is being young necessarily a virtue in itself? UP had much older chief ministers who did better work than Akhilesh. It’s a chief minister’s work that matter and not his age. Again, according to the media, Modi is the smartest PM India has had. Have you people forgotten Indira Gandhi and Chaudhary Charan Singh?”
Singh, 50, blamed Akhilesh Yadav for raising the procurement price of sugarcane, a staple for him and most farmers in the Bijnor district, by a “paltry” Rs 25 in his five-year tenure and “ignoring” a directive issued to the state government by the Allahabad High Court in September 2014 to clear the entire backlog of payments that the sugar cooperatives and the private mills owed the farmers in 14 days. “The payments came in small tranches and that too, four months ago,” he complained, recalling that farmers like him had got the best ever procurement price when Mayawati was the chief minister between 2007-12. It is assumed that Mayawati has never reached out to social groupings beyond the Dalits and her own sub-caste, Jatavs at that—except for a rainbow coalition that the BSP had stitched up with the Brahmins, Muslims and certain backward castes in 2007—but here was a Jat fondly remembering her regime. Historically, the Jats have been antagonistic towards the Dalits.
Largely ignored by the media, TV and print, until quite recently, Mayawati’s voters are speaking up at last. Travelling through UP’s western region, it was evident that the BSP is in the fight in the rural seats in varying degrees. In Chandpur, across caste lines, people said the fight was evenly poised between Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal and the BSP.
In Lakhnoor village, Rampur Maniharan Vidhan Sabha (Saharanpur district), the dominant Ror community, a backward caste that traced its lineage to the Suryavanshi Rajputs, rooted for the BSP for two reasons: Mayawati’s “effective” law and order management and thepopularity of the BSP’s candidate, Ravinder Kumar Molhu. Molhu is the incumbent MLA and was commended for being “accessible at all times”. Rampur Maniharan is a reserved constituency but the Rors chose the BSP over the other contenders, the SP and the BJP, because they had no issues with the party despite the complaint that the Dalits, who tilled and worked their farms, “acquired an attitude” when Mayawati ruled.
The BSP has become a talking point even in an urban seat like Moradabad and its neighbour, Moradabad (rural). The Brahmins , sensing that the Bania traders and brassware suppliers had turned against the BJP because of the “adverse” fallouts of demonetisation, were beginning to warm up to Mayawati and not Akhilesh because they said they were “fed up” with the “bad” state of law and order under the present government. “The BSP is the preferred option because Mayawati’s a good administrator. She has to control the Dalits who get arrogant when she’s in power, otherwise there’s no issue. The chapter on the statues and memorials she built is forgotten by us,” a Brahmin manager in a brassware company said.
Indeed, anecdotal evidence suggests that the upper castes, who voted their hearts out for the BJP in the last Lok Sabha polls, were set to scatter their votes among the BSP, BJP and the SP, in that order rather than assemble them tactically behind a single party.
Why then did the rash of the “opinion surveys” that erupted in January this year unexceptionally position the BSP at a poor third, with a double digit tally, barring the ABP-CSDS-Lokniti? Consider the findings: the India Today-Axis survey on January 31 placed the BJP at first number with a projected tally of 180-191 (34.8 vote percent), the SP-Congress at second place (168-178 seats and a 33.2 vote percent) and the BSP at a distant third (39-43 seats, 20.1 vote percent). The Week Hansa Research, whose survey was published on January 27, ranked the parties similarly: the BJP (192-196 with a vote share of 30.2 percent), SP-Congress (178-182 seats, combined vote share of 30.7 percent) and the BSP (20-24, 24.2 percent). The ABP-CSDS-Lokniti “survey”, done on January 17, gave the SP-Congress the number one place (154-170 seats), the BJP second (129-139) and the BSP third (93-103). By January 30, ABP-CSDS-Lokniti revised its projection, scaling up the SP-Congress’s seats (187-197) and bringing down to those of the BJP (118-128) and the BSP (76-86).
The assessments—or more to the point, guesstimates—were predicated on two factors: Mayawati’s electioneering was way behind that of the SP and the BJP and secondly, she had not transcended her Dalit base and even here, the non-Jatav Dalits (Khatiks, Valmikis, Raidas, Passis etc) were sticking to the BJP as they did in the 2014 polls. True, even sections of the Jatavs had crossed over to the BJP in the Lok Sabha election as did blocks of Yadavs, who are allied with the SP. But that factor does not hold good in these elections.
A piece by Ramendra Singh, “Waiting, watching: Why Mayawati is first off the block” (Indian Express, January 22) was a pioneering effort in disabusing the belief about Mayawati’s anonymity. The report detailed that far from being withdrawn, she was the first off the mark on various counts. Singh wrote, “In the battle for Uttar Pradesh, where she drew a blank in the 2014 elections, there is a new Mayawati at play. The 61-year-old is visible in large newspaper advertisements, on TV and social media, in campaigns helmed by Bollywood artistes, in now-regular press conferences, and in the changed, unambiguous vote calculations forged by her party.”
Singh pointed out that the BSP was the first with drawing up its candidates’ lists and “changing its message on the trot as demonetisation hit”.
In a cover story for Caravan “The Mission: Inside Mayawati’s Battle for Uttar Pradesh”, Neha Dixit rightly emphasised that there was no way the BSP leader could sit back and relax because “Mayawati has more at stake in the 2017 Uttar Pradesh assembly election than she had in any poll she has contested before. The BSP’s loss in the 2012 assembly election to Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party, and its abysmal performance in 2014, have seen its political fortunes dip to a perilous low compared to the 2000s, when Mayawati served as chief minister and was viewed as a strong contender for the post of Prime Minister.”
A principal reason why the media generally gives Mayawati a wide berth is because her equation with it has been indifferent. The BSP has a “war room” in Lucknow although it is not designated as such. While the “war rooms” of the BJP and the SP have drawn disproportionate attention, the BSP’s nerve centre, that ticks away in a bungalow located at the far end of Lucknow’s Gomti Nagar, is unknown to most journalists in the state capital. They do not seek out Mayawati and she does not court them, though lately it seems she has begun joking with them in the press conferences she calls regularly. Typically Mayawati will not let questions disrupt her monologues.
Until end-January, Mayawati’s public meetings merited no coverage on TV or in print. Only her press conferences were shown live to buttress the point that her campaigning was “confined” to press meetings and she was not venturing out in the field.
Typically, Mayawati’s electioneering gathers momentum closer to the date of polling because as a tactic, she does not want to exhaust herself prematurely and “saturate” her presence. But her matter-of-fact speeches, bordering on the staid, in fact punch the opponent more effectively than Modi’s. The contrast came through in the public meetings Modi and Mayawati had addressed on February 15. She spoke at Rae Bareli, Sonia Gandhi’s Lok Sabha constituency and indeed a Nehru-Gandhi borough while Modi held forth in Kannauj, the Lok Sabha seat of Dimple, Akhilesh Yadav’s wife. Mayawati attacked the SP-Congress alliance, castigated Akhilesh for his “poor” law and order management and subtly reminded voters of her own record in governance. On the other hand, Modi reeled off the string of successes the BJP recently posted in the civic and “panchayat” elections, held in Chandigarh, Maharashtra and Odisha that evidently did not resonate with the crowd in Avadh.
When the votes are counted, the BSP could likely spring a surprise. But if journalists crow over it with a “but we had already said Mayawati will be doing well”, as some are wont to, the claim should be taken with a bagful of salt.