Symbols of empowerment, too powerful for the Election Commissioner
These giant stone elephants sitting on their pedestals in a huge park outside Delhi were never for riding, and now they are not even to be seen. Built here and in Uttar Pradesh’s capital city of Lucknow, along with other massive stone and bronze monuments, stupas, and domes (below) at a reported cost of Rs4,500 crore ($1bn), they are designed to glorify Kumari Mayawati, the state’s controversial chief minister and be a symbol of empowerment for her Dalit low caste.
India’s Election Commission ordered last week that all the elephants, and statues of Mayawati, should be covered for the duration of the state’s current assembly elections – polling takes place next month. The chief election commissioner, S.Y.Qureshi, said this was done to stop Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) gaining “political mileage” from the displays – just, he said, as pictures of political leaders are removed from government offices during polls. Similarly, in 2004, banners carrying pictures of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then the Bharatiya Janata Party prime minister, were removed during the general election campaign from highways he had commissioned.
One can see Qureshi’s logic because Mayawati (left, with statues in 2009) is the chief minister candidate in the elections and the elephant is her party’s symbol. (The fact that this maverick and autocratic politician, who brooks no opposition, obeyed him is a testament to the uniquely independent authority that the Election Commission wields in this unruly country).
But was Qureshi’s instruction sensible, and was it counter-productive? A retired top bureaucrat has told me that it was excessive and unnecessary because the statues were permanent fixtures, not photographs or banners hung on walls or highways. The expensive drama involved in covering them also drew attention to Mayawati, and may have led to sympathy from her supporters – she told them the authorities were discriminating against Dalits.
This is a key election contest. With a population approaching 200m, UP has traditionally been seen as a major factor in which party wins general elections, though that has lessened in recent years with the growth of coalition governments that depend on support from southern regional parties.
This time its state assembly election is in focus because Rahul Gandhi, the as-yet unproven heir-presumptive to the leadership of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, and thus to the prime minister’s job, is leading his Congress Party’s election campaign. If he does well and raises the number of Congress seats in the 403-seat assembly from the present 22 to 70-100, he will have succeeded and could be on his way to being the next prime minister quite quickly – if he wants the job, which is not known. If he only manages 40 seats or less, he will have failed. He will still be heir apparent, but will progress more slowly.
There is even speculation that if Congress achieves the higher figure, and maybe wins Punjab, the other most significant state now going to the polls, it might call a snap general election to try to shed debilitating partners in its current national coalition.
So the elephants are important, covered or uncovered, and they are also significant as a symbol of Mayawati’s success. She is a Dalit – the “untouchables” in the Indian caste system – and relies on this caste for mass support in elections. But she has done little during her four terms as chief minister to develop the state, especially in rural areas, though she has recently tidied up the city of Lucknow and improved some aspects of law and order.
Her main aim has been to impress her fellow Dalits by building up her own extravagant exclusive image and life-style, and by building the monuments that bring back memories of powerful Mogul rulers’ palaces and forts. With widespread and plausible allegations of massive corruption, she has licensed impressive bribe-clad highway and other projects, including a race track for a very successful grand prix motor race last October.
The statues near Delhi occupy an 80-acre park in Noida, a flourishing satellite city that lies within UP and is also the location for the grand prix track and its associated lucrative real estate developments. In addition to Mayawati, the statues are of Bhim Rao Ambedkar, a revered Dalit leader at the time of India’s independence, and Kanshi Ram who founded the BSP. Ram spotted and coached Mayawati to be not what she has become since his death in 2006, but a constructive leader of the lowest rated in India’s divisive social system.
She was 56 on Sunday and had a relatively low-profile birthday. That contrasted with earlier extravagant parties, when Lucknow has been decorated with thousands of lights and Mayawati has worn expensive diamond and gold jewellery, with garlands of big-valuation currency notes, reported to be worth Rs18 lakhs -$40,000 (right – in 2010), and multi-tiered cakes weighing over 50kg.
The question is whether such excesses impress the desperately poor – do they feel empowered by such success of one of their own and say “look what one of us can achieve”, or does it appal them?
Many people throng to the parks on holidays and admire the elephants, enjoying the well maintained open spaces. But will they vote for her, or swing back to her main rival, the Samajwadi Party that ran earlier assembly governments (badly and corruptly)? And will they also give enough votes to the energetic Rahul Gandhi, whose political future will be much easier if he does well in UP? Pundits and opinion pollsters disagree on which way the result will go – we will know in early March.