Maya & Ambedkar: Incongruous? May be not
At a time when Mayawati's Dalit memorials have sparked off a raging debate, it might be instructive to consider what the original Dalit icon, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, would have done in a similar situation. What is almost certain is that, unlike the UP chief minister, he would not have ordered the construction of his own statues. A fierce rationalist, Ambedkar disliked all forms of political idol worship. "In politics, hero worship is a sure road to degradation and eventual dictatorship," he said in a seminal speech before the Constituent Assembly in 1949.
Sixty two years later, there is little doubt that Mayawati has emerged as the great dictator of Uttar Pradesh, someone who controls India's most populous state with an iron fist - which is why she can insist on having her own life-size statue alongside those of Ambedkar, Phule, Shahu and Kanshi Ram. Which is also why she can brazenly claim that the 675 crores spent on the Dalit Prerna Sthal has come entirely through party donations when the fact is that the UP government had already budgeted a whopping Rs 3000 crore on Dalit memorials and parks across the state. This in a state where 38 per cent of Dalits have never attended school, where 70 per cent is still the estimated school dropout rate among Dalits and where hundreds of children die of encephalitis every year because of lack of healthcare facilities.
Surely, Ambedkar, for whom education was the biggest weapon of empowerment, would have chided Mayawati for her misplaced priorities. He would have been equally critical of the personal wealth which the UP chief minister seems to have acquired through questionable means and might have winced at reading that Mayawati spent Rs 51 crore of public money in renovating her official bungalow, apart from acquiring prime properties across the national capital.
Not that Ambedkar lived a frugal lifestyle, but his wealth was acquired through legal and scholastic prowess, not through treating the political system as a vehicle for self-aggrandisement. As his biographer Dhananjay Keer writes, "Ambedkar's house was not a detached villa that gave you the appearance of seclusion. His vast library, his rich clothes, his enormous pens, his grand car, the numerous varieties of shoes and the rare collection of pictures were the living marks of his conquering personality." Mayawati is unlikely to share Ambedkar's love for books. If handbags are her fashion accessory, so was the fountain pen in the case of Babasaheb. If for Gandhi, the loin cloth symbolised his asceticism, the three-piece suit was Ambedkar's style statement to tell the world that his origins were no hindrance to rising up the social ladder.
To those who are critical of the manner in which Mayawati celebrates her birthdays, it needs to be stressed that Ambedkar's birthdays too were occasions for public celebration with his followers taking out processions with his pictures in palanquins. In a sense, the need for such public ceremonies stems from a conviction that it is necessary to show that if caste Hindus can have their own gods and ceremonies, then so must Dalits. Ambedkar may not have been comfortable with idolatory, but he did not entirely reject its symbolic value either on such occasions.
Which is why the personality cult which Mayawati has built around herself cannot be entirely scoffed at. The Indian super-elite - many of whom will not think twice before spending crores on weddings - maybe contemptuous of Mayawati's millions, but there is a distinct method in the seeming madness of the Bahujan Samaj Party leader. If the fortress around Sonia Gandhi's personal life heightens her mystique, then the imperious style of functioning of Mayawati gives her an empress-like status amongst her followers. If there are dozens of memorials in the name of members of the Congress' first family and freedom fighters, then Mayawati appears equally determined to create her own pantheon of Dalit legends. And if the Sangh Parivar can aspire to build a Ram Mandir in Ayodhya as a symbol of religio-political identity, then Mayawati too sees her Ambedkar parks as assertions of Dalit identity.
Seen from that competitive political perspective, it is entirely possible that Ambedkar may even have grudgingly approved of Mayawati's grand projects. Ambedkar's great dream always was to acquire political dominance for the Dalits even while seeking an end to caste discrimination. But the keys to the gates of power remained firmly locked during his lifetime. The Independent Labour Party which he formed had only limited success and he lost the first general election in 1952 as an independent candidate. That he became the country's first law minister was only due to the vision and generosity of Gandhi but his political fortunes never matched his intellect. Indeed, it was his frustration with an upper caste-dominated socio-political system that eventually led him to embrace Buddhism.
Contrast that with Mayawati who has clearly shown that it is possible for a Dalit woman to make it to one of the most powerful political positions in the country entirely on her own terms. If Ambedkar was the ultimate constitutionalist, Mayawati, guided in her early years by the equally redoubtable Kanshi Ram, has been the consummate politician, breaking and striking alliances with ease. The ethical standards employed in achieving power may be deeply troubling, but in the political akhara of UP, norms and rules have been routinely bent by the principal players.
Which is why Mayawati's achievement of being the daughter of a post office clerical employee who rose to becoming a four-time chief minister of the state is quite remarkable. A Mayawati statue next to the architect of the Constitution may seem incongruous today, but many years hence, it may well become a place of pilgrimage and inspiration for millions of Dalits.
More about Rajdeep SardesaiRajdeep Sardesai was the Editor-in-Chief, IBN18 Network, that includes CNN-IBN, IBN 7 and IBN Lokmat. He has 22 years of journalistic experience during which he has covered some of the biggest stories in India and the world. Prior to setting up the IBN network, he was the Managing Editor of both NDTV 24X7 and NDTV India and was responsible for overseeing the news policy for both the channels. He has also worked with The Times of India for six years and was the city editor of its Mumbai edition at the age of 26. During the last 22 years, he has covered major national and international stories, specialising in national politics. He has won numerous other awards for journalistic excellence, including the prestigious Padma Shri for journalism in 2008, the International Broadcasters Award for coverage of the 2002 Gujarat riots and the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Award for 2007. He has won the Asian Television Award for best talk show for the Big Fight on two occasions and his current flagship show on CNN-IBN, India at 9, has been awarded the best news show at the Asian awards for the last two years. He has been News Anchor of the year at the Indian Television Academy for seven of the last eight years and won more than 50 awards in this period. He has also been the President of the Editors Guild of India, the only television journalist to hold the post and was chosen a Global leader for tomorrow by the world economic forum in 2000. An alumni of St Xavier's College, Mumbai, he has done his Masters and LLB from Oxford University and has also played first class cricket for the Oxford University team. He has contributed to several books and writes a fortnightly column that appears in seven newspapers.
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