Prejudice cast aside in vote for 'untouchable'

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 May, 2007, 12:00am

One of the country's most formidable politicians has pulled off a feat in Indian politics - persuading high-caste voters to support her, a low-caste woman.

This has never happened before in the caste-ridden feudal state of Uttar Pradesh, northern India. Since the dawn of democracy, where possible, upper castes have voted for upper-caste candidates and Dalits - earlier known as untouchables - have voted for Dalits.

Mayawati is India's most well-known Dalit, her face instantly recognisable.

In 1995, she made history by becoming the country's first Dalit chief minister when she won the election in Uttar Pradesh.

This state is like no other. With a population of 174 million, it would be the world's sixth-most populous nation if it were a country.

There are so many voters - 114 million - that polling had to be staggered over seven different days.

Indians always watch Uttar Pradesh elections closely because they are a key political barometer, indicating which way the wind is blowing for the 2009 general election and revealing new trends.

The early results indicate that Ms Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) which champions the low castes is sweeping the polls and emerging as the largest single party, with close to 200 seats of a possible 403.

Ms Mayawati's arch-rival Mulayam Singh Yadav, the present chief minister, conceded defeat on Saturday and resigned.

Once again Ms Mayawati will rule Uttar Pradesh, yet another achievement for the daughter of a humble telecom worker who has overcome the double disadvantage of being a Dalit and a woman.

Unlike many women politicians in South Asia who enter politics following the assassination of their male relatives and then live off their legacies, Ms Mayawati - known as behenji, or sister - has accomplished it on her own.

'She had no background in politics, no influential friends, no money, no backing. It's been sheer strength of will and nothing else. She used to canvass for votes on a bicycle the first time she stood for election,' said Dilip Sharma, politics professor at Lucknow University.

Her second achievement was being elected chief minister three times, shocking the political establishment and the elite. Never having seen a Dalit in such a position of power before, snobs and opponents sniggered at her inability to speak English fluently, her nylon outfits and her oily plait, which was later cut off.

But for India's 174 million Dalits, Ms Mayawati is a goddess who promises a life of dignity after centuries of dehumanisation by the upper castes.

Her strongest point - her unwavering Dalit support - has also been her weakness, though, because it has meant that the upper castes detest her.

Ms Mayawati did not help matters by breathing fire against Brahmins a few years ago, urging supporters to 'beat them with shoes'.

Nor did her personal style endear her to the upper castes or the media.

She was imperious and overbearing as chief minister. She sat on thrones, wore shining crowns, accepted gifts and garlands and indulged in considerable self-aggrandisement.

With journalists she is belligerent on the rare occasions that she agrees to any contact. She has never been seen in a television studio.

Despite all this she has notched up, in this election, a third achievement by broadening her base and winning upper-caste votes.

'She realised that with only Dalit support, she would struggle to win enough votes to form a government this time. For the past two years she has been building bridges with them. Luckily for her they were sick of Mulayam Singh Yadav,' said New Delhi analyst Inder Malhotra.

Mr Yadav's reign has been marked by a descent into poverty and lawlessness.

Uttar Pradesh has become a basket case, almost as scary as its neighbour Bihar, which is a byword for medieval backwardness.

Ms Mayawati exploited upper-caste discontent by giving an unprecedented 86 tickets to Brahmins in this election.

Brahmins realised that the only way to defeat Mr Yadav was to vote for Ms Mayawati because the other main parties - the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress - were far too weak to defeat him.

'Mayawati gave Brahmins the most number of tickets in this election. She's showing us that she is now prepared to co-operate with us, so it's our duty to give her a chance,' said Alok Tripathi, a Brahmin school teacher in Lucknow.

Dalits and Brahmins live in hermetically sealed compartments, with many Brahmins refusing to eat food cooked by a Dalit. And yet they have joined hands with Dalits to vote for a Dalit woman whose mother would not at one time have been allowed inside their homes because of her 'polluting' effect.

Ms Mayawati has run a tight ship where her party is concerned. The party ran like a well-oiled machine during the election.

Even the local constabulary, on duty to enforce order, were impressed with her uniformed party workers.

At every BSP rally, men in white shirts and black trousers, and women in dark blue saris kept the vast crowds standing under a blistering sun in order.

What is interesting is that Dalits do not feel betrayed by her wooing of the upper castes. In fact, many seem thrilled at the BSP acquiring a wider-caste constituency.

'It gives me pride that Brahmins are voting for my leader. It will be good for us to be known as a good party for all people in the state rather than just a Dalit party,' said grinning BSP worker Kanshi Ranaj, before grabbing a box of sweets being handed out by ecstatic workers dancing outside party headquarters.