It All Began On A Summer Afternoon At Deoband
In early April, I traveled to Deoband in western UP, famous for its Islamic seminary, to attend the first joint ‘Mahagathbandan’ rally. The road to the venue, where the three parties decided to come together to show unity and solidarity, was marked by small jathas carrying party flags, joyfully and energetically trudging to hear their leaders. This was no rent-a-crowd.
The Samajwadi Party (SP) followers wore their customary red caps, the BSP cadre were carrying their dark blue flag with the elephant emblazoned on it. And the RLD, populated by the farming community of Jats, wore green and white caps. Interestingly, the war cry of all the rallyists was the same: ‘Chowkidar chor hain’ -- coined by Rahul Gandhi to target the lily-white manufactured image of Narendra Modi on the ‘Rafale aircraft deal kickbacks’.
The massive rally was at a canopied venue where all these supporters had converged on a hot April afternoon. It was possible to see the sense of anticipation on their faces. The alliance had promised a lot, but it has been shrouded in so much controversy that no one was really sure whether it would really take off, even while Mayawati was proving to be mercurial. No one really knew where she would turn. Her opposition to the Congress was growing strident making it difficult for the alliance to accommodate it. SP was riven by its problems with the family of Akhilesh Yadav pulling in different directions. In this mosaic of confusion and shifting alliances, when the huge rally finally took place, the constituents displayed great happiness and relief.
The rally was noisy, boisterous and cheerful. Some of Mayawati’s supporters, mostly women, were sitting in front of the dias -- next to the media gallery. They lit up when they heard their leader’s helicopter descend near the venue. Juxtaposing them was another loud group of supporters of militant Dalit leader, Chandrashekhar Azad ‘Ravan’ of the Bhim Army. Detested by Mayawati and called all kinds of names, including ‘an agent of the BJP’, Chandrashekhar is charismatic and has the potential to steal BSP’s young supporters. The Bhim Army was present to state an important point --- that they are part of the grand alliance to defeat the BJP. They too were a loud lot, waving their flags and placards, with the image of their young, charismatic leader.
The crowd could be anywhere between one lakh to 1.5 lakh people. All of them could be heard shouting in unison whenever there was a slogan against the BJP. The leader who was managing the dias was careful to mention the name of all the parties and their leaders and follow it up with a ‘zindabad’. Similarly, images of the grand alliance leaders were placed at the dias to establish who was really calling the shots -- clearly, it was Mayawati. In fact, it was the large-heartedness of Akhilesh which allowed Mayawati to occupy the prime position in the phalanx of leaders. During the speeches, RLD leader Jayant Choudhary made a passing mention that their candidate for the prime minister’s job was Mayawati -- leader of the Dalits. I am sure that she was immensely happy seeing how alliance leaders were fawning on her.
When she got up to speak from her prepared text, her supporters became ecstatic. One fellow wanted to jump and give her a rose. One had to look at the faces of her women supporters to understand the kind of pride they feel in their leader. There is no political formation in the country that elicits this kind of response. For the downtrodden, Mayawati means hope and defiance, against their oppressors. Her speech landed her in a problem when she asked Muslims to not vote for the Congress party. She was punished by the Election Commission.
The rally was a stupendous success as it has galvanized the entire anti-BJP space in UP which sends 80 seats to Parliament. Now BJP has to fight every inch to win back even half the seats that they won in 2014. If the first three phases of the polls is anything to go by, then the grand alliance is hurting BJP grievously. And it all began on that summer afternoon at Deoband.