The art of overt aggrandisement

A story of false concerns and true fears, as far as the statues of Mayawati are concerned.

Mayawati, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh and India's most popular living Dalit leader, is currently having immense statues built of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, Kanshi Ram and herself, in the process generating much resentment among the English-speaking public and her political adversaries. Figures ranging upwards to INR 20 billion have reportedly been allocated for these constructions, resulting in outrage among certain sections. That outrage has been expressed primarily along three lines: first, that public funds could be better utilised for development work; second, that there is an uncomfortable impropriety surrounding erecting statues to oneself during one's lifetime; and third, that doing so does nothing for the Dalits, whose cause Mayawati professes to espouse. Each of these considerations, however, leaves something larger unsaid.

There is certainly something disingenuous in the first, saying that, for instance, such sums could better be spent on improving health care, education and whatnot. In fact, these monies are coming from the budget of various ministries that have nothing to do with health or education, mostly from preset budgetary provisions of the Department of Culture. And there is more. Squandering public money is, of course, a non-casteist charge, and by bringing it up, prejudices and animosities that could otherwise have casteist origins can be presented in public discourse.

What predictably escapes scrutiny, meanwhile, is the plethora of such expenses that have been paid out over the years, and which continuing unabashedly today. Just a brief list of such costs would include the upkeep of the president's official residence (the 340-room Rashtrapati Bhavan, the world's largest for a head of state), the various governor's houses, the lavish banquets for charmed government circles, the sumptuous welcomes given to foreign dignitaries, the various 'traditions' of the armed forces including musical bands and polo clubs. These undoubtedly form the political and economic equivalent of building thousands upon thousands of statues every year. Would the same voices have been as shrill if Mayawati had merely ordered the construction of statues of deceased prime ministers of India? The sudden obsession of the chatterati (invariably in high-caste circles) with the absence of proper health care or education in Uttar Pradesh would be, possibly, quite amusing to the state's Dalits.

Megalomania is more common than we admit; most of us merely lack the resources to go about it. In the past, building statues and other structures to oneself was widely followed by India's rulers. The Britishers, for instance, named entire cities and islands after living monarchs and other white men. Shravan Prajapati, the sculptor of the Mayawati statues, has also sculpted a commissioned statue of Margaret Thatcher, who is very much alive. While to some of us a change in epoch has taken place, one must remember that the peculiar obsession of what befits 'modern times' is not shared across the populace of India. This is especially true for the Dalits and other oppressed and marginalised communities.

Fey propriety
It is time that one admits that the grappling with modernity that so permeates India's popular discourse is, at the end of the day, primarily a forward-caste phenomenon – thus making it a minority phenomenon. There is the possibility that a Dalit vision of public propriety might be very different from that with which members of the forward castes are comfortable. This is something that the forward castes by and large do not allow for – hegemonic groups presuppose that their vision of the world is an all-encompassing one, with them at the centre. Anything that dislodges them from that centre and throws open different public standards, particularly those backed by other peoples, is dangerous. For then, ethos, practices, moralities begin to seem less providential and timeless, open to multiple interventions and hence more democratic – attributes about which hegemonic minorities tend to be distrustful.

Having said this, one also has to note the deep hypocrisy in the propriety argument. When they were prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi were awarded the Bharat Ratna, the country's highest civilian award. Technically, they did not nominate themselves, but rather were bestowed the honour by the president on behalf of the 'people of India'. But two can play this game. For her part, Mayawati has said that her own statues were built for the publicly stated wish of her mentor, Kanshi Ram. Moreover, most of her statues have been inaugurated by the minister of urban planning, Naseemuddin Siddiqui.

As much as the elite would like to claim that the peoples of India are first and foremost citizens, before they are Dalits or Kshatriyas, some facts stand out starkly. The first Dalit to become a Bharat Ratna was Babasaheb Ambedkar, but this was as late as 1990. If the backward castes have to wait for the recognition of their heroes as national heroes, they will wait a very long time indeed. Since 1990, no backward-caste icon has been deemed a ratna enough for Bharat. Yet a false myth of unity backed by a scheme of inclusiveness – a society that can be thought of as something of an inverted pyramid – is clearly unstable. Sooner or later, someone has to turn the pyramid on its head. Mayawati, in her political astuteness, is doing just that.

The lack of Dalit icons in the urban Indian public pantheon (which itself is full of icons) is not accidental. Ishwar Chandra Bidyasagar is a public icon. Truly a pioneer, he struggled for the legalisation of widow remarriage in India, and lobbied the British rulers. But thereafter the story gets complicated. For whom, exactly, was Bidyasagar a pioneer? As it turns out, he was a pioneer largely for forward-caste Hindus, among whom widow remarriage was virtually absent. This was not the case with many backward castes and indigenous peoples, among whom widow remarriage was nothing new.

Ishwar Chandra's iconisation says much about the near invisibility and irrelevance of the lives of most of India's peoples in setting the content of the country's public discourse. This is akin to Christopher Columbus's 'discovery' of America – left unsaid is that it really was merely the arrival of Spaniards to a well-populated land. One can think that the world is what one decides it to be; but unfortunately for some, a deepening of democracy has the subversive potential of rudely interrupting daydreams. Such interruptions are never pleasant, especially when they threaten to be the opening shots of a long series of interruptions that could, ultimately, unravel the world of the forward castes. The arrival of people whose grandmothers sung them different lullabies, lullabies born out of the nightsoil, may break the party. And there lies the rub.

Political faeces
Mayawati is possibly no more demagogic as a leader of the Dalits than other 'leaders of India' have been. It is the inaccessibility of the workings of her political base that depresses the chattering classes. Elite Indians have been fed a steady diet of some form of the ideological spectrum of Mill-Hume-Smith-Hegel-Marx. They have lamented the supposed absence of any evolution of indigenous political thought, with the exception of certain icons of the elite. Unfortunately, they have a very narrow view of what constitutes political thought.

In human existence, where much of politics is among the non-reader of books, the evolution of political thought also has multiple trajectories – some inaccessible to the book reader, however odd that may sound. Every time the revenue collector of a forward-caste landlord showed up at the village, whenever Dalit menfolk ran away to hide behind tall grass to escape the immediate oppressors, theories of the nature of power developed. Schools of political thoughts likewise developed as Dalits and Adivasis huddled in fright at being displaced by the bulldozers of mining companies, which all the while are protected by the state forces. Theories of human dignity and humiliation also developed whenever bhangis scoured the faeces of forward-caste toilets with their right hands. And just as members of the forward castes have never really known what it is like to touch faeces with their right hands, there is a near-complete lack of understanding of why, in a recent survey, 62 percent of Dalits around Lucknow supported the installations of the Mayawati statues.

In Ambedkar Park in Lucknow is a body of water called the Bhim Ganga, named after Bhimrao Ambedkar. From this, Dalit men and women have often collected water, considering it holy. What do we learn from this? In this supposed age of all-encompassing modernity, myths and indeed gods are coming to life just as they always have. Yet this world of animation almost completely eludes the pundits and pontificators, to whom India's diverse peoples are almost an embarrassment.

Mayawati has tried to project herself as a messiah of the Dalits, and comparisons in India were thus being made with that other messianic figure of these times, President Barack Obama. While it has been argued publicly that Mayawati is no Obama, for she lacks a unifying vision (and privately, her 'unpresentability' at international forums), something else also bears mentioning. President Obama's political idiom is being oft-discussed as part of a post-racist US – that is, an atonement for white American's sins, and for cheap. Mayawati sells no such fiction of a post-casteist society – the real and present caste-ridden society is her political capital. Her recent overtures to forward castes do not take away the very real sense of dignity with which some Dalits have been armed.

The elite's discomfiture with Mayawati's statues is clearly building, worming its way under the skin of many. This is exacerbated by the fact that Mayawati and her ilk have yet to imbibe the refined art of covert aggrandisement. At the moment, her gaudiness remains too out in the open: the big golden earrings she wears, the huge birthday cake she cuts are all too easy to condemn. Yet the important thing is that this flamboyance does not follow the usual ways of the mandarins of elite Indian society. She does not play golf or drink Johnny Walker Blue with public money; instead, she commissions statues of herself and her mentor.

Indeed, the acceptable methods and range of permissible displays of public-funded self-aggrandisement have been normalised for other groups and sectors for years, even centuries. The new interloper either has not learned this yet, or she has a different game to play entirely; in either case, Mayawati poses a danger to the models of silent theft, and more broadly to the consensus of how political life is organised. At the same time, none should underestimate the power of co-option – Pu Laldenga and Shibu Soren (the former chief ministers of Mizoram and Jharkhand, respectively) are lingering examples of how iconic leaders can be reduced to ghosts of their earlier selves. But for now, every Mayawati-induced cringe from the Indian elites is being shrewdly crafted by the chief minister herself into yet another medal of pro-Dalit credentials.

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Himal Southasian