Let thousand garlands bloom

Let thousand garlands bloom

Mayawati does it in style. Every celebration by the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh makes the preceding celebration look pale. It is, of course, a matter of how you view things: they’re either obscene or magnificent. Once it was a huge cake, then there were stone elephants in a park (cost: Rs2,000 crore); this time it’s a garland made of Rs1,000 notes. An estimated Rs2 crore was stitched up to make this present for her.

This free flow of money is in contrast to a tragedy that struck the state some weeks earlier: 63 people perished in a godman’s compound in Pratapgarh district of the state while trying to collect Rs20 from the holy man, who was giving money to commemorate the death anniversary of his wife. The initial reaction of Mayawati’s government was that it had no money for the victims. Within days it changed tack and announced compensation. But that was when the state and the Centre got into a competition to give money to those killed.

There are two ways to look at such actions. The easier position is to say that this is the blooming of a repressed Dalit spirit. Fair enough. But after so many years, isn’t it time for things to move on to something more substantive? The danger here is that Dalit assertion will remain stuck at the level of a symbolic affair, manipulated for political ends and little else.

Perhaps, it already has. The other way to look at the situation is from the perspective of distorted incentives in Indian politics. Such displays pay well politically. But delivery of services (education, healthcare and a better quality of life, in general) does not fetch votes. This is surprising. For the raison d’être of a bloated state sector, presided over by politicians, is to give citizens a better life. Mayawati’s big bill garlands are not the only example of this behaviour (though a more visible one) and nor is the Bahujan Samaj Party the only political outfit indulging in such practices.

There is no easy way to reorder these incentives. So long as the cost of such garlands is dispersed over a large number of citizens, no one will feel them. But the cost of money misspent in this manner are the lost opportunities for the betterment of citizens.

Are there larger costs to gifts such as Mayawati’s garland? Tell us at views@livemint.com