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The Untouchables


On Friday, Mayawati, India’s most famous politician belonging to the lowest caste, the Untouchables, won the election in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, in a landslide win.

This is big news, for a number of reasons. First, and most important, because she belongs to the dalit caste, (literally meaning “the oppressed”) which is at the lowest rung of the Indian caste system. Second, because Uttar–Pradesh (called UP) is India’s most populous state, with a population of over 170 million, and politically it’s a crucial one; it’s where you’ll find the city of Agra, home of the Taj Mahal and also Varanasi, India’s holiest city on the banks of the Ganges which flows through the state. UP has produced a majority of India’s prime ministers and plays a significant role in the larger political framework of the country.

Mayawati’s victory is also important because she not only managed to garner the lower caste’s votes but also those of the higher Brahmin caste, a combination that has never been achieved before, and which handed a sweeping victory to the Bahujan Samaj Party, which means “majority party of the society”, which Mayawati heads.

She has been chief minister of UP three times before, but only for short periods and that too in coalition governments. Twelve years ago she became the first dalit (as well as the first dalit woman) chief minister of an Indian state, but that didn’t last long – there were charges of corruption in regard to a land development scheme in Agra. In the course of the intervening years she’s had her share of political ups and downs but this time she romps home with a pounding majority. Not a small feat.

Daughter of a supervisor at the Post and Telegraph department, Mayawati studied law at Delhi University before going on to becoming a teacher. But in 1984 she gave up teaching for good and started her political career. She joined an organization that looked after the interests of the dalits – whose oppression, born more heavily by women, particularly those in India rural areas (most of the country) has been an increasingly popular civil rights movement in India.

Twenty-three years later she has emerged as a major political figure in the country, quite an achievement for someone with her background. Although it has been illegal to – in the American phrase – discriminate against dalits, barriers to their breaking free of the caste system which has relegated them to menial labor for much of India’s history, the odds of a dalit woman becoming a state-level minister were, to say the least greatly stacked against Mayawati. Ironically, she has used the politics of this very caste to soar her to power, and it’s worked.

Though a little mellowed now, in the past Mayawati’s political strategy was different from what it is today. She rose to prominence on slogans that, when roughly translated, would mean – “hit the upper castes with shoes”. Her line of attack was clear, to get the dalit vote by sympathizing with them and uniting against a common cause – the upper classes, who’ve reaped maximum benefits of an independent India and lower castes have felt left behind.

But it didn’t work, for complicated reasons of castes and sub castes that needed careful handling. To explain briefly, there is the lower class and there are the upper classes but in between the two, lies the middle class, which itself divides into sub categories and forms a substantial chunk of the population. Mayawati realized that her strategy of rallying against the upper class would not get her far, since the middle class was not with her anyway and the dalit, by themselves, would not be able to provide her the majority.

So this time round she reached out to the upper classes and changed her tune, her slogan pointedly reflecting this change: “the brahmin will blow the sacred shells and the elephant (her party’s symbol) will move forward.” It was an astute political move that paid off.

But tough tasks lie ahead. UP desperately needs good governance to rid itself of typical India mix of extreme poverty and rampant corruption, as well over-population: if UP was a nation it would be world’s sixth most populous one, more than the combined population of France and Germany. And, like other politicians, Mayawati has been embroiled in corruption scandals; a number of reports have wondered how a low-caste daughter of a government employee has managed to become so wealthy and there are those over-the-top birthday parties. Mayawati made news in 2003 when she celebrated hers in style with the estimated cost of the show going well over $2 million dollars – a lot of money in a country like India.

What the BSP government will do for the state remains to be seen. It will have ample time since it has won on a majority and does not require the support of any other party to stay in power for the next five years. This is a good chance to do some good without worrying about political repercussions and it would be UP’s grave misfortune if Mayawati blows it.

Share  Posted by Gopika Kaul at 3:04 PM | Permalink

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