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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 18, Dated May 10, 2008
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book extract

‘A miracle of democracy’

This is how then Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao described the elevation of Mayawati as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh in 1995. The first Dalit to ever head a state government, Mayawati has defied much punditry forecasting her political demise to return as Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister last year with a landslide win. Journalist-writer Ajoy Bose’s comprehensive biography of the 52-year-old leader, Behenji, set for release next week, chronicles her dramatic life. TEHELKA presents exclusive excerpts on the two men who most impacted her life.

SIGNIFICANTLY, THE person whom she loved and respected most as a child was not her father, Prabhu Das, with whom she had a troubled relationship. It was her paternal grandfather Mangal Sen, a former sepoy of the British army who had seen action in Italy during the First World War. Mayawati was her grandfather’s favourite, and he made her feel special and wanted. She also admired his wisdom, lofty principles and lack of prejudice. ‘He was so principled and progressive that the entire village respected him for his views and came to ask for his advice. Often he was the one who resolved disputes in the village,’ recalls Mayawati in her autobiography.

She recounts with obvious admiration that her grandfather refused to remarry despite losing his wife when his son, Prabhu Das, who only six months old. Ignoring the advice of his friends and relatives to marry again, he single-handedly brought up his son. In sharp contrast, Mayawati is openly contemptuous of her own father who was inclined to listen to his relatives and friends when they advised him to acquire a second wife when his wife, Ramrati, produced three daughters in succession.They told him that as the only son of his father it was his duty to have sons who would continue the family name. Many years later Mayawati recalled the sadness and humiliation caused to her mother by her father’s desperation for male progeny.

It was Mangal Sen who put his foot down, forbidding his son from marrying again. ‘My grandfather said that granddaughters were perfectly capable of continuing the family heritage. He said that if girls are given a good education they can be as capable if not better than sons,’ writes Mayawati.

Eventually, a few years later, her mother produced sons with such a vengeance that she gave birth to six in a row. Prabhu Das was overjoyed and boasted about being the father of so many sons. His bias towards his sons was so evident, Mayawati recalls, that his daughters were sent to low-performing government schools for a free education, while the family’s small income was spent on educating the boys at private schools and on extra tuition when needed. ‘My father was convinced that his sons were his future and therefore needed special grooming. Even though I was the best student in the family, my father did not spend any money on my education.’

Fate provided Mayawati with her revenge in 1993. Her political standing increased sharply once the BSP joined hands with the Samajwadi Party to form the government in Uttar Pradesh. While Mulayam Singh Yadav became state chief minister, Mayawati, the BSP’s point person in Uttar Pradesh, closely supervising her party’s interests in the state, earned the sobriquet ‘super chief minister’. Prabhu Das was besieged in his ancestral Badalpur village by friends, relatives and village elders asking for special favours now that his daughter had become such a VVIP.

When her father came to Lucknow to urge Mayawati to announce some special schemes for Badalpur she could not help but taunt him, ‘But I thought it was your sons who were going to carry forward the family name! Why don’t you ask one of them to construct colleges, hospitals and roads in your village?’

It was after nine on a winter night in 1977. Mayawati settled down after dinner with her pile of books to study for the IAS entrance examinations. It was a nightly ritual for the twenty-one-year-old schoolteacher who was enrolled in the first year of the LL.B course in Delhi University. Her parents and other siblings were preparing to retire for the night. But Mayawati would study till after midnight. She was determined to leap over the daunting hurdle of the IAS exams and become a district collector.

Suddenly there was a loud knock on the door of their house. It was an unusual interruption because relatives and friends rarely dropped by so late at night. When Mayawati opened the door, she found, much to her surprise, a BAMCEF leader whom she recognised from previous Dalit public meetings. A balding middle-aged man wearing crumpled clothes and a muffler round his neck accompanied him. It was her first encounter with Kanshi Ram.

Mayawati and her family were thrilled by this unexpected visit. Kanshi Ram was already a respected name with the urban Dalit community across the country.

The Dalit leader came straight to the point. Ignoring Prabhu Das, he spoke directly to Mayawati. Pointing at the pile of books scattered around her table, Kanshi Ram asked, ‘You seem to be busy studying a lot of books! What is it you want to become after so much study?’

Pleased at this attention from such a senior Dalit leader, Mayawati announced somewhat piously, ‘I am studying to pass the IAS exams and become a collector so that I can serve my community properly.’ Her father also piped up, starting to boast how he had been grooming his daughter to become a big officer so that she could be a pride to the Dalit community.

But Kanshi Ram waved Prabhu Das aside. Once again he addressed Mayawati directly. ‘I think you are making a big mistake,’ he declared.

And then Kanshi Ram said something that sent an electric charge through Mayawati and completely floored her father.

‘Your courage, dedication to the Dalit cause and many other sterling qualities has come to my notice. I can make you such a big leader one day that not one but a whole row of collectors will line up with files in front of you waiting for orders. You can then truly serve the community and get things done,’ the Dalit leader predicted

That evening Kanshi Ram spent over an hour with Mayawati at her house discussing various social and political issues. Not surprisingly, the conversation focused on the exploitation and discrimination suffered by Dalits through history and also about those leaders and movements that fought back. They agreed that mainstream political parties were dominated by upper caste and collaborated in their domination of Dalits and other oppressed communities. Both lamented the collapse of the Dalit movement after the death of Baba Ambedkar and Mayawati nodded vigorously in agreement as Kanshi Ram expounded his theory about the bahujan samaj and the need for a rainbow coalition of the oppressed to fight the establishment more effectively.

Mayawati’s entire world had been turned upside down in just one hour. All of a sudden her earlier mission in life had evaporated. The words of Kanshi Ram echoed inside her head long after he had left the house. She saw the logic of what he said about the limited role of a government officer in a society where political parties and leaders called the shots. But was she capable of living up to his great expectations?

It was certainly the defining moment of Mayawati’s life and career. So far, her father had guided her on the well-trodden path to success. This was the first time she was being asked to take a risk by abandoning the certainties of a career in administrative service. Despite her innate pragmatism, there was something in Kanshi Ram’s vision that made Mayawati feel like throwing caution to the winds. Part of the temptation to believe the Dalit leader no doubt lay in his adulatory remarks about her. He made her feel much bigger than she had ever felt before. But there was also the irresistible tug of the brave new world of political adventure that could never be matched by the safe enclosure of government service bound by rules and regulations.

The growing displeasure of Prabhu Das at his daughter’s obsession with Kanshi Ram and his politics was understandable. Independent Dalit politics did not seem to have much of a future in the late seventies and early eighties.

At first he tried to persuade Mayawati to give up her obsession with political activism. When this failed, he suggested that if she was indeed determined to become a politician, she should at least join an established party like the Congress that had adequate resources and a national profile. ‘You won’t even become a local municipal corporator if you hang around losers like Kanshi Ram,’ Prabhu Das taunted his daughter.

Her father’s hostility towards Kanshi Ram and his jeers about her lack of political prospects only served to put Mayawati’s back up. ‘Either you stop meeting Kanshi Ram, give up this silly politics and start preparing again for the IAS exam, or else leave my house immediately,’ he shouted.

Having taken the plunge in the heat of the moment, Mayawati had no idea what to do next. She had been unable to consult Kanshi Ram as he was out of town on tour. In desperation, she took shelter in the BAMCEF office in Karol Bagh, not very far from her father’s Inderpuri house. Fortunately, Kanshi Ram was back soon. Mayawati told him about her dramatic decision to abandon her home for him and his politics. She said that she had decided to dedicate her life to the movement.

In fact,in her autobiography Mayawati admits that there were widespread rumours among fellow activists after she left her father’s house and moved into the room Kanshi Ram had hired. Finally after the insinuations got really offensive, Mayawati writes, she went to Kanshi Ram one day and told him that it would be better if with her accumulated salary she bought an independent room (no landlord in any lower middle class Delhi colony would have dreamt renting out a room to an unmarried girl).

There was also huge pressure on Kanshi Ram. He was blamed by Mayawati’s rivals for showing her undue favour as she became more and more prominent in the movement, superseding older and more senior colleagues. Indeed, till a brain stroke completely crippled the Dalit leader in 2003, many politicians and journalists were convinced that her main asset was an older man’s weakness for a much younger woman. That is why there was a widespread impression after Kanshi Ram’s stroke that this also spelled the end of Mayawati who was seen as merely his creature. It is only after the BSP continued to prosper in leaps and bounds under her stewardship, even improving when Kanshi Ram was totally incapacitated, was there a grudging acceptance in political and media circles about Mayawati’s own abilities.

Both were extremely touchy about any suggestion of a physical relationship. Mayawati vehemently reiterated on more than one occasion that Kanshi Ram was like an elder brother or even father figure to her and that the insinuations about them were despicable. He, too, was infuriated by journalists, many of them undoubtedly motivated by upper caste antagonism, who baited him on the subject of Mayawati.

Nevertheless, there was no denying the strong personal chemistry between Kanshi Ram and Mayawati, vouched for by all those who came in contact with them. And as is often the case, it was the intensity of their quarrels that often underlined the emotional bond. The bickering, according to old associates, sometimes turned so explosive that those within earshot trembled. Kanshi Ram’s hot temper, blunt language and propensity to use his hands when provoked, were legendary. Mayawati, too, was no pushover. She gave as good as she got, never shy of using the choicest expletives. From all accounts it was the lady who usually won the argument.

More than anything else, Mayawati was extraordinarily possessive about Kanshi Ram. She felt threatened by anyone who got too close to him. There were innumerable people he brought into the party who ultimately had to leave because she hounded them out. Although Kanshi Ram from the very start held Mayawati very high in his esteem and made no secret of his admiration, strangely enough she remained insecure about him for a very long time, in fact until she finally established complete control over the organisation. Old associates recall how when Kanshi Ram would be sitting in the living room of his house speaking to a visitor, Mayawati would find an excuse to come into the room virtually every five minutes.

The two were quite different in temperament. Kanshi Ram was highly sociable, loved to chat with politicians and journalists, and trusted people with whom he shared ideas and beliefs. Mayawati, on the other hand, was an introvert who felt political chit-chat was a waste of time. She was also distrustful of virtually everybody in Kanshi Ram’s circle of contacts, friends and acquaintances. She spent enormous effort and time to find out whom he met and what they discussed. Later, if he did not tell her about the meeting or discussion, Mayawati would surprise him with the details and quarrel with him for keeping her in the dark.

Excerpted with the permission of Penguin Books India

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 18, Dated May 10, 2008

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