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What BSP's Mayawati can learn from former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi

Mayawati?s fortunes would depend on whether she goes back to the roots to get the grand Bahujan coalition as envisioned by the party founder Kanshi Ram and his message. Photograph: (Twitter)

WION India Apr 26, 2017, 09.18 AM (IST) Ravikiran Shinde


Last week, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) supremo Ms. Mayawati announced that BSP would be contesting the civic polls in Uttar Pradesh for the first time since 1995 on the party’s symbol. This was one of the many decisions taken by Mayawati after getting trounced in the Uttar Pradesh (UP) elections. The week before this, signaling a major change in strategy, she had announced on the birth Anniversary of Dr. B. R. Ambekdar that BSP was willing to form an alliance with any other party to fight BJP. “Jehar ko Jahar se marenge”  — we could stop the poison with poison — she had retorted.     


These are not the only two changes Mayawati has formulated, trying to regain lost ground. Mayawati has inducted her brother Anand Kumar as the new vice president of the party, in place of Nasimuddin Siddique, as the person in-charge of the party in UP. The party leadership is devising a new strategy to deal with new challenges before the BSP movement while asking the party workers to perform with renewed vigour and almost missionary zeal. But as the four-time chief minister sets on a path to do a course correction, she may do very well to remember how Indira Gandhi, first female prime minister of India, regained her momentum after losing the election.


Exactly around forty years ago in May 1977, at Bihar’s Belchi village in the Patna District, Dalits had been massacred by upper castes in one of the most gruesome atrocities. The first non-Congress government had just been sworn in at the Center and former prime minister Indira Gandhi was still reeling under public wrath after subjecting the nation to 18 months of coercive Emergency. But Ms. Gandhi had used the Belchi incident to stage her remarkable comeback into politics. 


This was the time when Indira Gandhi reached the nadir in politics. She had lost a general election in a humiliating manner, her own party men had turned against her and, if this was not enough, a Shah commission was initiated to enquire corruption charges against her with an imminent arrest looming large. But a visit to the victims’ families in the Belchi Village—probably a thoughtfully pre-planned move—changed Indira Gandhi’s fortunes and gave her immense self-confidence and much-needed belief that she could still stage a comeback.


Belchi atrocity that changed the narrative

It was March of 1977 and the Janata party ((JP) had just come to power with immense mandate and expectations. While the Janata party celebrated, Belchi saw 11 Dalits being shot and then burned alive one by one. Yes, in Bihar, from where the JP movement had emanated and spread across the nation that had eventually elevated the Janata Party and it’s allies to power. Apart from winning the Assembly elections in Bihar, the party swept all fifty-four Loksabha seats, and Indira’s Congress had been decimated in its bastion drawing a blank. 


Although the instance of Belchi atrocity had sent shockwaves across the nation, no minister of the newly sworn-in Morarji Desai government at the Center or the Bihar government had shown any sympathy by visiting the victims. Sensing a great opportunity, Indira Gandhi decided to go straight to this remote village to meet the grieving families. 


This move was risky on two counts. First, since Ms. Gandhi was still not forgotten for imposing the Emergency and, thus, would have faced protest from the ruling party workers or people. Secondly, the village being so remote, there was a question mark on the transportation and safety of the former prime minister. But Ms. Gandhi was determined to visit Bihar. Moreover, in July 1977, two months after the Belchi atrocity, a communal flare had resulted in the death of four Muslims in neighboring Bihar sharif village.


Indira Gandhi decided to grab this opportunity with both hands. But reaching Biharsharif was a challenge: monsoon coupled with a lack of road complicated the situation. Undaunted, Ms. Gandhi decided to ride an elephant —probably the only means of transportation available in the flooded areas of Belchi —as she had to abandon the car, Jeep and, certainly, could not walk.


An indefatigable Indira Gandhi, riding an elephant to meet victims’ families proved to be a defining moment. It was a classic resurrection of the messiah of the poor image. Curious villagers and bystanders gathered on the road to garland her and welcome her. After all, she was the only politician who had come a long way to visit the place. Public support, sympathy, and appreciation were the boost that a sulking Indira needed, and her Belchi visit gave her just that. She returned from Belchi a more confident politician. Indira’s biographers have often credited this historic visit as one of the defining moments that triggered her comeback.


Recently, BSP's Mayawati finds herself in a similar position as Ms. Gandhi was decades back: election defeat, corruption charges, questions raised on her style of functioning, among other things.


The recent assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh was the third straight defeat for the party. While the BJP did emerge as the clear winner with a two-third majority, the BSP did not get decimated. The party won over 22 per cent of the votes (3 per cent higher than what it received during 2014 general elections) and emerged as the party with the second largest vote share. Political obituaries of BSP have been written. However, contrary to the perception that only Jatavs were with them, the party was able to hold onto its entire Dalit vote. Without the Dalits, the party would not have crossed the 22 per cent mark, suggesting that all was not lost with the party.


Mayawati is probably mindful of this and trying genuinely to pull all strings to get back into a political relevance. Her diatribe against EVM and persistence in taking the legal route to pressurise both the Election commission (ECI) and the Modi government bore some success. Not only did most opposition parties tow her line, but the party also scored a moral victory when both the ECI and the Modi government had to go on backfoot on the allegation on EVM tampering.  Finance minister Arun Jaitely had to announce that government has approved funds for 16,15,000 VVPAT machines which would be used for 2019 general elections.


One thing is certain that Mayawati was more willing than ever to listen to suggestions. Party leader Ambeth Rajan posted on Facebook immediately after the results asking for suggestions and assuring that they will be intimated to the party supremo. Within a month, Ms. Mayawati gave an indication that she was willing to join rival Samajwadi Party in what she called a fight against EVM rigging and BJP.


SP and BSP may or may not come together as political compulsions leave both parties with little option but Mayawati’s  problem seems to be her refusal to go back to the basics as envisioned by the founder Kanshi Ram.


Sarvjan Party of UP or Bahujan Party of the Country

Social activist Mangesh Dahiwale says, “The  BSP seems to be only focused on UP and this is not healthy for the BSP itself and the people’s movement.


Modi would not visit Deekshabhoomi in Nagpur on 14th April 2017 for fun and inspiration. The opponents know that the era of Ambedkarite movement has arrived and they would like to co-opt it. Without this co-option, they will not survive. The obvious political beneficiary of this awakening will be BSP if, and this is a big if, it really widens its attention and attempt to capture national power. If we have some hindrances in one area, it is wise to widen the catchment area. The catchment area of the BSP is much bigger than the UP”


Mr. Dahiwale is right. The party has been on a constant decline in states like Haryana, Delhi, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. In Maharashtra too the party has been on the decline despite having a strong presence in Vidharbha and Marathwada region.


Former India Today (Hindi) Editor and social media activist Dilip Mandal writes — “Nitish and Laluprasad could understand the importance of Bahujan unity of Dalit-OBC-Muslim and, hence, they could defeat BJP in Bihar. But both SP and BSP advocated covert and overt Sarvjan policy with Brahmins at key positions. BJP too did the same and people liked BJP’s Sarvjan ideology”


Mr. Mandal is hinting at SP’s refusal to discuss any kind of social justice issues in the campaign and BSP’s refusal to include OBCs/MBCs in the Dalit Muslim coalition.


Going back to people

Kanshiram started his movement using a bicycle as the symbol and touring village after village carrying Babasaheb’s message. But since gaining power, Mayawati has avoided going to the Dalit colonies. Very rarely, she has made a cameo of visiting Dalit families, facing atrocities. Her visit to the Una Dalit victims in a Gujarat hospital on August 2016 was one of the key moments as she took on the Modi government's inept handling of Dalit issues.


Prior to that in 2014 Mayawati had visited Badaun in Uttar Pradesh to meet the families of two Dalit girls who were raped and murdered. 


Mayawati has been vocal in castigating the government in the Rajyasabha. After Rohit Vemula and Una Dalit issues, she had led opposition attack on the government, making it extremely uncomfortable for Modi government. But connecting with the people directly would give her the real shot in the arm. For years, especially after becoming the chief minister in 2007, Mayawati had shown reluctance to change her style or substance. But consecutive defeats have made her flexible to accept suggestions and make amends. Her hint to ally with SP may be one of those outcomes.


Her alliance with SP will definitely ensure a grand Dalit-Muslim-OBC-MBC coalition; BJP could be anxiously watching it from the sideline, having tasted defeat at the hands of similar "mahagathbandan" of Lalu Prasad-Nitish Kumar-Congress combine in Bihar. 


Riots caused by the BJP lawmaker Raghav Lakhanpal who deliberately took Dr. Ambedkar Jayanti procession through sensitive areas, attempting to incite Dalit versus Muslim riots could very well be BJP’s plan to prevent a social coalition of BSP-SP in Uttar Pradesh. Alliance or no alliance, Mayawati’s fortunes would depend on whether she goes back to the roots to get the grand Bahujan coalition as envisioned by the party founder Kanshi Ram and his message.


Probably, Mayawati needs a Belchi movement very similar to Indira Gandhi to resurrect her political career. The tremendous support Indira Gandhi received at Belchi gave her enough confidence and ammunition to take on the opponent when she was down. It may be recalled that both Kansai Ram and Mayawati had visited Bulandshahar village where four Dalits had been lynched in 1995


Mayawati needs to reinvent herself with not just one but many Belchi moments across the country for the survival of Bahujan Samaj Party—both as a political force in the form of the third largest party of India and as a party of the have-nots. The sooner the better.

Ravikiran Shinde

Independent writer on socio-political issues in India

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