Suddenly, less than a fortnight after handsomely conquering political territory in India’s northeast, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi can no longer take a win in 2019 for granted. The next general election is now wide open. Modi is still enormously formidable, but he is no longer invincible.
The latest signs come from Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous and politically significant state. Nine of India’s 15 prime ministers, including Modi, have come from Uttar Pradesh. But this week, Modi’s party sustained a shocking defeat by losing the parliament seat once held by the country’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, as well as the seat most recently occupied by the state’s extremist and saffron-clad Hindu monk, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.
The parliamentary seats of Gorakhpur and Phulpur fell vacant after their strongmen became the chief minister and the deputy chief minister of the state, respectively, in local elections last year. But political survival compelled old foes — Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party and Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party, parties with very distinct social and caste bases — to join hands and take on Modi’s ruling party, the BJP, in these polls.
Their unlikely experiment worked. Suddenly, just like that, new arithmetic dramatically altered the old power equation. Modi did not personally campaign in these polls, but these were prestige battles in the bedrock state of the BJP’s politics. The embarrassment in the party is acute.
Extrapolating from state elections is risky, but here’s what we can forecast: The new fault line of India politics will be caste vs. Hindutva. Caste alliances built by the opposition will challenge the Hindu consolidation of the BJP. If disparate social groups can be brought together as part of a grand coalition (Modi’s personal charisma and the BJP’s election machinery notwithstanding), the outcomes become unpredictable.
But as the opposition gloats over the storming of the BJP’s political citadel, if there is one person that the anti-Modi forces absolutely need on their side if they want a chance at beating Modi, it would be Mayawati. If a caste calculus partially spurred the BJP defeat in the Uttar Pradesh elections, it will likely be such a caste leader as her who holds the key to unlocking more power for the opposition.
Mayawati, or “Behenji” (sister), as the 62-year-old Dalit leader is known, has lately been consigned to the archives of political history. In 2014, her party failed to score a single seat in Uttar Pradesh. By 2017, the four-time chief minister had been out of power in the state for some years. Though she has sometimes been over-romanticized, it’s indisputable that she has politically empowered Dalits, a historically subjugated group pushed to the very bottom of the caste hierarchy.
It is true that many of her decisions have been contentious; she spent millions of dollars to create an alternative iconography with memorials and parks dedicated to Dalit heroes. She has been accused of gross wastefulness and has also been embroiled in corruption cases.
But it is just as true that she has been measured by a harsh double standard dictated by prejudices of caste bias and misogyny. In the plush drawing rooms of Delhi and Bombay, Mayawati has been mocked for how she looks and dresses, for her handbags and for her lack of sophistication. In a country where even posh urban homes still keep a separate kitchen glass for the “impure” Dalit help who mop their toilets and where atrocities against Dalits continue to be a shameful reality, this discourse around Mayawati is unsurprising.
Worst of all, among the grossest comments I have heard about her are endless jokes about how she “looks her caste.” None of this can be dismissed as lighthearted, even if being said casually. Think of the sort of stuff that is said about ordinary African American women in the United States, and you get what I mean. Caste is to India what race is to America. And “Behen” Mayawati is the most enduring symbol of that fissure.
Well, “Behenji,” who has been endlessly scorned for both her caste and gender, is now having the last laugh. The eventful electoral outcomes of Uttar Pradesh prove one thing: With just a nudge and a nod of the head, she can get her loyal base among the Dalits (even during a poor election showing in Uttar Pradesh in 2017, she held to 22 percent of the state’s vote) to transfer their vote to any ally of her choice. It is the reverse that often does not happen. While Mayawati’s ideologically committed caste base follows her lead, other electoral partners have not always managed to transfer their vote base to her candidates.
But after this result in Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati knows that the opposition cannot afford the fragmentation of votes against Modi. The data shows that had Mayawati and Akhilesh combined their vote shares, the BJP would have been defeated. She is critical to that unity, especially in the large swaths of India’s Hindi heartland.
If the opposition doesn’t work hard to keep Mayawati on its side, Modi may well try to lure her to his. Ambition is another word that has often been used disparagingly for Mayawati — as it is for many women in public life. She has never been embarrassed about her ambition; now she may even get to proudly flaunt it in the run-up to 2019. Good for her.