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.