NEW DELHI— Just as the election of Barack Obama for African Americans, the rise of Mayawati, India’s star woman politician, from the lowest rung of the social hierarchy is bringing hope of change for Indian Muslims.“This Maya is no illusion,” M.J. Akbar, a veteran journalist and former lawmaker, told IslamOnline.net, referring to the nickname Mayawati is known with among Indians.
“Maya is heaving against prejudice that has congealed over many thousands of years.”
Mayawati, chief minister of India’s most populous state Uttar Pradesh and leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), is a daughter of “Dalits,” the lowest rung of the Hindu social caste system commonly known as the “untouchables.”
But the woman, whose party is now a front runner in at least 10 states across India, is an inspiration for Muslims as well as millions of India’s lower-caste people.
Akbar compares Mayawati to Obama citing her once unlikely rise from the margins and her extraordinary political skills.
“The Dalits are the blacks of India…and Mayawati is their Obama.”
Mayawati became a national figure in 2007 after her party won a landslide victory in Uttar Pradesh state election.
“She has proved herself to be a leader of the people who she has chosen to represent,” says Zohra Javed, a political activist.
The Dalits, meaning broken people, have long endured the prejudice and discrimination of India’s caste system which separates people into Brahmin priests, warriors, farmers, laborers, and those beyond definition including, the Dalits.
Though caste discrimination is outlawed, many of the 180 million Dalits, who make up one-sixth of India’s 1.1 billion population, insist bias against them persists.
Shafeeque Ansari, a Muslim businessman, believes Mayawati represents millions from the lower and marginalized sections of India from all religions and castes.“The rise of a regional leader like Mayawati symbolizes the empowerment of India’s marginalized lot.”
For many Muslims, Mayawati brings hopes for more inclusive politics to engage their own long-marginalized community.
In the 2007 state elections, she fielded more Muslim candidates than ever before.
“In the Uttar Pradesh elections, Maya fielded 403 BSP candidates. Of these 61 were Muslims,” Seema Mustafa, editor of India’s only political fortnightly magazine Covert, told IOL.
“Thirty Muslims won.”
In the ongoing, month-long parliamentary elections, Mayawati’s BSP is fielding more Muslim candidates than any other party, including the ruling Congress and the Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Mayawati’s unique character, being a woman who knows about the plight of discrimination, and her vows to end religious divide in Hindu-majority India is also appealing to many others.
“She has been able to add a slice of the minority vote bank to her kitty too,” notes Javed.
“Being a Muslim I would certainly want someone who would look sympathetically into the problems my community is facing.”
Indian Muslims, who account for more than for 13 percent of the total population, have long complained of being discriminated against in all walks of life.
Christians make up less than three percent and minorities such as Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and Parsis account for nearly four percent.
Mayawati’s spectacular rise left many predicting that she might do like Obama by rising to the top post in the country after the general polls.
“A woman and a Dalit, somebody from a doubly disadvantaged group, becoming our Prime Minister would definitely be a sign that India has matured as a democracy,” Sharifa Siddiqui, a Muslim civil rights activist, told IOL.
“It means we have cocked a snook at the US in terms of choosing a leader from groups other than the traditionally elitist groups.”
Mayawati’s party is part of the newly-formed Third Front, a coalition of 10 regional parties, which has 84 out of the 543 seats in parliament.
Third Front is taken seriously by many, especially those hoping for a non-Congress, non-BJP prime minister.
“The old cartelization of Indian politics, monopolized by high-caste leadership, is giving way to a new set of players from the lower strata of Indian polity,” argues Ghulam Muhammed, a political analyst.
But many doubt that the Barack Obama scenario can be repeated in caste-based India.
Javed, the political activist, believes that a premier Mayawati is easier said than done.
Though he is a strong supporter of the BSP leader, Ansari, the businessman, also shrugs off the possibility of premier Mayawati as unrealistic.
“To suggest her as a prime minister is akin to daydreaming.”
But Akbar, the veteran journalist and former MP, says nothing is impossible in politics.
“All options are possible. The turbulence and direction of change can never be certain.”