The New York Times, May 4, 2003
An Opulent and Pugnacious Champion of India's Outcasts
By AMY WALDMAN
LUCKNOW, India - She arrived by helicopter and spoke for an hour and a half beneath an air-conditioned canopy. Her followers traveled by bus, and sweated for hours in a field in 105 degree heat.
Still, most of them loved every minute of it.
Their leader, Mayawati, is chief minister of India's largest state, Uttar Pradesh, in the north. It is home to 166 million people, which means she governs more people than all but one woman in the world, Indonesia's president, Megawati Sukarnoputri.
But what drew hundreds of thousands to her rally in the state capital in April was her status as India's most powerful Dalit - the people at the bottom of Hinduism's caste hierarchy, once known as untouchables, and still sometimes treated as such.
Dalit means ``ground down,'' or downtrodden. Shunned by higher castes, they have been consigned to Hindu society's lowliest occupations and its lowest ranks in terms of wealth, literacy and land holdings.
That they are no longer at the bottom, politically at least, is embodied by the woman they call Behenji, or sister, a pugnacious, squat former schoolteacher who is the country's first female Dalit chief minister.
In a state where Dalits are nearly one quarter of the population, Ms. Mayawati has used caste as a mobilizer, building on a social and political revolution 50 years in the making. It is a phenomenon that has reshaped the politics of India.
This rally was ostensibly to celebrate the birthday of Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar, a Dalit who led the drafting of India's Constitution and fought to abolish the caste system. He is sometimes likened to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Ms. Mayawati, who like many Dalits uses only one name, claims Dr. Ambedkar's mantle, but she seems more akin to the Rev. Al Sharpton, who is often mired in controversy.
She once labeled Gandhi, who opposed untouchability, but did not advocate eliminating the caste system, the ``biggest enemy of the Dalits.'' She also famously urged her followers to beat people from the upper castes with their shoes.
Her critics charge that she is cut-throat and corrupt in the pursuit of power, and that she lavishes more money on ostentatious displays of status than on serving the poor she claims to represent.
In January, as the poor were freezing in record-low temperatures, she threw herself a 47th birthday party, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in government funds while collecting cash for her political party. She called it ``self-respect day.''
Draped with diamonds, she contrasted sharply with the understated homespun style that most Indian politicians deliberately adopt. The elite, not to mention her rivals, are still huffing about it.
``If a woman claims to be the champion of the Dalits after wearing a 30-million-rupee necklace, there can't be any bigger lie than that,'' said Ram Sharan Das, president of the Samajwadi Party, the biggest competitor to Ms. Mayawati's Majority Society Party.
Her answer to almost every criticism is that she is being attacked because she is ``the daughter of a Dalit.'' Her aides said she was not available for an interview.
Regardless, her excesses seem less to offend her supporters than to affirm their own rise.
``Mayawati gives inspiration that anything can be achieved,'' said Nirmala, 22, who wants to become a teacher.
Babu Ram Prajapti, 37, an agriculture laborer, concurred, saying, ``She and her party have empowered the poor people.''
In a way, she has. The Congress Party of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, which ruled this state, and the nation, for more than 40 years, has been toppled here by the rise of regional, caste- based parties that have formed a series of unstable coalitions. The Majority Society Party, which began in 1984 among bureaucrats who had benefited from affirmative action for Dalits in government jobs and universities, is among them.
Ms. Mayawati and the party's founder, her mentor, Kanshi Ram, have leveraged the sheer multitudes of India's poor. Ms. Mayawati belongs to the Chamar, or Jatav caste, traditionally leather workers, as did almost half of the party's voters last year in assembly elections.
Mr. Ram has long preached, as he did at the rally, that ``political power is the master key with which you can open each and every door.''
So for Ms. Mayawati, even her supporters acknowledge, power has become an ideology in itself. She has kept that power with a canny political instinct some say is necessary to survive the state's volatile politics.
Her party now fields members of higher castes to broaden its voter base. Although she denounces the upper castes, she has three times formed a coalition with the largely upper-caste Bharatiya Janata Party in order to become chief minister. The Bharatiya Janata Party, in turn, is hoping she can deliver Dalit votes in next year's general election.
This, her third stint in the position, began about a year ago; the other two, in 1995 and 1997, lasted less than six months apiece. Her party will next face elections in 2007 - if the coalition lasts that long.
She is currently settling political scores. Recently she took on the Thakurs, a powerful upper caste, by jailing a prominent Thakur landowner and legislator who had long ruled his area like a feudal lord.
Now she is taking aim at her archrival, Mulayam Singh Yadav, who is the state's most powerful leader of the other ``backward castes,'' as those above Dalits in the Hindu hierarchy are known. At the village level, the two groups have often been in conflict, with the backward castes having the upper hand. But at the top, Ms. Mayawati does. At the rally she announced - to applause - the filing of more than 130 criminal charges against Mr. Yadav.
``The message goes to her community that she is teaching a lesson to the leaders of those communities who oppress them,'' said Jagpal Singh, an authority on the state's politics and policies.
He earned her wrath by releasing two damaging videos of her. In one, she exhorted her party's legislators to divert government development funds to party coffers. In the other, she mocked Hindu rituals She insists that they were doctored. Her supporters do not seem to care.
In putting on an almost imperial show of power, she has touched something deep. Many Dalits who came for her rally had the thin frames and fraying finery of the rural poor. But for a day, they owned Lucknow, once defined by the extravagance of Muslim nawabs.
The city had shut down because of the rally, and had been painted blue, the color of the Majority Society Party. There were blue flags, blue elephants - the party symbol - and blue graffiti warning ``anti- Dalits'' not to tangle with Ms. Mayawati, whose image was everywhere.
Rural Dalits marveled at the grand memorial she has built to Dr. Ambedkar on 28 acres here. ``These are the places where downtrodden people can come and say, `This is our symbol,''' said the state's former police chief, Sri Ram Arun, a Dalit.
But all these symbols have come at a price in government funds and sweat, prompting some to argue that the resources would be better spent on uplifting the Dalits economically.
``The symbols have a psychological benefit, but ultimately one has to work out the material issues,'' said Ghanshyam Shah, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University who writes about Dalit politics.
Uttar Pradesh's fortunes have declined since the late 1980's, leaving it among India's poorest states.
Political instability has politicized the bureaucracy, resulting in a flurry of transfers that has intensified under Ms. Mayawati. That has hurt public services and limited private investment in the state.
The liberalization of the economy over the last decade is also shifting power away from the government, and some argue that Ms. Mayawati has not responded. She has done little to improve the state's dismal primary education system, for example.
``With a changing economy and this liberalization, Dalits are in the most disadvantaged position,'' Mr. Shah said. ``You have to equip them through skills and education to compete in the market.''
In Jasmanda, a village about 15 miles from Lucknow, both sides of the coin were visible. Political power had brought some changes. Under a national act reserving some seats on local councils for Dalits and women, a Dalit woman was the village head, but her husband, Puranam Purshottam, clearly ran the show.
He proudly showed how control of the council funds had enabled him to finally pave the lanes in the Dalit area. Under Ms. Mayawati's government, small amounts of land long promised to Dalits had finally been delivered to 42 households.
In Malupoor, the settlement where the Dalits' caste rivals live, residents said the council was ignoring their needs, though their own lanes have been paved for decades.
The two groups live separately, however, and the Dalits said that despite Ms. Mayawati's power, they knew not to cross certain lines. They do not, for example, visit the backward castes' temple.
And economic power remains concentrated on one side. The backward caste owns the land; the Dalits work it. While the government declared that laborers should get 60 rupees - about $1.25 - a day - one landowner said they are paid half that.
``If we don't have money,'' said the landowner, Arun Kumar Verma, ``it doesn't matter what papers you issue.''