Sonia Gandhi has been completely unable to stem the Mayawati tide, being swamped in Uttar Pradesh and driven out by parallel currents in states like Gujarat. She has now thrown Rahul Gandhi into this churn. His visit to a Dalit home on Mayawati's base was a direct challenge. This by itself is unexceptional. But after over four years of power, and single-point leadership, the Congress can no longer distinguish between an adversary and an enemy.
The good news for the Sonia Gandhi Congress is that Rahul Gandhi is finally beginning to irritate someone. The bad news is that he has irritated Mayawati, the increasingly iconic leader of India's Dalits.
Mayawati has achieved something unprecedented in the Dalit experience. She has come to power on her own terms. Her mentor, Kanshi Ram, indisputably paved the way, but in historical terms, he was only the herald of this extraordinary seismic shift in the demographics of Indian politics. Someone still had to deliver on the prophecy. Mayawati has both outpaced her mentor and risen to a higher trajectory: to push the metaphor, she has travelled both horizontally and vertically on the same momentum, which is quite unique political yoga. To claim power is a dream. To achieve it is to rewrite history. And to do so on your own terms is a glittering embellishment to an already impressive chapter.
The clash between Congress and Mayawati was perhaps inevitable, since both claim the same electoral turf. Sonia Gandhi has been completely unable to stem the Mayawati tide, being swamped in Uttar Pradesh and driven out by parallel currents in states like Gujarat. She has now thrown Rahul Gandhi into this churn. His visit to a Dalit home on Mayawati's base was a direct challenge. This by itself is unexceptional. But after over four years of power, and single-point leadership, the Congress can no longer distinguish between an adversary and an enemy. It has created a sub-culture of us-versus-them, and secret hit lists, giving a bitter edge to the normal tensions of political life. One can see the vapour rising in language, and the rancour rising in body language.
Rahul Gandhi has begun the Congress campaign for the next general election, and opted for a personal variation of what might be called the Indira Gandhi model. This was best exemplified by a decision Mrs Gandhi made during the bleak years of Janata Party rule, after the end of the Emergency in 1977 and the defeat of the Congress in that year's election. An incident took place in a remote village in Bihar, where Dalits were victims of upper caste hostility and violence. Mrs Gandhi decided to go there, and when no other means of transport was available for the last mile, she got on to an elephant. That gesture was the alchemy that transformed the fortunes of a depressed and divided Congress. A second incident, during which she squatted down and offered arrest when the Janata began to pursue her with expected, but unacceptable, animosity, offered an equally dramatic image to photographers. This is the parallel that Rahul Gandhi seeks to draw when he turns up "unexpectedly" in tribal homes in Orissa, or a Dalit village in Uttar Pradesh; or when Mrs Sonia Gandhi gallantly offers to send her son and heir to jail for a day or two to prove his heroic credentials in the struggle against Mayawati. But there are significant differences between 1978 and 2008.
To begin with, in 1978, Indira Gandhi was the only leader and Congress the only party that identified itself with the Dalit cause. The Janata government was a coalition of middle and upper caste power-brokers that paid occasional lip service to the Dalits, but not much more. The Janata lost a glorious opportunity to shift the demographic and political equations of the country when it refused to make the pre-eminent Dalit leader of the time, Babu Jagjivan Ram, Prime Minister after the elections and chose the anaemic Morarji Desai instead.
In 2008, Mayawati is the lodestar of the Dalits, the Indira Gandhi of her community. Nor is she a Brahmin with sympathy for the downtrodden; she is a Dalit herself, part of the poverty and the humiliation of thousands of years, with a ferocious sense of identity with her people. Jagjivan Ram sought change through conciliation; Mayawati seeks change through confrontation. Dalits feel empowered now; they felt helpless when Indira Gandhi was on her way to Bihar. 1978 was the season of bitter fruit; 2008 is the season of long-denied apples.
Mayawati's response to Rahul Gandhi's politicking is an indication of the new ferocity. Rahul Gandhi wants votes for himself; Mayawati wants a new horizon for herself and her community. When she invoked the images of soap and incense, and charged that the likes of Rahul Gandhi privately purified themselves after publicly associating with Dalits, she was arousing passions around the two great crimes against Dalits, poverty and untouchability. She was also hinting at a third crime, a modern one, induced by democracy — of hypocrisy. This was not a speech put together by some extra-clever boys around a computer; she etched those images into the speech herself. By throwing "foreign" into the mix, she raised the ante to the foreign origins of Sonia Gandhi and the international lifestyle of Rahul Gandhi. Mayawati's message was carried by television and print across India.
The genteel might not consider Mayawati very gentle but the genteel are heavily outnumbered in Indian democracy. A friend watched this speech in his office, in the company of his colleagues. When an executive expressed his disapproval, a bearer said simply, "This is what has made Mayawati chief minister, and this is what will make her Prime Minister".
I would change "will" to "could" but otherwise the statement stands on merit.
What the Congress leadership does not understand is that dynasty cannot offer itself as an alternative to a genuine mass leader. The old Congress won the sympathy of Dalits because it encouraged Dalit leaders to rise in the party; today, only the dynasty has the right to represent every community in the country. Doesn't work in a maturing democracy.
The 5 April issue of the Economist makes the perceptive point that democracy does not necessarily throw up clean results: "...of 21 countries which have elected new governments in the past four months, the result of the vote itself was less than decisive in at least six. The number seems to be rising".
This pattern came into play in India after 1989, when Vishwanath Pratap Singh formed a minority government after an indecisive result. There has been no majority government in 18 years through five general elections. Government are now formed by post-poll rather than pre-poll alliances. The need for a stable government, or perhaps any government at all, trumps other differences. Numbers determine the level of power a leader exercises within a coalition. In Germany, Angela Merkel became Chancellor at the head of a grand coalition between long-standing adversaries because she got one seat more than her opponents. The power of one has rarely been higher. Such a syndrome in India opens the field for Mayawati, as well as others.
The Congress is desperately hoping that Mayawati fails, or collapses. Its wish has some probability on its side. Against such a probability, Mayawati is bolstered by a possibility.
Mayawati is not the pretty or handsome heir of a stagnant dynasty. She is monarch of a kingdom she has won on the field of battle. She believes that her kingdom can expand into an empire. This may happen; it may not. But remember this: a democracy encourages flexible, fluid boundaries. Some things are probable, but everything is possible.
This Maya is no illusion.