Was it drama, ideological fight or a clash of cultures? What was it that created such a sensation and so many media headlines? Both are feisty politicians with very strong heads on their shoulders. Both are stubborn. Both are extremely successful. Mayawati, the five-time Chief Minister of UP, assumed the mantle at a very tender political age of 35 years. Smriti Irani became a cabinet minister at 38, reason for much heart burn in her own party. Even before she entered politics she was a national icon for many middle class bahus and brides-to-be.
The battle of these two extremely ambitious women was the talk of town this week when they clashed with each other in parliament. Mayawati started the assault. The BJP had planned to hijack the agenda of the house with the JNU issue when Mayawati ambushed it with her Dalit agenda. She raised the issue of Rohith Vemula and thundered that "ever since the BJP has come to power, it has tried to impose the RSS ideology". Her MPs chanted - "Dalit virodhi sarkaar nahin chalegi (Anti-Dalit government won't survive"). Mayawati wanted Smriti Irani's head. She demanded that she should be sacked. Ms. Irani was hysterical. Like a good actress, she tried to emotionalise Rohith Vemula's suicide - "Come and take my head if you want" was her retort.
And, immediately, Smriti Irani was dubbed a drama queen by her opponents and terrific speaker by her supporters in the party and some outside. Even those who had been critical of her handling of the Rohith issue were praising her on social media. Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted her full speech, a public pat on the back. She was bold and furious. Some said the speech showed the birth of a new top-level leader in the BJP.
But Mayawati was more strategic. She did not shout. She is known to not speak much. She rarely interacts with the media and neither does she say much in the House. But she did not want to miss this opportunity. This is about a Dalit student. She wanted to convey the message that the BJP is not pro-Dalit despite an attempt to usurp Baba Saheb Ambedkar this year by none other than Prime Minister Modi.
Mayawati knows well that in the 2014 parliamentary elections, Modi and the BJP successfully lured Dalits to vote for them. Mayawati and her BSP drew a blank and the BJP romped home with 71 seats in UP, where the state elections are a year away. And after a bad loss in Delhi and Bihar, UP will be very crucial for Modi himself and for the BJP as well. It is this battle which will settle the question as to if Modi is still the darling of the masses or if 2014 was just a bubble. Mayawati is also fighting for her survival. She has been virtually written off by political pundits after the Lok Sabha elections. And the country has not heard about her or from her in the recent past. With an aggressive BJP, Mayawati has to send a very strong signal to her core constituency and voters of UP at large that she is still relevant and ready to fight. This was the golden moment. She seized it well.
The BJP is aware that Rohith's suicide has snowballed into a major controversy. The message that has gone to the Dalit community is that two central ministers - Bandaru Dattatreya and Smriti Irani - have been, directly or indirectly linked to his death, and hence, the demand for their sacking.
The RSS has been trying hard to assimilate the Dalits into its Hindutva project but the Rohith issue has come as a great jolt and reports from the ground are not very encouraging. There is anger among the community against the BJP/RSS. To begin with, the BJP wanted to avoid the debate on Rohith in parliament. Political pundits are of the opinion that the BJP deliberately fuelled the JNU debate to distract attention from Rohith's death.
The debate on Nationalism has caught the imagination of the country. Smriti Irani was determined to combine both the issues and sidetrack Rohith, but Mayawati did not let that happen. Mayawati's act was a disruption, Irani's was to damage-control. One was calculative, the other was emotional. One is battle-hardened, the other a greenhorn. A comparison would be lopsided but the "other" fought well with limited success. Neither of them emerged victorious.
Mayawati is a product of the most understated but most brilliant revolution this country has ever seen. Dalits have always been treated most inhumanly in our culture. The Constitution gave them political equality but political power eluded them till the early 90s. Kanshi Ram did the most magnificent political experiment in UP, aroused Dalit consciousness to a level that they craved power for themselves, and formed the first Dalit government which was unthinkable till a few years ago. Mayawati was his most loyal pupil.
But if she did not get respect, Mayawati has no one to blame but herself because of her greed for money and the corruption that she spawned. The BJP always believed that it was the emergence of this Dalit class which stopped the march of Hindutva. The Dalit assertion in UP was so powerful that after the Babri demolition, the BJP could not attain a majority on its own and since then has been out of power in the state except for once.
In the House, Smriti Irani's anger reflects that angst of the RSS. She challenged people to name her caste, but she forgot that she represents a political party and an ideological force which in its moorings is upper caste, and the Dalits call them Manuvadi, followers of Manusmriti, which is essentially the Das Capital of the Brahmanical order perpetuated for thousands of years in our society.
This is a war and it will accentuate further. There will be more such battles. The two cultures will further clash. Shrillness and shouting will not help, this has to be understood. Drama can bring applause once, may be twice, but reality will soon dawn. And reality is far more cruel.
(Ashutosh joined the Aam Aadmi Party in January 2014.)
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