Give Credit to Mayawati for her Candour
By M J Akbar
How much anger can one provoke on a lazy Sunday morning by offering a single cheer to Mayawati, whose latest version of jewellery is cash garlands? Judging by the vehemence of cartoons, quite a lot. Mayawati never fails to irritate the English Indian, being the antithesis of its political, behavioural and psychological preferences. But pause, rewind, and reconsider: surely Mayawati deserves at least a ‘C’ (following the new grading system of examinations) for candour. She is doing in sunlight what her peers do in the privacy of the drawing room. Moreover, this money is from party faithful, not lobbyists handing out black money in return for favours taken or due.
We cannot upgrade Mayawati to two or three cheers, since she is probably not averse to drawing-room deals either, but there is something to be said for this undisguised pot-shot at the hypocrisy that sprinkles weak perfume over the pervasive stink at the heart of Indian democracy. Politics has become expensive, and politicians spoilt. Those shocked by the thought of Rs 5 crore should order some wake-up pills: that kind of money buys you a few packets of peanuts in conventional party politics.
Mayawati never provokes her antagonists by accident. It is conscious and deliberate. She represents the third stage of Dalit empowerment, a process that began before independence under the charismatic leadership of that true intellectual giant, B R Ambedkar. Ambedkar’s rage against untouchability led him to seek separate political space in British India. However, he realized that his best option, at that stage of history, was accommodation: his Pune pact with Mahatma Gandhi in 1932 ensured Dalits the reservations that became a springboard for political evolution.
Kanshi Ram took the next quantum leap forward when he ripped apart the Gandhian dialectic as patronizing, and initiated the rescue of Dalits from the comatose embrace of Congress. It is quite astonishing that we can no longer legally use the term that Gandhi coined for Dalits. Kanshi Ram confronted the establishment and transformed Indian politics. His heir Mayawati has built on that transformation to seize power without allies through the electoral system, a prospect that would have been dismissed as fantasy even in the 1990s. She has done so by diluting confrontation to provocation.
Challenge is the noun and verb of the rhetoric of anger. When Mayawati flaunts her public or personal riches, she is sending a message to her own constituency, that wealth is a source of power, and power is no longer the monopoly of a traditional elite that has brutalized Dalits for thousands of years. She displays contempt for the “legality” that has kept her community socially enslaved and economically impoverished; and scorn for a system in which dominant parties can be flush with hidden cash while she must become answerable for each rupee. She is levelling the playing field with a brazen display, because brazen is as good for her as secrecy is for others. If the CBI were honest enough to probe just how much all political leaders — all, across the spectrum, including Mayawati — spent on private jets, we would get some very revealing facts and figures.
Her dilemma is the familiar balancing act; the demographics of every constituency ensure that she needs the support of others for victory. She has a potential ally in Muslims, but there are many claimants to the Muslim vote. She needs some working relationship with UP’s Brahmins, and there is always the danger that her provocations will be perceived as confrontation. A government is not re-elected on the basis of a rally; it is measured by the quality of governance. A rally merely reassures the faithful. Sensible rule encourages the expansion of faith.
Do not underestimate, however, a notable point: not a rupee from the Mayawati garland lost its way along the journey from collection to knit to neck and then her safe. Cash garlands are a familiar form of tribute in India, whether to bridegroom or politician, but that does not make them foolproof. Last week, Ejaz Ali, former JD (U) MP who became famous beyond his hometown, Patna, after his protests against the women’s bill, was welcomed with a cash garland at Patna airport. They were not, admittedly, 1,000-rupee notes, but a hundred rupees buys more than a meal in Bihar. Alas, by the time the garland reached the recipient it was no longer a cash garland. The cash had been ripped off. Mark this down to the ideological purity of Biharis. This was an instinctive display of Marxist-Leninist principles: from each according to his ability, to each according to his need, without interference from any intermediary. The money had come from those willing to pay, and gone to the needy, leaving the politician laden with honour and light of cash. Perfect.
Appeared in Times of India - March 21, 2010