by Abhimanyu Chandra:
Chaube Pandey, a taxi driver in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (UP), was listening to political commentary on the radio when he remarked matter-of-factly, “Mayawati might become Prime Minister. After all, the Dalits cast their vote in favor of the Elephant [the symbol of Mayawati’s party] without even thinking twice.” A majority of the people in UP agree. Mayawati, who because of her Dalit caste is permitted only one name by upper castes, is currently serving her fourth term as Chief Minister of UP and is the first Dalit to hold the office.
For centuries, Indian politics has been cursed by the country’s notorious caste system, which places Dalits, known sometimes as “untouchables,” at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Dalits were barred by the upper castes from education, healthcare, and other professions, and were considered suitable only for “impure” jobs like butchery and waste collection. The caste-system still thrives in parts of India, particularly rural areas, and caste identity remains a curse for many. Because of this, Mayawati’s position as Chief Minister of UP “has undeniably had repercussions across the Indian democratic system,” said Tariq Thachil, a political scientist at Yale who specializes in Indian politics. This is also because UP is India’s most politically influential state.
Born in 1956 to poor and near-illiterate parents, Mayawati acquired a public university education and became a teacher. She was inspired to enter politics by Kanshi Ram, a Dalit leader and founder of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Mayawati’s current party. Unlike the only two other women with comparable stature in India’s political history, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and the current head of the ruling party Sonia Gandhi, Mayawati did not reach power through political lineage, wealth, or connections, but through her own struggle and effort.
Mayawati has instituted several policies to empower the lower castes. The Ambedkar Village Scheme has enhanced development by increasing access to electricity, better roads, and more housing for the lower castes. Her enactment of the Atrocities Against Scheduled Castes Act has improved the day-to-day lives of Dalits who may now seek refuge in the law when wronged by the upper castes. Anshuman Goyal, an Indian resident of New York, believes that when Mayawati is in power in UP, there is a better maintenance of law and order. Such results and successes have led analysts to wonder whether she could become Prime Minister, an ambition she openly acknowledges.
Several critics, though, have questioned the extent of her service. Anand Teltumbde, a writer for the Indian-based Economic and Political Weekly, argued that Mayawati has intoxicated the lower castes through empty assertions of identity. He points to the rupee garlands, literal garlands made of enormous amounts of cash, she has received from fellow party members, and her Rs. 10 million (about $225,000) per month income increase. Such assertions of her success, argued Teltumbde, are less meaningful than provisions for real economic development. Similarly, Rajdeep Sardesai, another prominent Indian journalist, complained that she has draped the state with hundreds of billion-rupee statues of Dalit leaders, including of herself. He questioned their benefit to the poor and believes that “hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.”
It is likely that if Mayawati does not succeed at the national level, it will be because she and the BSP have not made significant inroads into any state other than UP. Although it is a national party, the BSP lacks nationwide appeal. According to Christophe Jaffrelot of the Center for International Studies and Research, the BSP is even showing signs of disintegration, with many of its former leaders abandoning the party to form their own. Challenging the country’s older, more established parties seems a distant prospect for the BSP.
Nevertheless, India’s historical ruling parties, the Congress Party and the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), have problems of their own. Since 1947, the Congress Party has been led by the family of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and has been internally undemocratic. The BJP is a Hindu party that has abetted some of India’s worst religion-based violence. Mayawati’s BSP, in comparison, has been internally democratic, meritocratic, and secular. It has deepened India’s democracy, the largest in the world, by providing political power to the lowest caste. Its rise may take time, but Mayawati, at fifty-four, is young in comparison to the typically gray Indian politicians. If she succeeds in ensuring economic improvement in UP and abandons the temptations of populism, Mayawati could begin to broaden her appeal and may reach the unprecedented height of becoming the first Dalit Prime Minister of India.
Abhimanyu Chandra ’13 is in Branford College. Contact him at email@example.com.