By Amulya Ganguli
Even before the accolades about Mayawati’s remarkable election victory in Uttar Pradesh, born of a path-breaking Dalit-Brahmin alliance, had subsided, several flawed aspects of her politics have come to the fore.
One is her legal entanglement in a corruption probe. Although she has secured a reprieve because of Governor T.V. Rajeshwar’s reluctance to permit the Central Bureau of Investigation to pursue its probe in what is known as the disproportionate assets case, the episode has cast a shadow on her – and the governor’s – reputation.
The suspicion is that the Manmohan Singh government is helping her evade the law for the sake of her support to the presidential candidate of the ruling coalition in New Delhi.
Second on the list is the revelation that she has increased her wealth by a massive 400 percent in the last three years, as a result of which her total assets currently stand at Rs.52 crore (Rs 520 million). Her explanation that this fortune is the result of contributions by her supporters hasn’t found too many takers.
But the latest, and perhaps the most damaging, is the exposure of her reported plan to demolish a sports complex in Lucknow and incorporate the area with a neighbouring park, which is named after the Dalit icon, B.R. Ambedkar. Not only that, she has apparently decided to build a statue of the revered leader, which would be taller than New York’s Statue of Liberty.
Not surprisingly, sports people have been outraged and the judiciary has put a brake on this particular extravaganza. It is also possible that sheer ridicule will stop her from pursuing these grandiose dreams.
But what these events have revealed about the new generation of regional politicians, with their usual support base of a single caste, is instructive.
As the plan for the statue shows, their politics focusses on grand but essentially wasteful gestures. They seem less keen on improving the routine amenities of life, which are generally in short supply in India, especially where the poor are concerned.
It might have been expected that an ambitious and no-nonsense politician like her would work on a blueprint for investments in infrastructure or for ameliorating the conditions in hospitals or ensuring that the school system in rural areas does not suffer from its usual problem of absentee teachers and indifferent students. Such endeavours would have demonstrated her interest in the business of governance.
But these unexciting matters of daily life are obviously not on her list of priorities. She apparently believes that instead of undertaking such painstaking measures with a long gestation period, it is more profitable in political terms to impress her core group of supporters by demonstrating her reverence for the Dalit messiah with a statue that will have a stunning effect on the audience.
Mayawati is not alone in believing in the philosophy of pandering to the popular craving for circus and not bread, which also guided the Roman emperors.
The Bharatiya Janata Party, too, has been pursuing for nearly two decades the idea of setting up a temple dedicated to Lord Ram at Ayodhya. It evidently believes that instead of paying attention to the problems of daily necessities, the idea of a temple will enable the party to consolidate its hold on the Hindu community.
Similarly, former Bihar chief minister Lalu Prasad’s 15-year tenure saw no improvement in the state’s roads or electricity supply or medical and educational facilities. He also apparently believed that his personal transformation from a cowherd to chief minister – a remarkable achievement for a person from the backward castes – was enough keep his followers happy, as it actually proved to be for a decade and a half.
In the same manner, Dalit writers have pointed out that while Mayawati’s acquisition of wealth may provoke the city-based upper classes and upper castes to accuse her of corruption, it is not a disadvantage to her where her Dalit supporters are concerned.
They are delighted that someone from their ranks has broken through the centuries-old glass ceiling of upper caste dominance to amass a fortune. It is a matter of pride for them, not shame.
The Dalits probably also believe that the palatial mansions of the upper caste feudal barons (which they couldn’t even enter in the past) were also the result of corrupt practices involving the exploitation of the underprivileged.
Besides, venality has unfortunately become so much of an integral feature of Indian politics that no one is really surprised when allegations of malfeasance are aired against various leaders. In fact, cases of disproportionate assets are pending against quite a few of them, including Mayawati’s predecessor as Uttar Pradesh chief minister, Mulayam Singh Yadav, while the case of misappropriation of public funds in what is widely known as the fodder scam against Lalu Prasad is yet to be resolved.
But apart from corruption, what is disturbing about the regional leaders is their limited vision, which is confined mainly to their castes and regions. Hence the inordinate emphasis on reservations for their specific castes, which made DMK leader M. Karunanidhi even call for scrapping the constitution when the Supreme Court gave an adverse verdict on the quota system.
Initially, the rise of the regional leaders from what is generally known as the subaltern classes was hailed as an example of the spread of democracy. But, sadly, the unsavoury aspects of this phenomenon are becoming evident.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at [email protected])