She’s a player who plays by her own rules

There’s a story, most likely apocryphal, relating to Mayawati’s visit to a posh beauty parlour at a five-star hotel.

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There’s a story, most likely apocryphal, relating to Mayawati’s visit to a posh beauty parlour at a five-star hotel. There, the Bahujan Samaj Party boss spied a glamorous politician’s wife having her weekly pedicure. Mayawati is said to have turned to the hair-dresser attending to her: “Mujhe aise hi latein chahiye (I want my hair to look like those).”

The story, when I heard it sometime in the mid nineties, was accompanied by much tittering in that particular Delhi drawing room. But the subtext was clear: the one-time school teacher daughter of a lowly clerk might have made her mark on the Uttar Pradesh scene but as far as New Delhi was concerned she was still an arriviste.

Judging from some of the recent comments made about the possibility of a non-Congress, non-BJP government, the hostility hasn’t changed even though it might have taken more subtle contours. The shiny salwar-kameez, the sensible Liberty chappals worn with skin coloured-toe divided socks and even the gaudy jewellery might lack both the Fab India chic of a Brinda Karat and the muted understatement of a Sonia Gandhi but behind the sniping there is also a grudging recognition that in the
corridors of power Mayawati matters. You can sneer at her hair-cut, but you can no longer dare to be condescending.

What is it about Mayawati that attracts such visceral hatred? The litany of complaints against her reads like a facsimile against many of India’s top political leaders: she is corrupt (but so are many of her political opponents), she plays caste politics (don’t the others?), she changes allies frequently, (so does chief foe, Mulayam Singh Yadav and many of the Third Front constituents), she is unethical, unscrupulous, crude, vengeful and autocratic. And oh, we don’t like her diamonds and we hate her creamy birthday cake.

What Mayawati does have going for her is that she is unique; a player who plays by her own rules and who shuns the cosy members-only power elite that New Delhi is familiar with. Unlike most women in the subcontinent’s politics, she lacks lineage and her rise from the jhuggis of Inderpuri goes against the grain. While others mouth platitudes about being in politics to serve the people, she is quite clear that she wants to be prime minister; political power is the only way to eradicate centuries of Dalit oppression and prejudice. For the middle class her birthday is an exercise in excess, for her and her followers it is ‘Swabhiman Diwas’ a day for Dalits to celebrate. As noted Dalit writer Chandra Bhan Prasad says: “Her wealth and its display is a mark of pride for Dalits all over India.”

Drawing room India clucks in disapproval over her assets (by her own estimates, Rs 52 crore). There is a pursing of lips about her manic statue-building spree all over Uttar Pradesh (‘what a waste’, ‘build schools instead’ etc) but for Mayawati these are symbols of pride and assertion. Ultimately, drawing room India hates Mayawati because she is not one of them and, worse, she isn’t really seeking approval ratings from them. Her vote bank seems secure. For centuries, Dalits have lived off the crumbs of the table. Now she is having her cake and eating it too.

(Namita Bhandare is a columnist and a co-author of Madhavrao Scindia: A Life)