The ‘Untouchable’

Meet Mayawati, India's multimillionaire lower-caste power broker and politician.

STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images
STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images

Millions of voters will head to the polls this week for the first phase of what are often called India’s second-most important elections — for a new government in Uttar Pradesh, the country’s largest state and home to about one in six of its 1.2 billion citizens. If it were an independent country, UP, as it is commonly known, would be the world’s fifth-most populous, roughly the size of Brazil.

In the drama of Indian democracy, UP has always played a starring role. Eight of India’s 13 prime ministers, including Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, have come from the Hindi heartland state, which sits along India’s northern border with Nepal. UP is also home to the parliamentary constituencies of Nehru’s heirs, Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi and her son, Rahul Gandhi, arguably the country’s two most powerful politicians.

In recent weeks, the media has dwelled upon the 41-year-old Gandhi scion’s effort to reclaim UP for Congress for the first time since 1989. Few expect him to pull this off: India’s ruling party holds only 22 seats in the 403-strong state assembly. Nonetheless, a strong performance will be interpreted by pundits and party insiders as a sign of Gandhi’s readiness this year to replace Singh as prime minister, an office held by Gandhi’s great-grandfather, grandmother, and father before him.

Standing in Gandhi’s way is a streetwise 56-year-old politician with a starkly different pedigree. One of nine children born in a New Delhi shantytown to a postal clerk and his illiterate wife, Chief Minister Mayawati (she uses only one name) leads UP’s ruling Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), best known as the party of India’s Dalits — the people once called "untouchables" — who comprise about 16 percent of the country’s population.

Historically, Dalits occupied the lowest rung of Indian society, beyond the pale of the four-tiered caste system. Members of Mayawati’s Chamar subcaste were traditionally leather workers, a trade considered unclean in Hinduism. In American terms, Mayawati’s position is roughly akin to a granddaughter of slaves being elected governor of New York just a half-century after the abolition of slavery.

Thanks to UP’s electoral weight and political symbolism, should Mayawati win another term — she’s been in power since the last election in 2007 — she will be one step closer to her stated goal of becoming prime minister (though her limited appeal outside her home state still makes her a long shot). Even if she loses, though, the chief minister will remain a symbol of both the promise and the perils of India’s burgeoning democracy.

For Mayawati’s many detractors, she’s a vivid reminder of everything that’s wrong with Indian politics. Soon after she became chief minister of UP for the first time in 1995 — she has lost and returned to the office three times since then — Mayawati earned a reputation for megalomania, staggering corruption, and the privileging of narrow identity politics above the most elementary norms of governance.

Understatement is not Mayawati’s strong suit. In 2003, the diamond-bedecked chief minister reportedly spent 100 million taxpayer rupees (roughly $2 million) on a lavish party for her birthday, celebrated by her supporters each year as swabhiman divas, or self-respect day. The trappings included a 110-pound cake, 100,000 laddoos — a traditional Indian sweet — more than 13,000 pounds of marigolds, 5,000 bouquets of flowers, and decorations mimicking a classic Bollywood movie set during the Mughal Empire.

In a similar display of garishness at a BSP event two years ago, Mayawati’s supporters presented her with a giant garland of rupees valued at between $400,000 and $2 million. A much-discussed WikiLeaks cable released last year described her as a "virtual paranoid dictator" who made errant ministers do sit-ups before her as penance and dispatched a private jet to Mumbai to pick up her preferred brand of sandals. Mayawati denied the allegations and suggested that Julian Assange be thrown into a mental asylum in her state.

When not burnishing her cult of personality with public displays of excess, Mayawati finds other ways to set her critics’ teeth on edge. They attack her for ignoring poverty and pouring vast resources into grand memorials to Dalit heroes, foremost among them Bhimrao Ambedkar, a Columbia University-educated Dalit lawyer who rose from poverty to become the prime author of India’s Constitution. The chief minister has dotted the state with statues of Ambedkar — and in recent years of herself clutching a trademark rectangular handbag.

Then there’s the grand-scale corruption. Among the most notable allegations are lucrative government jobs auctioned to the highest bidder, embezzlement and land grabbing near the Taj Mahal, and the alleged looting of a national health-care program that has led to the mysterious deaths of at least three people in what is widely viewed as a coverup.

In 2010, Mayawati declared her net worth as 880 million rupees (about $17.9 million at current exchange rates), which made her, at least on paper, one of India’s richest politicians. Her holdings include commercial real estate and two mansions in one of New Delhi’s toniest neighborhoods. The chief minister’s once humble family has also prospered during her time in public life. Specifics are hard to come by, but according to a 2003 court filing by India’s Central Bureau of Investigation, Mayawati and her family owned scores of shops, houses, and orchards. At least one of her brothers is a controversial businessman accused of prospering because of proximity to power.

Mayawati brushes off corruption allegations as part of a conspiracy by jealous upper-caste elites to tar her image. Her wealth, she says, comes from donations from her admirers, especially Dalits who look up to behenji, or elder sister, as she is known among the BSP faithful.

Despite the well-founded complaints, there is a more generous way to view the chief minister. Only in a true democracy could the power of the ballot overturn millennia of discrimination. Outsiders may scoff at her statue-building spree, but for UP’s 40 million Dalits who view her as a modern-day messiah, the symbolism of public spaces honoring a group that has been ritually humiliated for centuries can hardly be called empty.

As for Mayawati’s cult of personality, her opponents are hardly in the best position to criticize. Over the years, Congress Party governments have poured untold millions of taxpayer rupees into government programs named after members of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty: They too have their memorials and museums, not to mention stadiums, airports, and universities. Nor can anyone say with authority that the chief minister is in fact wealthier than many of her peers in politics. If anything, she may merely be guilty of flaunting what others prefer to veil.

In a broader sense, the Dalit movement that Mayawati leads has become less rough around the edges over the years. In the 1980s, when it was led by Mayawati’s mentor, BSP-founder Kanshi Ram, its message focused almost exclusively on hatred of the upper castes. A popular slogan from the 1980s called on Dalits to take off their shoes and thrash Brahmins, Kshatriyas, and Vaishyas, the three highest castes. In 1995, when Mayawati briefly became chief minister of UP for the first time, she appeared to spend more time pursuing vendettas against upper-caste civil servants than governing. A small coterie of Dalit civil servants and police officers monopolized power, and caste was widely viewed as trumping all other considerations in government postings.

In the last election, by contrast, Mayawati came to power with a majority in the state legislature — rather than in a shaky coalition as in the past — thanks to the broadening of her appeal beyond her Dalit base. Most remarkably, the Dalit leader drew significant Brahmin support. Similarly, in the current election, less than a quarter of the BSP’s candidates are Dalits.

The BSP does not profess much of an ideology beyond a gauzy vision of social uplift, but Mayawati has broadened her appeal by promising greater inclusiveness, improved law and order, and support for sops such as government jobs for the upper-caste poor. Under her rule, economic growth has picked up to a shade below the national average of 7 percent. Her government has built 200,000 houses for the disadvantaged. In October, somewhat incongruously, Mayawati presided over India’s first ever Formula 1 race on a brand-new track on the outskirts of Delhi.

This doesn’t mean that there isn’t significant room for improvement. The state continues to lag its more dynamic peers in western and southern India by virtually every measure of income and human development. For some, UP is synonymous with underweight babies and rampant illiteracy. (About 30 percent of UP’s people can’t read or write.) Hundreds died last year in an outbreak of viral encephalitis. As for UP’s commitment to democracy, sometimes it can be difficult to tell the state’s criminals from its legislators.

Despite the historical significance of a Dalit woman’s rise to become what political commentator Ajoy Bose calls "the undisputed empress of India’s largest state," symbolism alone does not equal progress. It shouldn’t be too much for UP’s voters to expect politicians who can offer their supporters more than just a dose of self-respect. We won’t know the outcome of UP’s elections until next month. The smart money is on Mayawati’s traditional rival, another lower-caste (but not Dalit) regional outfit, the Samajwadi Party. But one thing is for sure: Whoever is elected has their work cut out for them.

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