Insight: India's "Dalit queen" faces polls
By Frank Jack Daniel and John Chalmers
LUCKNOW, India | Thu Jan 26, 2012 1:45am EST
(Reuters) - By her own standards, Kumari Mayawati's birthday
celebrations were low-key this year.
After driving through a red-carpeted tunnel of plaster elephant tusks
in an Ambassador, India's retro-looking national car, the chief
minister of India's largest state swept past a coterie of her party's
workers, who bowed and touched her feet.
Diamonds adorned the diminutive figure of "the Dalit Queen,"
encrusting her necklace, a bracelet, her earrings, a nose-ring and her
watch, as she accepted a few bouquets of flowers and marched about
briskly in the marigold-draped party headquarters.
But the huge crowds of gaping admirers were missing this year; there
was no garland of banknotes, no upper-caste Brahmin on hand to
symbolically pop a morsel of birthday cake into the mouth of an
"untouchable" who has risen from the bottom of India's social pile to
become one of the most powerful women in the world.
That's because election campaign rules are now in effect for staggered
polls to be held in February and March in Uttar Pradesh.
Graphic: Uttar Pradesh growth link.reuters.com/jef36s
SPECIAL REPORT: Gandhi dynasty r.reuters.com/rur93s
Mayawati is far from a sure bet to win another term as chief minister
of the northern state whose population of 200 million would rank as
the fifth-most populous in the world if it were a country.
If she doesn't, it would be a blow to her undisguised ambition to one
day become prime minister of India, a goal that looked reasonable back
in 2007 when she won a huge mandate from the state's voters by
appealing to a rainbow of castes, which still define the
socio-economic status for many of India's 1.2 billion people.
Launching the seventh, gilt-edged volume of an autobiography that runs
to thousands of pages and is printed in Hindi and English, Mayawati
bemoaned Election Commission rules that obliged her to row back on her
usual birthday beneficence.
"Normally, my birthday is an occasion to give away thousands of crores
in welfare schemes for Dalits and other backward castes, but because
of the election code of conduct we could not do that this year," she
said. A crore is 10 million rupees, or $188,000.
Mayawati's nemesis in the election is Rahul Gandhi, scion of the
Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that has ruled the country for most of its six
decades of independence. A relative greenhorn in the hurly-burly of
Indian politics, Gandhi has staked his future on the performance of
the venerable but troubled Congress party in Uttar Pradesh.
A TRADITION OF EXTRAVAGANCE
Although she presides over one of the most poverty-plagued states of
India -- its per-capita income is just above 50 percent of the
national average -- Mayawati's extraordinary personal extravagance
preserves a tradition set over the centuries by a succession of rulers
in the plains of the river Ganges.
In the five years since she took office, she has blanketed hundreds of
acres of prime real estate in the state capital Lucknow and elsewhere
in pink marble and sandstone monuments.
Statues of marble elephants and icons of the lower castes, including a
dozen of herself, occupy memorial parks created on a scale not seen in
India since the British built New Delhi in the fading days of their
A federal government report found that Uttar Pradesh lavished more
than $400 million on such projects between 2007 and 2009 alone -- and
the building continues.
"She's taken it straight out of the pages of the Mughals and the first
British Viceroys who built huge statues. These are abiding icons that
the Dalits always hankered after but never had themselves," said Ajoy
Bose, author of a biography of Mayawati.
Like the Nawabs, descendents of Persian courtiers who governed the
region in the 18th century, Mayawati likes to flaunt her wealth. On
paper, she is India's richest chief minister, with declared assets of
$16 million that include a shopping mall in New Delhi and $169,000 in
jewelry. But unlike many of her peers in other states, she is open
about her income and pays taxes on it.
A U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks last year recounted how
she once sent a private jet to fetch a pair of sandals from Mumbai,
1,000 km (620 miles) away. According to the
cable, one minister was forced to do sit-ups in front of Mayawati as a
punishment for a minor offence; those wanting to become election
candidates for her Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) had to pay tens of
thousands of dollars for the privilege.
But, unlike her aristocratic Mughal, Nawab and British predecessors,
she hails from India's "Dalit" castes, who were marginalized for
centuries on the bottom rungs of Hinduism's social ladder. Still
today, the idea that a Dalit could become prime minister is as
outlandish for many Indians as the thought of a black president once
was in the United States.
One of nine children of a poor government clerk, Mayawati grew up in a
Delhi slum and became a school teacher before launching into politics.
Aides say she's a news junkie, who obsessively watches the many
all-news channels now available in India.
She is often ridiculed by urban middle classes for her monumental
personality cult -- the U.S. cable described her as a "first-rate
egomaniac" -- and yet Mayawati still has many supporters in Uttar
Pradesh, where economic growth has picked up and law and order have
improved on her watch.
Mayawati's aides point out that she has spent far more on building
roads and joining villages to the electrical grid than she has on the
icons to herself and the Dalit people.
"Once you get the infrastructure on the ground, Uttar Pradesh will
grow on its own," said a senior official in her inner circle, who
asked not to be identified.
Sympathetic analysts even liken her park-building spree to that of the
Nawab of Lucknow, Asaf-Ud-Dowlah, who employed 20,000 people to build
a shrine during a harsh 1784 famine, a project some historians call an
example of pre-Keynesian economics.
That might be a stretch, but electrification and rural welfare
projects have undoubtedly contributed to economic growth, which at
seven percent annually in her first four years of office, was the
state's fastest-ever rate.
A report by the central government's economic Planning Commission last
year said Mayawati's pro-Dalit policies had begun to improve the dire
nutrition situation in the state, where 42 percent of children under
five are underweight.
Even critics admit crime has fallen noticeably since she took over as
chief minister in 2007 from Mulayam Singh Yadav, a former wrestler
many remember for presiding over a surge in gang violence, with
gun-wielding goons threatening shopkeepers.
POLICE ON THEIR SIDE
In the mainly Dalit village of Bhaddi Kheda, an hour's drive from
Lucknow, families have been given grants to build modest new houses to
replace mud-walled hovels. New toilets improve sanitation, and muddy
lanes have been paved.
Most importantly, said villager Saptruhan Das, Dalits who for
generations were terrorized by higher castes now feel protected
because the police are on their side.
"Yadav people would come and misbehave with the women," Das said,
referring to former Chief Minister Yadav's caste. "In some places,
they'd give us work but beat us. Now with Mayawati in power, nobody
According to an opinion poll conducted in Uttar Pradesh for India
Today magazine last November, 69 percent said that Mayawati had
fulfilled the expectations of Dalits.
But nearly 9 out of 10 voters said competence mattered more than the
chief minister's caste, two-thirds wanted a change of guard, and the
poll showed that Yadav was more favored than Mayawati as the best
person to lead the state.
Indeed, Yadav's Samajwadi Party could well emerge from the election
with more seats in the 403-member state assembly than Mayawati, though
probably not enough for a majority, forcing him to ally with Gandhi's
Congress for a return to power.
It is too soon to write off the wily Mayawati. She has outwitted every
opponent who has crossed her path since the 1990s, first forming
several short-lived coalition governments and then storming home with
a single-party majority in 2007.
She still pulls in crowds of easily 100,000 at election rallies, far
more than her opponents, including Gandhi. And she has a knack for
turning adversity into advantage.
Take the flap over the life-sized elephant statues Mayawati had
erected in a sprawling Lucknow park, which she opened in 2008 and
named after the untouchable leader who wrote India's constitution, Dr.
The Election Commission this month ordered all statues of Mayawati and
of elephants -- her party's electoral symbol -- to be covered during
the campaign. So now, dozens of hulking elephant statues are clad in
yellow plastic sheeting, and plyboard boxes have been built around
bronze Mayawati statues.
"I thank the Election Commission for this order," she said. "It is
going to benefit the party and has given us free publicity."
Despite her bravado, Mayawati is likely to lose the votes of millions
who believe that corruption has gone from bad to worse and the fruits
of economic growth have been unevenly spread both across the sprawling
state and its castes.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, one businessman in the state
described a well-organized system of bribe-paying to bureaucrats and
constant harassment of companies for pay-offs.
"You have to be really desperate to do business in Uttar Pradesh. You
have to pay for virtually everything," he said. "Since you have to pay
out even if you follow the law -- why follow the law?"
NO INDUSTRY, NO JOBS
Apart from a couple of companies seen as close to her administration
including Jaypee Group, which built the track used for India's first
Formula One race last year, Uttar Pradesh has missed out on India's
industrial growth of the past decade.
Construction, particularly state-funded building of roads, has been
the main driver of the state's economy, along with agriculture.
Manufacturing has stagnated, hobbled by regular power cuts, high taxes
Dalit villager Chote Lal, 28, says life has improved for his caste
under Mayawati, but he still does not have enough food to feed his
seven children properly. "There are no jobs, no factories -- she
should have brought in industry," he said.
This may be Mayawati's undoing: not the statues and the personal
extravagance, but the sense she has not done enough to lift living
standards evenly across so vast a population.
"Overall, her performance is a mixed bag," said Bose, her biographer.
"She has clearly been disappointing. She had a great chance to do
This is especially felt among higher castes and Muslims, whose votes
helped propel Mayawati to power with a majority in 2007 but who now
feel her pro-Dalit policies have not taken them into account.
"We want a government that works for development, not one that works
for one particular caste or religion," said Mohammed Ahmed Khan, a
Muslim farmer in the village of Dharai Mafi.
(Additional reporting by Alka Pande and Sharat Pradhan; John Chalmers
reported from New Delhi; Editing by Bill Tarrant)
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