Even Kanshiram Mayawati's supporters are questioning the extravagance of a chief minister with a penchant for grand monuments.
State chief's monument to herself
LUCKNOW, INDIA // When the question popped up, his forehead wrinkled. He clamped his lips tightly together. He flicked his head to the right. Then to the left, making sure no one was within eavesdropping range. "Behenji," he finally muttered amid the whirring of cranes and drilling machines, "is an autocratic leader who is obsessed with creating a legacy for herself."
As beads of sweat dribbled down his cheek, he continued: "She's a megalomaniac, at best." Standing in a dusty construction site, this government official spoke off the record about Mayawati, India's most powerful Dalit and the chief minister of the state of Uttar Pradesh, who is often called behenji, which means elder sister in Hindi. He was talking about her penchant for erecting monuments and statues, often of herself.
In the latest of the series, being built in memory of Kanshiram, Mayawati's political mentor, a row of nearly two dozen large, pink sandstone elephants lead to the memorial's vast domed atrium - billed to be India's largest - where a six-metre, bronze statue of Kanshiram will stand. This is just one of the many grand monuments and statues she ordered to be built since winning federal elections in 2007 catapulted her to become the first Dalit - or "untouchable" - to ascend to that post.
These monuments and statues, she says, are a totem of pride and empowerment of Dalits, a long-oppressed section, who lie at the bottom of India's caste hierarchy. But this week, India's Supreme Court issued her a notice, questioning her move to splurge taxpayers' money on statues. It issued it while hearing a public interest litigation filed by Ravi Kant, a Supreme Court advocate, who alleges that Mayawati has spent two billion rupees (Dh152 million) from state coffers to "falsely glorify" herself. She has four weeks to file her response.
She was voted into power two years ago, and for a majority of Uttar Pradesh's 160 million Dalits, Mayawati has been celebrated as "India's Obama" for her meteoric rise to new political heights. But many have lambasted her for wasting public money in one of India's poorest states. "Of what use are these statues?" Palaniappan Chidambaram, India's home minister, bristled at a public rally last week. "These [billions] could have helped wipe out poverty of thousands of people, provide basic amenities and education. Can there be anything more shameful in Indian politics?"
According to India's planning commission, Uttar Pradesh accounts for one-fifth of India's poor. Fifty-nine million people - or one-third of the state - live below the poverty line. The state has an abysmal Human Development Index of 0.388, the lowest in the country. Under her administration, atrocities against Dalits - the community she vowed to help in her election campaign - have shot up by 4.74 per cent in 2008 compared with 2007, according to the New Delhi-based Asian Centre for Human Rights. A total of 6,942 human rights abuses at the hands of upper castes and police were recorded in 2008 compared with 6,628 in 2007, according to the records of the Uttar Pradesh police.
"Mayawati has failed to take appropriate measures to ensure the rights of the Dalits while they continue to be denied entry into temples, are barred from using public facilities, including water wells, and face discrimination in educational institutions," said Suhas Chakma, the centre's director. Members of her own Dalit community also criticise her for not living up to her promise of providing subsidised food rations, pensions for widows, and basic amenities such as good roads, water and electricity.
All this, while Mayawati's personal wealth has reportedly grown by leaps and bounds to in excess of US$10m (Dh36.7m). She has a fleet of aircraft, including a Beechcraft jet she uses as her flying office. "This is a slumdog who has made herself a millionaire," said Sharmishta Sharma, an editor with Hindi daily. "But what has she done for the masses - nothing." In the recently held parliamentary elections she made known her ambition to become prime minister. At election rallies, she exhorted her supporters to vote for her to ensure that she, a "Dalit ki Beti" - or daughter of a Dalit - becomes India's first Dalit prime minister.