It’s impossible to stay off social-media platforms for any politician with national interest and ambition, and Mayawati, former Uttar Pradesh chief minister and leader of BSP – a party that was created to champion the cause of the lowest castes – has just woken up to the realities of an increasingly digital India.
Mayawati’s move to join Twitter is an unexpected step from a notoriously media-unsavvy politician who did not even allow journalists to record interviews with her. A lady journalist, who once met Mayawati at her Lucknow home, recalls that she was not allowed to take any recording devices inside the room, not even a pen or paper. She was made to sit on a small chair across the four-time chief minister, who herself was seated on a large, ornate throne-like sofa. An assistant would write down the journalist’s questions as well as Mayawati’s responses, and then later send the journalist images of the sheets through WhatsApp. This is how interviews were typically conducted when it came to the doyenne of Dalit politics.
While Mayawati’s mentor and political predecessor Kanshi Ram was easily accessible to journalists, Mayawati had created around her a formidable wall of unapproachability. Her concerns, it was said, were security as well as reluctance to face tough questions from journalists. She also believed she was not answerable to the media; rather, she only held herself accountable to her people, the Dalits, who backed her blindly in return.
Now, however, with 300 million Indians using smartphones and with national play in mind, Mayawati wants to project herself as a counterweight to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the main contender to the post of Prime Minister if the 2019 national elections throw up a fractured verdict in which no political party has the numbers to form a government of its own.
Indeed, it appears as if regional parties are going to have a greater sway in the upcoming polls, and all of them are going all out – offline and online – to woo the maximum number of people and make a national impact, whether or not they are from their own demographics or region. There is a growing realization even among political entities like the Bahujan Samaj Party that elections are being aggressively fought on the online space, and not just at the grassroots.
It appears that Mayawati wants to break free from the tag of being a ‘Dalit leader’ largely confined to UP politics, and pitch herself as a quintessential national politician.
Opinion leaders and the mainstream media are predominantly online, as is a greater share of young voters. The incumbent BJP is a maestro in the social-media game, using platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp to publish selective news stories and memes poking fun at other leaders to influence voter behaviour.
As one of the senior-most opposition leaders, Mayawati’s chance of leading a non-BJP coalition government cannot be ruled out. Her party BSP is already in a grand alliance with the Samajwadi Party, once their bitter rival, and together hope to beat the BJP in terms of caste arithmetic in UP, which elects 80 members to the 543-member Lok Sabha and is the most crucial state for any party with national ambition.
Besides, the symbolism of a Dalit woman heading a rainbow alliance is too powerful to resist as India moves forward on the path of gender equality and social justice.
This is indeed time for a makeover for Mayawati, who is currently seen as too taciturn for the national stage. Change – even within the sycophantic confines of the BSP – is inevitable. And when it comes to politics, it is wise, after all, not to leave anything to chance.