Last week, I was in a meeting with a group of visiting financial investors, where a Mumbai-based investment banker, pitching India and Indian companies to the visitors, launched a broadside against Uttar Pradesh chief minister and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati.
Self-righteously, he held her up as an example of everything wrong with India. He argued that she was obsessed with caste politics, faces a raft of graft charges, and concluded that in his mind, people like her were the reason why the country in general and Uttar Pradesh in particular was unable to tap into its obvious potential for growth. One example he held up for scrutiny of the potential foreign investors was the “waste” of Rs 650 crore in erecting statues of Mayawati and her mentor, Kanshi Ram.
That sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The banker, after all, was merely connecting all the dots of a picture of Mayawati and her state popular among many people, especially the chatterati in the metros. Was he being fair? This writer thinks not. Mayawati is far from perfect (no politician is), but criticism such as the banker’s reflects a blinkered perception about another facet of this complex country.
Unfair criticism: Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati during the inauguration of the Rashtriya Dalit Smarak Park in Noida. (HT)
Broadly, the popular criticism of Mayawati can be narrowed down to her feisty personality; obstinate refusal to cultivate a persona acceptable in elite circles, like Nitish Kumar in Bihar and Naveen Patnaik in Orissa have; being not very articulate in English, and belonging to the socially oppressed Dalit class, although no one will ever articulate this. All these have been amplified so disproportionately that they drown out even her commercially friendly qualities that our investment banker friend would have found remunerative to hawk to his associates.
Take, for example, what she has done commercially for Noida (a colleague just returned from a home visit to Lucknow and insisted that there is a transformation on even in that city that has long been in a state of gradual and genteel decay). Beginning with the just-concluded F1 race—the first ever in this country and on a world-class track—and working backwards, she has progressively worked to enhance the commercial value of real estate.
There are no aggregate figures on hand, but there are sufficient anecdotal stories to reveal how the middle class that was smart enough to invest in the early stages has recovered their investment many, many times over. That’s a more enduring legacy than what the Congress party bequeathed to New Delhi after spending crores of taxpayers’ money in organizing the Commonwealth Games.
To be sure, the last five years have coincided with the best years ever of the Indian economy, but even a cursory visit to the area will reveal the imprimatur of the state government. While claims of graft abound (and are a real issue, much like in other parts of India), developers of real estate have to subscribe to basic ground rules—including delivering apartments on pre-arranged deadlines; failure implies fines, divided between the state government and the apartment owner. Rarely does anyone dare to go up against the lady and her writ, something very akin to China, where the ends justify the means.
Let us not forget that Uttar Pradesh is among the poorest states in the country—40% of the people in the most populous state in the country live below the official poverty line. It has, since independence, struggled for want of good governance as regime after regime sought to retain the status quo of poverty and illiteracy, because this would ensure the continuance of caste politics. Experts aver that there are over 60 castes in Uttar Pradesh, with some of the leading groupings completely opposed to each other.
While this lethal status quo may be unravelling and aspirations are finding flight across social classes, it is still impossible for any political party to make an appeal solely based on the platform of development. It is not without reason that Rahul Gandhi has been making the extra effort of targeting the Dalit vote-bank by frequently partaking of the fare of Dalit households in highly publicized events. Caste clearly matters in the state, and Gandhi is taking the battle to Mayawati by targeting her core vote bank.
Without the caste-based coalition and the political realignment that led to the marginalization of the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, the BSP could never have hoped to grab power. (Ironically, it is precisely the loosening of this hold together with anti-incumbency that has now opened up room for her political rivals.)
The statues that our investment banker took umbrage to are symbols of a politically astute tribute to the ascendancy of the Dalits. Most of us don’t know or conveniently overlook the impact of social oppression—where people are denied clean drinking water, good education and a decent home because they are Dalits.
To be economically backward is one thing, but to be socially disenfranchised puts one in an unenviable category altogether. To these people, the so-called architectural eyesores are actually temples of hope; don’t be surprised if they soon end up as preferred pilgrimage hotspots for Dalits from across the country.
It may be another matter though that Mayawati may lose in the upcoming state elections. Uttar Pradesh is in the same position India was in the 1990s—a revival of the economy had begun alongside an acceleration in policy change. Any incoming regime will be hard pressed to reverse the momentum; smarter politicians will ride it and hopefully take Uttar Pradesh, with or without partition, to an entirely different growth trajectory. And, this could not have happened without the BSP supremo’s qualities that our investment banker friend overlooked.
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org
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