Prime Minister Narendra Modi may not be used to his political gambits backfiring but this was a big misadventure - the day after he attempted to wean away Mayawati, she shut him down forcefully. Mayawati, the 63-year-old in a historic alliance with Akhilesh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh, rejected the PM's contention that Yadav, 45, and the Congress, which is not a part of their alliance or mahagathbandhan, are conspiring to cheat her by having a tacit deal of their own; she also called on her supporters to vote today for the Congress' candidates in Raebareli and Amethi - party bosses Sonia and Rahul Gandhi.
Mayawati said the PM's professions were old-school machinations to force a wedge between her and Akhilesh Yadav triggered by his understanding that he's behind after four rounds of voting across Uttar Pradesh - and she just isn't buying.
Not known at the best of times for quiet reserve, Mayawati was incensed by Modi's portrayal of her as an unwitting victim of a Congress-Yadav conspiracy. So what the PM in fact accomplished is what the Congress was desperate for: a truce with Mayawati after its leader in Guna, Jyotiraditya Scindia, poached her candidate, earning her wrath, of which there is no mean supply. Mayawati retaliated by threatening to end her support to the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh; Akhilesh Yadav said he would back her.
So how has the Congress managed its new sweet spot with Mayawati? She does not give interviews so I spoke to senior leaders from the Congress, her Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Akhilesh Yadav's Samajwadi Party (SP) to get a sense of the power play guiding this most tempestuous leader in Indian politics.
This is what I got. First and foremost, Mayawati was livid at Modi's portrayal of her as a "bechari" (poor thing) being gypped by other political leaders around her. "Behen-ji's entire appeal to the Bahujan Samaj and our voters is that she is a powerful figure able to secure Dalit rights. Her image is that of a strong leader who does not compromise and who ensures that the BSP always gets its due. Modi made a mistake with his approach by trying to disempower Behen-ji and portraying her as a (mere) woman unable to understand complex politics. For her, a four-term UP Chief Minister, this was a huge insult. And Mayawati gave it back with interest by calling the BJP losers".
Secondly, today is a critical day of voting in eastern UP where 14 seats in this most crucial state will be decided. Mayawati had to publicly ensure that the anti-BJP bloc punched together; hence, the very public snub to Modi.
Thirdly, Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav are well aware that the BJP is desperate to convince UP voters that the mahagathbandhan is wobbly. Says a senior SP leader, "We know what they are up to, they want to portray Behen-ji as the weak link of the gathbandhan open to pressure and ambition. You will be surprised to know that Behen-ji suggested holding a joint meeting for Dimple Yadav (Akhilesh's wife) and her in Kannauj. The Yadav couple was thrilled and then Dimple Yadav touched her feet and Behen-ji blessed her as her own bahu (daughter-in-law). Please understand the message of the picture to our cadre and voters. Years of bitterness between the Yadavs and Dalits in caste-obsessed UP softened perceptibly. Our cadres are working as one and that is bothering the BJP," said a senior SP leader.
Earlier, Mayawati sharing the stage with Akhilesh's father and her bête noire Mulayam Singh Yadav while campaigning for him in his constituency of Mainpuri, their first appearance together in two decades, also went viral. The medium was the message and the cadres of both the parties avidly took note.
Fourth, the crackling chemistry between Mayawati and Yadav Junior has surprised leaders of both the parties and evoked huge interest from the Congress. Yadav walks the extra mile to ensure that Mayawati always feels like the respected senior partner and defers to her political calls such as dialling up the attack on the Congress, with whom she has a deeply fractious relationship.
In turn, Mayawati seems to like Akhilesh Yadav beyond purely transactional politics, one of her trademarks. She told Mulayam Singh that he has brought up his son well whom she described as soothing like Tiger Balm.
All these pleasantries between the regional heavyweights in the final overs of Uttar Pradesh are upsetting the BJP. Earlier, its Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath tried to mock the alliance as that of "Bua and Babua" in which the nephew was being fooled. Now, Modi says that the nephew is fooling the aunt.
Reacting to Mayawati's public threat to pull the plug on his government, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Kamal Nath said all issues would be sorted out. And the Congressman and smoothest operator of Indian politics did a huge private outreach to both Mayawati and Yadav. Profuse apologies were made, miscommunication and the BJP declared the villain and future promises were made.
Kamal Nath was earlier Mayawati's main interlocutor in the Congress but this time around, he got another very senior congress leader to call her and patch up. Yadav also told her that they had to first win and then sort out the equation with the Congress.
Finally, and significantly, the Congress has stopped talking about the next Uttar Pradesh assembly election which was an irritant to both the SP and BSP. The Congress has made public overtures with both Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi saying that despite fielding candidates across the state, they want to help the alliance by splitting the votes of the BJP. A senior BSP leader says "their public statements were very clumsily worded but that happens when you talk off the cuff. Our leader prefers to read out things so that no one can misinterpret."
Good lesson for the Congress. Meanwhile, Yadav provided more healing by saying that the next PM would be a woman and from the mahagathbandhan, an open endorsement for his ally whose ambition to hold the country's top job is well-known.
For now, anyway, the opposition has Mayawati in its corner. Not something it can always count on.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.