Monday, August 24, 2009

Misplaced Symbolism

The politics of symbolism is taken too far by the Mayawati led government in Uttar Pradesh.

Symbolism has always played a important part in the Bahujan Samaj Party's (BSP) politics. The essence of the symbolism used by the party is the propagation and prominence given to Dalit and social reform leaders of the past and present - from Jyotiba Phule to Bhimrao Ambedkar to E.V. "Periyar" Ramaswamy to Kanshi Ram by constructing murals, statues and other media. The Mayawati led BSP government in Uttar Pradesh (UP) has taken this symbolism to a garguantan extent - budgeted at nearly Rs 2,000 crores - to build statues and memoriums to not only the aforementioned Dalit icons but also to the chief minister herself. By no means is the UP government's usage of public expenditure for this endeavour exclusive - symbolism in Indian politics and governance across states is replete with examples of iconography and hagiography. To that extent, the exclusive negative attention in the media and derision for Mayawati's symbolism obsession is unjustified and smacks of hypocrisy. But again, the scale of grandeur and the thin line between symbolism and personality cult that the Mayawati led government has traversed calls into question the priorities of the two year old government and indeed the ever-evolving politics of the BSP.

Much of the surprising success in 2007 by the BSP in Uttar Pradesh owes to the astute political strategising and hard work done by its supremo, Mayawati. In winning the assembly elections by a clear majority in India's largest state, Mayawati turned Indian politics on its head - for the first time an avowedly Dalit party had come to power on its own. The major reason for the victory was the strategy of forging a multi-caste alliance with the strings of power in the hands of the Dalit chief minister. The victory in 2007 catapulted the chief minister into national reckoning and it was expected that her government's performance and organisational work by her party would inspire similar successes elsewhere atleast in North India. But the parliamentary elections in 2009 was a dampener, with the BSP unable to consolidate its successes of 2007. One primary reason for this lack of success was the weakening of the broad social coalition - sarvajan as the BSP calls it - in the state, partly because of inability by the Mayawati led government to keep it intact through dedicated governance and also partly because of misplaced priorities. Very little dent has been made in issues that have plagued governance in UP - criminalisation, ineffectiveness, etc and the ostentatious spending on symbolism by Mayawati has certainly not helped her recapture public minds.

Why then has Mayawati embarked upon this mega-project? For one, Dalit symbolism has its efficacy in propping up the issue of self-respect and dignity privileged by the BSP as primary issues for Dalits. The history of the BSP's politics and its political movement suggests how much symbols, visual imagery of leaders have been used to demolish the myth of caste hierarchy. The establishment of memorials and statues continues in this vein. Only Mayawati's own vainglorious attempt to place herself within the "pantheon" of Dalit symbolism, takes the politics of such symbolism too far. Also the scale of such grandeur suggests that the excess is merely an attempt to gloss over the failures of implementation of policies that strike at the very heart of the enduring hierarchy and exploitation - measures such as land reforms for one which are clearly lacking as an emphases for the UP government.

In other words, Mayawati's venture - the provision of immense public space in memoria to Dalit icons (including herself in the process) might be justified on the grounds of providing alternative iconography for subaltern and Dalit achievers. But the primacy given to such symbolism at the cost of other administrative and governance measures to address the concerns of those very subaltern and exploited peoples of the state point toward the co-option of Dalit politics within the broad feudal canvas in many parts of India that privileges the politics of symbolism over actualities of proper governance. This also explains the excessive ostentation displayed by the UP chief minister in events such as her "birthday parties", in the naming of her successor through an envelope and in the highly centralised and authoritative character of her leadership - all belying her humble beginnings and remarkable rise to her current position, attributed to the affinity shown by the Dalit people towards her and her party. The rise of the BSP in Indian politics was a great leap in progressivism and a major event in the so called "silent revolution" orchestrated by the underclasses of Indian society. The sad recourse to excessive symbolism and hagiography suggests that the BSP has taken a few steps backward. It is incumbent upon the "Dalit ki beti" (Daughter of Dalits) and the "behenji" to chart her party and movement back to its original course and a change of priorities in governance would be a good starting point.

Draft of an editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly