The decision of the Uttar Pradesh government to rename Amethi as Chhatrapati Sahuji Maharaj Nagar is aimed at sending out a signal that the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and its leader Mayawati are the future. The UP chief minister, over a period of time, has been trying to assert the Dalit identity of her party. According to many political analysts, the BSP enjoys the support of what was once the Congress vote base.
Whether it means celebrating her own birthday or the birthday of her mentor Kanshi Ram, Mayawati realises the importance of symbolic value and is keen that various Dalit icons get their due both historically and geographically. She has been making every effort to also inherit the legacy of the towering Dalit leader Babasaheb Ambedkar.
Mayawati’s latest action has, at its core, the objective of symbolically attacking the citadel of power within the Congress. For the last 30 years, members of the Gandhi family have represented Amethi. After Sanjay’s death, his older brother won a by-election from there in 1981 and went on to represent it in 1984 and 1989. His death in 1991 led to his close friend Satish Sharma contesting from there. Sharma won from there in 1996 too, but lost to Sanjay Singh, the erstwhile Raja of Amethi, in 1998. Congress President Sonia Gandhi reclaimed it for the family in 1999 and since 2004 Rahul Gandhi has represented the constituency.
Many people in UP and outside consider the two constituencies of Rae Bareli (represented by Sonia Gandhi) and Amethi Congress citadels, as the party has always won in these places in recent years. Mayawati wants to change this. She has been critical of Rahul for what she terms his ‘cosmetic’ sympathy for the Dalits. It is her way of telling BSP supporters that her writ runs across the state. It is a matter of time before she changes the name of Rae Bareli too.
The changing of symbols has been a method used by rulers or conquerors down the ages to send out a message as to who was in control. Kings have done it and this is true everywhere in the world. In the US, places where native Indians live have a church and a cross in the middle to drive home the point that this was their new religion.
In India, the Mughals and the Muslim conquerors used the method effectively to overrun the Hindu kingdoms. Even in places like the Qutab Minar, where some adjoining structures carry images of Indian deities, the presence of the towering monument dwarfs everything else.
In democratic India, the Congress has used the symbol supremacy to change the names of streets and places. Other parties have followed suit. If the Congress renamed Curzon Road in Delhi as Kasturba Gandhi Marg, the Janata Party changed the name of Willingdon Hospital and Irwin Hospital to Ram Manohar Lohia and Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Narayan hospitals respectively.
The rise of regional outfits have led to the change in the names of several cities — Bombay to Mumbai, Calcutta to Kolkata and Madras to Chennai and so on.
Mayawati is following the precedent set by leaders before her. Her desire is to psychologically wrest control of her support base and simultaneously demoralise the Congress, the largest political party in the country, by showing that she can change the name of the small town after which the constituency of their future leader is named.
The only question one has to ask our rulers is whether changing names is enough to sustain their control or whether they need to do something more to bring relief to the poor people of this country. Between us.