The Rise and Life of Mayawati

Mayawati and Kanshi Ram's huge statues at the BSP headquarters tell the story of how an ideological movement was turned into a personality cult

Mayawati and Kanshi Ram’s huge statues at the BSP headquarters tell the story of how an ideological movement was turned into a personality cult

In the evening of 2 June 1995, Mayawati found herself living through the greatest horrors of her life. She, along with a few other Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leaders, had locked herself inside the State Guest House in Lucknow, while a frenzied mob of more than two hundred was trying to break the doors of her room from the outside. The mob was shouting abuses, promising to kill her. Many of her colleagues had already been physically dragged away by the mob. This nightmare went on for hours. Only the quick reaction of certain junior police officers at the scene kept the mob from breaking in. Mayawati remained inside the room late into the night, not knowing what was going on behind those doors. Only a few hours before the attack, she had pulled her party’s support from the Uttar Pradesh Government, collapsing Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Ministry. She has maintained, ever since, that the State Guest House incident, as it came to be known, was retribution for it. Eighteen years later, the courts have still to decide anyone’s culpability for the attack.

The forty-eight hours before the incident had been momentous for Mayawati. On 1 June 1995, she had visited her political mentor and boss Kanshi Ram in the hospital where he was being treated for a brain clot. In his absence, Mayawati had been managing the party – a very important responsibility since for the first time BSP was in the government as junior partner to Yadav’s Samajwadi Party (SP). Kanshi Ram’s illness had her worried, for his death could mean a serious blow to the party at such a critical juncture. But Kanshi Ram was not dying; instead he had a surprise for her. “How would you like to the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh?” he asked her. Mayawati face clouded, as she assumed that illness had turned Kanshi Ram incoherent and delusional. But he insisted, explaining to her that he had made a deal with Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). BSP will break the alliance with SP and form a new government in UP with support from BJP. Events then moved forward quickly, BSP pulled its support and the State Guest House incident ensued. A few hours after emerging from the guest house, she was sworn in as Chief Minister.

At 39 years of age, a low-caste daughter of a postal clerk from Delhi, with no family connections or administrative experience, Mayawati had become Chief Minister of the biggest state in the country. Then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao called it “a miracle of democracy.” This was made possible by her burning ambition and drive, something she probably fostered from her resentment of the fact that her father always discriminated between her and her brothers. But her success was not hers alone. It tapped into something deeper that had been building up for a long time in the Independent India.

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The Syndicate: Kingmakers of India

After my last post “How Indira Gandhi became the Prime Minister: Prelude to the Congress Split” some of the readers pressed upon me to write a deeper explanation for the phenomenon known as the Syndicate. Hence this post:

The Congress Syndicate

By the end of 1963, Nehru was dying. For the first time in sixteen years since independence, New Delhi was rife with speculation about the question – “After Nehru, who?” To answer this question, four men met at the Tirupathi Temple in the beginning of October, 1963. These were K Kamaraj, the former Chief Minister of Madras, Sanjiva Reddy, an Andhra leader, Nijalingappa, the Chief Minister of Mysore and Atulya Ghosh, the president of Bengal Congress Committee. Together, these men controlled the power of the Congress party in non-Hindi states. Soon, along with a Maharashtra leader SK Patil, they will be come to known as the Syndicate.

Ostensibly, the leaders were at Tirupathi to offer worship at the shrine, but secretly they were together to discuss the future of the country and how to shape it after Nehru. The two questions in front of them were who shall be the next Prime Minister and who will become the next president of the Congress Party, a post that would be tremendously important after Nehru’s death. It wasn’t so much that they agreed on who should fill these posts as who should not – Morarji Desai. Desai was the most prominent leader in the party after Nehru and most likely to succeed him. However, his very prominence was a threat to the Syndicate. Had he become the Prime Minister, his domination would have been complete, leaving the Syndicate members to the fringes. The Syndicate wanted someone more malleable, someone they could control.

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How Indira Gandhi became the Prime Minister: Prelude to the Congress Split

Shastri's body brought home

Shastri’s body brought home

On the grey winter afternoon of 11 January 1966, a huge crowd of Indian Government officials, politicians, military officers, heads of states of other nations and common public thronged the Palam Airport in New Delhi. They were awaiting a small Soviet aircraft bringing in the dead body of India’s second Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri. India had woken up to Shastri’s sudden death in Tashkent, Uzbekistan only hours ago. A sense of uncertainty over India’s political future surrounded the airport thicker than the Delhi fog. Many had come to the airport to mourn Shastri’s death, many for appearance sake. But at least one person was there for a clearer purpose. Clad in white khadi, was an astrologer, much consulted by top-level Congress politicians. He was there to predict who will be the next Prime Minister.

Unlike with Nehru, no one had anticipated Shastri’s death and there had been no discussion over the issue of his succession. Only two hours after his death, the President had sworn in the home minister, Gulzari Lal Nanda as the acting Prime Minister in the middle of night. But Nanda was considered a light-weight, unlikely to be able to turn his job permanent. Nevertheless, within twenty-four hours he threw his hat in the ring to be considered as the next Prime Minister. So did many others. Within two days of Shastri’s death, the list of politicians circling around the throne had grown considerably, including the defence minister YB Chavan, Mahashtrian politician SK Patil and the future President of India Sanjiva Reddy. But the strongest candidate was Morarji Desai.

Desai had already had already had bitter experience in his ambition to be India’s Prime Minister. In early 1960s, Desai was a centre of power within the Congress Party. A right-leaning, pro-business conservative leader, he had emerged as the opposing pole within the party to left-leaning, liberal Nehru. As the finance minister in Nehru’s Government, he had become so influential as to be considered by many as his natural successor, to the extent that in some of his foreign visits he got the treatment reserved for visiting heads of state. Had Nehru not eased him out of the Cabinet in 1963, he would have most likely become the next Prime Minister automatically. Instead, in 1964, when Nehru passed away, it was the unimpressive Shastri who got the chair, a shy, placating man who was so unimposing that his greatest achievement at the time seemed to be that he had “hardly ever made an enemy during his entire career”.

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Indira Gandhi and the Pakistani Bomb

AQ Khan with design of neutron initiator, which serves as the kick-start mechanism for a nuclear chain reaction

AQ Khan with design of neutron initiator, which serves as the kick-start mechanism for a nuclear chain reaction

In December 1975, a thin man with a light moustache landed at the Karachi Airport, where he was awaited by a top Pakistani Military general. He had three large suitcases with him, all stuffed with photographed and hand-written documents that he had stolen from a Dutch lab where he worked as a translator. These documents were technical designs of a revolutionary new technology to make a nuclear bomb. His name was Abdul Qadeer Khan. He was here to make, as the world would come to know of it, the first Islamic Bomb.

In July 1974, AQ Khan had written to the Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, offering to build a nuclear bomb for Pakistan. The timing of the letter had been perfect, for only two months ago India had exploded a nuclear bomb of its own, which had thrown Islamabad into a tizzy. Pakistan had been trying to develop its own nuclear bomb since 1958, but had consistently failed because of the lack of money and the technical know-how. The Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) was still many years away from developing a bomb. So the letter from this unknown mining engineer had come as a god-sent for Bhutto.

Pakistan had been trying to develop a nuclear bomb through Plutonium, which is a very expensive and difficult exercise. What AQ Khan offered, instead, was building the bomb with Uranium-239, enriched through centrifuges, which was a cheaper and quicker process. This enrichment technology was just being developed by a European Consortium called UNRECO, where AQ Khan worked as a translator. His job offered him unlimited access to the technical information, which he was willing to steal and bring to Pakistan.

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The Rise of Bal Thackeray

Bal ThackerayThe year 1956 was of great tumult for Western India. The Government had just created the great bilingual Bombay State, which included most of what now constitutes as Maharashtra and Gujarat. The idea of the Bombay State had support in New Delhi, where Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel were hesitant to divide the country along linguistic lines, and in Bombay itself, where city elites like JRD Tata were concerned that a pure Marathi state may drown out the cosmopolitan nature of Bombay city. However, the idea had no traction among large sections of both Marathi and Gujarati societies which were in uproar. And so began a four year long struggle of strikes, violence and vandalism, which finally resulted in creation of Maharashtra and Gujarat in 1960, after several people had died in the protests.

It was in these turbulent times that Bal Thackeray began his career as a cartoonist. He was son of KS Thackeray, a progressive Marathi leader of 1930s, who gave him a fervent hatred for communism and a caustic tongue in legacy. Thackeray’s early cartoons, published in the English daily Free Press Journal, suggest mind of a well-read young man concerned about international issues like world peace, Middle East crisis and the European discrimination against third-world countries.

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Kerala Crisis (1957-1959): First Litmus Test of Indian Democracy

EMS (left) with Nehru in 1957

The political crisis that unfolded in Kerala exactly a decade after independence was probably (one of the) first true litmus test for the Indian democracy- a test that the country certainly did not pass. It was a political clash involving violence, ideologies, populism, religion and ethnicities in which no actor was blameless, a political theatre that has been repeated innumerable times since. It is also a personal story, one of leaders – all of whom with the best of intentions – struggling with forces bigger than themselves.

In 1957, the Communist Party of India won Kerala’s assembly elections by a slim majority, forming the first communist state government in the country. At the height of Cold War (five years to Cuban Missile Crisis), this generated tremendous interest from around the world as one of the first democratically-elected communist governments. There were concerns within India as well including New Delhi.

However, Jawaharlal Nehru, having just returned as Prime Minister in the second national elections, had no qualms. While he saw Indian communists as out of step with contemporary India, he was willing to give the new democratically-elected state government a chance. He was further reassured by the communist party’s promise to act within the constitutional bounds.

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