India is still par excellence the land of idolatry. There is idolatry in religion, there is idolatry in politics. Heroes and hero-worship is a hard if unfortunate, fact in India’s political life. Babasaheb Ambedkar
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 alleged that more than Rs 2,000 crore from the state exchequer of 2008-09 and 2009-2010 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 masterkey 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 won’t 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 cutouts 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, or any individual, to fall back upon, 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. Mayawati’s self-image is that of an Empress of a new dynasty, unburdened by the norms and conventions imposed by traditional elites.
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 to be 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 patriarchal, 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. By building statues of herself, Mayawati is hoping to carve out a larger-than-life image that makes her rivals look almost Liliputian. It’s not enough for Mayawati’s vaulting ambitions to be seen as just another politician; she must be seen as a modern-day dalit heroine. And if she can’t be cast in wax at Madame Tussauds like other contemporary icons, why not build statues of herself in UP, especially when it makes good business sense to acquire priceless real estate in the name of a memorial which no one dare touch?
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-faithfuls 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 statues and memorials may make Mayawati appear a Goddess-like figure to her supporters, but they will only increase the sense of alienation among other social groups, including the Brahmins who had supported her in her 2007 Assembly victory.
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.
To quote Ambedkar again: “In India, ‘Bhakti’ or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship plays a part in politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other of the world. ‘Bhakti’ in religion may be a road to salvation of the soul. But in politics, ‘Bhakti’ or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.”
Rajdeep Sardesai is Editor-in-Chief, IBN Network