The inauguration of the Rs 685 crore, state-funded Rashtriya Dalit Prerna Sthal in Noida by Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati on Friday has been misread by almost all analysts.
The focus of the attacks on Mayawati have been on the size of expenditure involved and use of state funds for a private political project. But in Dalit politics, this is almost a non-issue. More important is the symbolism and challenges it throws up for Indian politics and society.
Mayawati has flung four challenges at us - and at herself - by inaugurating her 84-acre memorial.
Challenge No 1 is her not-so-covert attempt to make neo-Buddhism a key state project, overturning the general neutrality of the state in religious projects.
The 84-acre Dalit Prerna Sthal and Green Garden is not exactly a religious shrine funded by the state – though there is a Buddha statue and we heard lots of Buddhist chanting in Friday’s ceremony – but the 84-acre Dalit heroes memorial and garden is reminiscent of kings of yore building triumphant temples and mosques to mark their victories and glory.
As Kancha Ilaiah, a Dalit writer said at a TV show the other night, the Sthal is Mayawati’s attempt to challenge the Hindu caste system and ethos pervading Uttar Pradesh (Ayodhya, Kashi, Varanasi) and paint it in Buddhist hue.
Challenge No 2 is the clear political goal of Mayawati: Delhi next. Of course, she still has the Uttar Pradesh elections to win next year, but the key to that election lies in raising Dalit sights further, since her performance in the state has – at best – been patchy. Raising the stakes helps her flock focus on bigger things instead of the non-delivery of any significant improvement in their lives.
The symbolism of the Sthal is also in its location. Noida overlooks Delhi and is part of the National Capital Region. The location of the Ambedkar park here is indication of Mayawati’s way of saying: “My eyes are on Delhi."
The Sthal, which hosts 15 statues of Dalit icons BR Ambedkar, Jyotirao Phule and Kanshi Ram apart from Mayawati herself, is a symbol of the Dalit challenge to the current caste dispensation.
Mayawati’s speeches also reflected the same aggression. She castigated Sonia Gandhi for refusing to help her with her CBI cases. She pre-empted the possibility of the Congress placing a Dalit like Meira Kumar in the top job just to fools Dalits. She blasted LK Advani for not starting his anti-corruption yatra in Karnataka, scene of a major illegal mining scam.
Challenge No 3 is shock and awe. Anything Mayawati does is done kingsize. She makes no bones about the size of her birthday cake. She wants expensive cars in her cavalcade. And she is brazen about her use of state funds for party and private purposes – as the erection of 20 statues of her party’s election symbol - the elephant - in Noida and other Ambedkar parks in Uttar Pradesh suggest.
If any other party had done the same thing, there would have been a hue and cry. Sure, parties opposing Mayawati have indeed kicked up a fuss about it. But this is precisely what she wants. When everyone attacks her, the Dalits have no option but to support her.
For Narendra Modi in Gujarat, the more the opposition attacks him personally, the more he consolidates his Hindu vote. This is what Maya is counting on with the Dalit vote, in which Rahul Gandhi is trying to make a dent.
By doing things of huge scale, she is also trying to overawe her Dalit vote and project power – which may go down well with the powerless. To the disempowered Dalit, the fact that Mayawati can cock a snook at her detractors among the upper castes is a matter of pride, not regret.
Challenge No 4 is her political caste combo. The Mayawati coalition is the exact inverse of the Congress coalition before the Babri-Ram Janmabhoomi agitation. The old Congress had the upper castes leading a Dalit and minority combo. Mayawati is going for the same combo with the Dalit on top and Brahmins playing second fiddle in Uttar Pradesh.
The hard act to follow is how she is going to attract the Muslim vote – or even retain the Brahmin and upper caste vote. The Buddha’s main focus of attack was a Brahminical system gone berserk in his time. But the overt return to the Buddha through Ambedkarite neo-Buddhism is not going to be easy to pull off in her current coalition. Neither Brahmins nor Muslims will be comfortable with this assertion.
But she is trying nevertheless.
In a few months time we will know if her strategy works. But no one can accuse her of pusillanimity.
Updated Date: Oct 15, 2011 13:49:05 IST