Ambedkar loathed idolatry, but Mayawati loves it

As I see it

‘Nearly six decades after the father of the modern Indian constitution warned against the dangers of political deification, his legatees have ensured that the Ambedkarite vision is reduced to a statue. Last month, UP chief minister and ‘Dalit ki Beti’, Mayawati unveiled 15 statues of herself and her mentor Kanshi Ram. This led to a petition being filed in the Supreme Court where the petitioner has alleged that more than Rs 2,000 crore from the state exchequer is being spent on statues and memorials across the state. The court has issued notices to the UP government seeking a reply to the charge.

Typically, even before the matter is heard in the courts, an unfazed Mayawati has already replied: at a recent press conference, she claimed that the statues would be a ‘tourist attraction’ and the money earned from tourist fees would be used for the development of  Ambedkar and Kanshi Ram villages. So, the city of Nawabs that was once known for its rich architectural heritage will now be remembered for the statues of dalit icons and the nearly 60 red sandstone elephant statues that are slated to come up in Lucknow over the next couple of  years.

Ironically, it wasn’t just Ambedkar who had questioned idol worship in politics, but even the Bahujan Samaj party founder Kanshi Ram who had been critical of it. Interviewing Kanshi Ram in the early 90s, I had asked him what his fundamental disagreement with Maharashtra’s Ambedkarites was. “They build too many statues of  Babasaheb, and don’t do enough to actually capture power,” was his sharp reply, adding, “Our aim in UP is to find the keys to power, not to waste time over building statues.” 

In 2007, Mayawati fulfilled Kanshi Ram’s dream of  capturing power in Lucknow, but since then, she hasn’t wasted time in celebrating the victory in stone. What are the compulsions that are driving her on this statue building spree, often in blatant disregard of  environment norms, and at the cost of  crores of  public money?

Mayawati is not the first, and certainly wont be the last, politician who has actively encouraged the cult of personality politics. The fact that the ‘rationalist’ Dravida movement was meant to reject idol worship did not stop its followers from creating a culture of  grotesque cut outs and shameless acts of  sycophancy. That Nehru seemingly detested hero-worship did not prevent his heirs from naming virtually every government institution or project after a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family. 

Unlike the other political dynasties, Mayawati doesn’t have a family to fall back upon, or any individual, apart from Kanshi Ram, whose memory she seeks to actively promote. She may speak of  Phule-Shahu-Ambedkar as icons of Dalit-backward class empowerment in her political speeches, but the fact is that ideals and idealism of  the past matter little to her present, and indeed, her future goals.  

Kanshi Ram was deeply influenced by Ambedkar’s writings, and felt an acute responsibility to take forward the collective Bahujan samaj identity. Mayawati, by contrast, is a fierce individualist, for whom ideology is a constraint in her meteoric rise up the political ladder. Kanshi Ram was the quintessential backroom political organiser, Mayawati prefers being seen as the supreme leader. Kanshi Ram was never at ease in large gatherings or with public displays of  flattery, Mayawati appears to relish the big birthday bash and actively encourages a culture of supplicants who must pay obeisance to her.

Perhaps, as a woman and a Dalit in a patriachal, caste-ridden  north Indian society, the dictatorial streak is Mayawati’s survival mantra. The short hair, the no frills look, the brusque language, all fit in with the persona of a tough, no-nonsense ‘masculine’ leader to be feared, as much as she might be admired. Call it her deep sense of  insecurity, or simply her constant desire to be treated as an ‘equal’, by building statues of  herself, Mayawati is hoping to carve out a larger-than-life image that makes her rivals look almost Liliputian.

Unfortunately, the Mayawati phenomenon is in danger of  becoming a victim of its own success. While her army of loyal followers may not object to their leader’s attempt to carve out a permanent place in history, there will come a time when the BSP faithful will want more than just statue politics to be their defining badge. Moreover, electoral success is now increasingly dependent on forging robust social alliances, not simply on relying on narrow caste identities.

The historic 2007 UP mandate was for change, for ending a Yadav raj  that had spawned a culture of  corruption and criminality. But rather than focus on good governance, Mayawati is now seen to be flirting with the very criminal elements that she had vowed to finish.

The Lok Sabha election results should have been a warning. Instead, they seem to have spurred Mayawati to become even more brazen in her attempts at self-aggrandisement. It would be a pity if  Mayawati as a symbol of  genuine Dalit political empowerment eventually becomes an object of  Dalit disillusionment. 

(The writer is Editor-in-Chief, IBN network)

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