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 Babasaheb Ambedkar would have done in a similar situation. What is almost certain is that, unlike the Uttar Pradesh 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 an Ambedkar, Phule, Shahu and Kanshi Ram. Which is also why she can brazenly claim that the Rs 675 crore spent on the Dalit Prerna Sthal has come through party donations when the fact is the UP government has budgeted a whopping Rs 3,000 crore on Dalit memorials and parks across the state. This, in a state where 38% Dalits have never attended schools, where 70% is still the estimated school dropout rate among Dalits, and where hundreds of children die of encephalitis every year because of a 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 CM 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. 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, but if handbags are her fashion accessory, then 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 idolatry, but he did not entirely reject its symbolic value either on such occasions.
Which is why the personality cult that 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 - may be 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 among her followers. If there are dozens of memorials in the name of the Congress's first family and freedom heroes, 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 an assertion of Dalit identity.
Seen from that competitive political perspective, it is 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 that he formed had only limited success and he lost the first general election in 1952 as an independent. That he became the country's first law minister was only due to the vision and generosity of Mohandas 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 later, it may well become a place of pilgrimage and inspiration for millions of Dalits.
Rajdeep Sardesai is Editor-in-Chief, IBN 18. The views expressed by the author are personal.