Art of reinvention

ASK a politician if he wants more than he has been allotted — a different cabinet berth, a higher party rank or a more prestigious national position-- and you will hear the usual coy and patently false denials. And then will follow the pious platitudes on how service to the people and party is paramount.

By Barkha Dutt

Published: Thu 17 May 2007, 8:29 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:26 AM

I can think of only one politician who would not bother with the pretence. In a rare television interview, much before her stunning victory in Uttar Pradesh left everyone gawking, Mayawati did not even blink before answering. Yes, she wanted to be prime minister, and yes, she could see herself ensconced at Race Course road, within the next ten years. Today, as this daughter of an ordinary government employee gets ready to take over as chief minister for the fourth time, no one would dare laugh at the proclamation. And till that happens, the 51-year old will be content in the knowledge that India's next president can't be chosen without her assent.

The ulta-pulta state has lived up to its name: now that the gladiatorial battle in India's largest political arena has been fought and won, conventional wisdom has been turned upside down and new rules for survival are being drafted for the future.

And once our eyes move beyond the scorecard, here's what may be the writing on the wall: Caste matters just as much as it always did, but it is both malleable and dynamic. The BSP may have been born and rooted in anti-Brahminical rebellion. But social churning made it possible for Mayawati's elephant to shed its traditional symbolism.

If, in the past, it was an angry animal that was ready to trample all over the hint of any prejudice, this time it was unveiled as the friendly, generous, beloved Ganesha, who could embrace believers across the divide.

Everyone from the president of India to political pundits may lament the easy predictability and stability of the two-party system. But get used to it —and let the middle-class moan and groan —the future of India will be driven by regional players and identity politics, with castes, religions and ethnicities locked in a competitive battle for assertion. Coalitions at the Centre may continue to be formed around the two big national players, but they will increasingly be dependent on the state satraps.

Charisma does make a difference, but a strong point of view matters even more. If this election was a springboard for Rahul Gandhi's plunge into national politics, he may especially want to ponder on that. His clean-cut charm and obvious sincerity pulled in the crowds and made him a media fixation. But in his effort to be all things to all people, did he end up being nothing to nobody?

Yes, a national party cannot end up seeming like a bigoted suitor. But perhaps what was missing in the Congress campaign was a passionate focal point. This need not have been caste centred. Just the fact that the Congress made a determined effort to put up younger candidates than any other party, for example, could have made youth the high point of the Uttar Pradesh courtship. Instead, we ended up with a well-meaning, but far too generalised wooing of the voter.

Despite the inflammatory CDs and the perception of middle-class annoyance at what it calls minority appeasement, the BJP will continue to be circumscribed by its central paradox. Is its defining feature governance or religion? Yes, this time too, there was the token lip service to a temple at Ayodhya, but the party has seen that Hindutva is only able to take it so far, and no further. Perhaps, the Congress routs in Punjab and Uttarakhand gave the BJP a misplaced sense of confidence. The UP results show there is no national wave, one way or the other.

The Muslim voter remains smart, strategic and entirely unmoved by simple rhetoric. He votes to protect himself and his community. The BJP's calculation that a three-way split of the Muslim vote would work to its advantage hasn't quite turned out as expected. And despite the fact that Mayawati faced flak for neglecting the minorities, she still picked up a sizeable chunk of their vote. Like everyone else, India's Muslim voters like a winner.

Politics is the art of reinvention. Mayawati has proved that in her dramatic evolution from Dalit queen to Brahmin messiah. Now, India will hope that she will evolve further. Will she continue to behave like an autocrat with little patience for dissent or debate? Or will she embrace the democracy that has created the remarkable phenomenon of her party's rise?

Now that she's at the top, she can look down with a little more gentleness. The firebrand can afford to mellow down.

And finally, we love our film stars and generations of Indians still worship Amitabh Bachchan as the biggest icon of the big screen. But that doesn't mean, that when he says there is no crime or lawlessness in Uttar Pradesh, we believe him.

The Indian voter is simply too smart.

Celebrated Indian television star and host Barkha Dutt is Managing Editor of NDTV 24x7. Write to her at

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