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Behenji: A Political Biography of Mayawati by Ajoy Bose- Review

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Book: Behenji: A Political Biography of Mayawati by Ajoy Bose

Author: Ajoy Bose

Publisher: Penguin Random House: 2017 Third Edition


Pages: 315 – Rs.399

“A miracle of democracy,” said Prime Minister Narasimha Rao when Mayawati became Chief Minister of Utter Pradesh. Ajoy Bose asserts that that there is no “parallel anywhere else where a woman belonging to the most crushed community known to mankind has risen through the heat and dust of elections to rule two hundred million people” – he doth protest too much, methinks. 

When Phoolan Devi surrendered to the police after several cold-blooded murders, the ‘low-caste’, kidnapped and gang-raped dacoit-leader was openly acknowledged as an oppressed-feminist – Robin Hood. She was elected to Parliament twice. And then came Abdul Kalam rising literally from the outermost fringes of India – Born in Rameshwaram to an impoverished Muslim, sold newspapers to start with and eventually moved to the most prestigious residence in the country, to “rule” over a billion people.

Nothing succeeds like success, though. Deprecations turn so easily to sobriquets. Your blatant disrespect for traditions turn you into an iconoclast, your street-fighter instincts are translated to “combative politics” or “in-your-face political style”. Your vulgar flaunting of wealth obviously amassed qua a politician is referred to as unabashed display…

… and Bose has moved into the third edition of the biography, the first two of which went under the name of “Behenji: A Political Biography of Mayawati”, published in 2008 & 2012 while the edition of 2017 (under review) is titled: “Behenji: The Rise & Fall of Mayawati”. This has the author’s disillusionment writ across – from the change of the title, through its “Introduction” right up to the “The Curtain Call”, not to forget Bose’s letter uploaded to the ET Blog of July 27, 2017 under the caption – “Dear Behenji, one for the road?” The Stockholm syndrome has struck again?

Here is the story of a mediocre student, who on her father’s insistence aspires for the IAS, gets “sidetracked” into politics by Kanshi Ram – when neither had any experience in political life. In addition, says Bose, she had the burden of being a Dalit and a woman. Being a woman was certainly a “burden”, but being a Dalit was apparently the trump card – as Bose himself rightly says, “Possibly her greatest achievement has been to forge… a completely new context for Dalit politics.”

Not much comes across these 300-odd pages, however, about Mayawati as a person – reportedly, she did not permit anyone to get close to her at any level. Bose was expected to have been privy to her personality, her insecurities. If he does come anywhere “close”, it is when he refers to the horrors perpetrated by the mob at the Lucknow State Guest House on  June 2, 1995, “those who have heard her describe the nightmare say that her face twists and her voice shakes when she recounts the events.” Kanshiram considered it her final test of courage; Bose says, that the trauma she suffered…may well have been the final tempering of the steel that would make her the iron lady… (mixed metaphors are excusable in hagiographic circumstances).

Incidentally, the “Introduction” starts off with a clear journalistic detachment and focus as he opens up the saga of “an otherwise nondescript Dalit woman”; her lacklustre performance in college being characteristic of Dalit students, who “keep their head well-down in colleges where they are made to feel like interlopers in a club that they do not really belong to”. Somewhere along the line, she displays her “ability to think and behave in an unconventional manner” and reveals her “absence of political scruples,” which gave her a clear advantage, others less. Interestingly, Bose points out that the Dalit community solidly backed her, despite her repeated ideological flip-flops and a total disconnect between her political games and the “larger benefit of the community.”

The roots of her popularity with the Dalits, he says, lie in the notion of political empowerment of the most marginalised and the dreams of ascendancy that flow from it. She went on with the Ambedkar Maidan expansion and the near-deification of Kanshi Ram (the budgetary allocation of over 250 billion rupees is a fact strewn along her path of “success”). That with her own gigantic statues added up to a powerful totemism for “a people denied of any kind of religious symbol for centuries.” Shelley’s Ozymandias does come to mind rather readily, but we let it pass.

So, her megalomania and personal corruption started the process of her decline. Her unwillingness to build her party into a durable institution and the yes-men she surrounded herself with added to the dénouement. A reading of the three editions does give a more complete picture of this shooting star that died too soon. The book is a veritable chronology of Mayawati’s career: The elections, the number of votes, the margins, the number of rallies addressed; an account of her meteoric rise through all the state and parliamentary elections. Ajoy Bose has done justice to his subject – no mean task when the subject is still alive and likely to be kicking not too far in the future.