Thursday, June 07, 2007

A sobering lesson for Mayawati June 3, 2007

Now that the dust has settled and the instant pundits have had their day, this may be a good time to sit back and reflect on the significance of Mayawati’s amazing victory in Uttar Pradesh. For the first time in independent India a Dalit has won an absolute majority, anywhere. U.P. is, of course, not anywhere—it is 15 per cent of India and home to the largest upper caste population. The people of U.P. are euphoric. They finally have a government that will not be at the mercy of coalitions. Many Indians—and not just Dalits—see in Mayawati a future Prime Minister leading a national party. No wonder she has lit a fuse under every political party.

Meanwhile, we have heard plenty of explanations for her win. The most common is that it was a vote against the ‘goonda raj’ of Mulayam Singh. Another is the Left’s typical knee-jerk reaction—it was a revolt of the poor against the rich. A third view sees in her victory a decline of casteist politics; a trend that began in Bihar a year ago. Then there is is Yogendra Yadav’s conclusion—poor Dalits, poor OBCs, poor Muslims, and poor Brahmins have stitched together a ‘rainbow coalition of the downtrodden’. The RSS has explained the BJP’s debacle as the softening of Hindutva ideology. As for the Congress’ position, the less said the better.

There may be some truth in all these explanations, but none of them goes to the heart of the matter. In Barabanki district, an OBC woman was slapped by her uncle for voting for Mayawati. In her defence she told the reporter that the village patwari, a Mulayam supporter, refused to transfer her land in her name unless she paid him a hefty bribe. A group of auto-drivers in Muzzafarnagar told a Hindi news channel that policemen pocketed a fifth of their daily earnings. By voting in Mayawati they hoped that the police’s share might come down to a sixth. People thus vote sensibly for the things that matter to them.

A woman needs a title to her land. Auto drivers expect to ply their autos without harassment. A sick patient wants the doctor to treat him when he visits his primary health centre. A mother wants her child to learn something in the school. This is how government touches ordinary people’s lives. All governments in India are so eaten away by corruption and mismanagement that they cannot deliver the simplest things that people in the Far East and the West take for granted--drinking water, sanitation, roads without potholes, honest policemen and revenue officials, and decent schools and health centres. Hence, Indians do the only thing that they can—they boot out one set of incompetents just to bring in another.
‘Anti-incumbency’ is thus a code word, and it means: ‘You good for nothing bungler-- you have failed me, and I am kicking you out, knowing full well that I may have to kick him out too.’ This is a sobering lesson for Mayawati and a wake-up call for the Congress. Unless the UPA government implements administrative reforms and improves governance, it faces the same fate as Mulayam Singh. When the euphoria is over and the hard light of the day begins to stare her in the face, Mayawati will have to remember that voters want basic services rather than Ambedkar statues. Then her leadership skills will be tested. A good leader sets clear goals for her officers, monitors progress, encourages high performers, and helps remove obstacles in their way. This is how things get done. I fear that Mayawati will probably fail this test, but I shall be happy if I am proved wrong.

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