Why Mayawati, the controversial ‘Dalit’ or lower-caste Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh (UP), deserves to win the ongoing state elections.
As India's largest and most populous state, UP sets the stage for India's national elections in 2014. It will determine in large part the surety of the stranglehold that the Congress's dynastic leader, Rahul Gandhi, has on his party, which controls the national government. It will also highlight the plight of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the national opposition party, in its quest to topple the Congress at the centre. Most importantly, the state elections will be a verdict on Mayawati, a dynamic and hugely controversial champion of the lower castes—and current Chief Minister of UP—who aspires to become India's Prime Minister one day.
Reason 1: Mayawati towers above her political opponents as one who is not part of or perpetuating a family dynasty. A democratic India deserves genuine leaders who have risen from the masses and were not parachuted in through political families. Gandhi, whose father, grandmother, and great grandfather are all former prime ministers of India, publicly denounces nepotism in politics and yet chooses his sister, Priyanka, a supposedly private citizen, and her husband, to campaign for the Congress Party. Similarly, Mulayam Singh Yadav, leader of the state opposition Samajwadi Party (SP), also a former Chief Minister, has appointed his son, Akhilesh Yadav, as heir apparent of the party.
Reason 2: Mayawati collects donations, declares them, and then pays the required taxes. Few in India are blind to the unholy nexus between money and politics. The requirement by the Election Commission of India for candidates contesting public office to declare assets has resulted in farcical declarations where on paper, politicians claim a miserly living but in reality cruise the streets in luxury cars and abode in palatial houses. In this backdrop, Mayawati has made no bones about receiving millions of dollars as declared donations in her name. Whether the donations are legitimate or not, Mayawati is unique amongst her peers for declaring her ever-increasing wealth and paying her taxes, something that less than 3% of all Indians do, let alone politicians who are accused by the public of stashing ill-gotten wealth in private banks outside India.
Reason 3: This should be Mayawati's decade as previous state governments have failed in addressing the aspirations of UP's lower castes. More than 60 years after Indian independence, the plight of India's Dalits does not seem to have improved substantially. In modern day Uttar Pradesh news stories are not uncommon of lower caste women being paraded naked in punishment for having collected water from a water pump reserved for upper caste villagers, of a lower caste man being beaten for questioning the biased ruling of a higher caste village elder, and even of lower caste families being burnt to death in inter-caste feuds. A big part of the problem may well be that a political party like Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP)—whose stated goal is to serve and represent India's lower castes—has not been allowed to govern enough. Mayawati has only ever governed for one complete five-year term. Two of her previous stints as Chief Minister lasted for less than six months each while her third stint stretched to only 18 months. Change takes time and for a state with a population of roughly 200mn people it is only fair that Mayawati gets another complete term to fulfill her party's development manifesto.
Reason 4: It was under Mayawati's grand watch that the marquee F1 India Grand Prix event finally took off in October 2011 in UP. The F1 race had been in the works for several years with potential locations crisscrossing the breadth of India, but eventually it was Mayawati who provided the determination to stage a preeminent event that oozes international sophistication, high technology, and world-class prestige. What is more stunning is that Mayawati hosted the event against the backdrop of the Commonwealth Games debacle in neighbouring Delhi. Juxtapose shoddy footbridge construction in Delhi with the smooth Buddh International Circuit in UP. Granted that Mayawati did not personally supervise the event, the credit goes to her for creating a conducive environment to make the event a reality.
Reason 5: If not Mayawati, then who else? As much as the Congress Party criticises the lamentable state of affairs in UP, it conveniently tries to hides its own role in bringing the state to its knees during its 37-year (mis)rule. Moreover, the Congress's current dismal performance at the national level only reinforces the modern day perception of its (mis)governance. The BJP, as credible as it may like to seem as a national opposition party, is fixated on building a Hindu temple on a disputed site in the state. Parties with such manifestos are best kept on the sidelines. One is then left with the Mulayam Singh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party (SP), which espouses a backward platform that mirrors that of its staunchest ally, Laloo Prasad Yadav, who's own state Bihar is still recovering from his destructive rule. To vote SP is akin to voting for Bihar's erstwhile debilitating fate.
There are serious criticisms of the BSP and Mayawati no doubt, but most are applicable to any political leader in India. On charges of wasteful expenditure, opponents point to the numerous public parks that Mayawati has built in honour of Dalit leaders at the taxpayer's expense. To put this criticism in perspective, in the national capital, Delhi, which borders UP, memorials have been created out of the homes of former prime ministers and even in the cremation grounds along the banks of Yamuna River. The latter boasts at least ten such memorials. It is uncalled for to hold Mayawati to a higher standard for creating public spaces in honour of Dalit leaders, who represent 20% of the population, when no major national monuments already exist. Criticism that the funds should have been used for more noble causes such as health and education is understandable, but should be aimed at all Indian politicians and not solely on Mayawati.
One cannot help but also feel a tinge of urban, classist, and sexist bias against the Dalit leader. Pseudo-intellectuals sitting in posh confines in Indian cities criticize Mayawati without daring to step inside rural UP and experience the life of Dalits. Mayawati is mocked for putting up statues of herself holding a handbag but sadly the symbolism behind the statue of a Dalit woman who occupies perhaps the lowest rung in India's social order, standing tall, is lost on our elite. Her purse signifies the prosperity and independence of an erstwhile Dalit who does not need to hide her financial possessions in her clothing but can confidently step out in rural India without fear of rape, murder, or theft. In Delhi, a city notorious for crime against women, urbanites may well appreciate this sentiment.
India, with her billion strong people, craves inclusive development that encompasses social and economic progress, but to attain this requires lower castes in India's largest most deprived states to appreciate their fundamental rights and confidently demand equal treatment from the state. This is no small task and therefore it is important for the Dalits of UP and of India to have their most visible and preeminent national leader in government, creating and advocating the change they so deserve.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.