Tuesday, October 18, 2011

[ZESTCaste] Dalit Park: Boon or Bane for Mayawati?


October 18, 2011, 11:00 AM IST

Dalit Park: Boon or Bane for Mayawati?

By Preetika Rana

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Kumari Mayawati on Friday unveiled her
latest pet project: the 6.85 billion rupees ($139 million) Dalit park
in Noida, just outside New Delhi.

Over 40,000 supporters of Ms. Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party gathered
in and around the park for its extravagant inauguration, which started
with the chief minister's helicopter arrival. In her opening speech,
Ms. Mayawati said that "the park honors the efforts of Dalit leaders
to uplift backward sections of society."

The park, the "Rashtriya Dalit Prerna Sthal," or Dalit tribute
monument, is spread over 33 acres of land and includes 24 pink
sandstone elephants, the BSP party symbol, as well as statues of 15
Dalit icons. Among them: one of Ms. Mayawati herself. She stands next
to figures like Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, the Dalit hero who drafted
India's constitution.

That the chief minister is included in this illustrious list comes as
no big surprise: her home state is already dotted with many of her
statues. But will this populist initiative draw more support for Ms.
Mayawati ahead of the 2012 U.P. elections or backfire?

Ms. Mayawati's lavish park, unveiled at a time when her state is
reportedly struggling with a 186-million-rupee fiscal deficit, has
been slammed by opposition politicians.

The Dalit park has become the latest stage of the battle between
Congress and the BSP over Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state
and one of the country's most coveted electoral prizes. Dalits,
historically at the bottom of India's caste hierarchy, traditionally
support Ms. Mayawati's BSP. But Congress, spearheaded by Rahul Gandhi,
the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, has its eyes on the state and
has been attacking the current chief minister on issues ranging from
law and order to land compensation. The park gives new fodder to

Noting that "hard earned money of Indian tax-payers had been
squandered" on the memorial, Congress spokesman Abhishek Manu Singhvi
told India Real Time that this money could have been put to better
use, like to improve the state's law and order or to provide relief
for the poor. Others described Ms. Mayawati's Dalit park as
symptomatic of her feudal mentality, echoing earlier criticisms
revealed in U.S. diplomatic cables recently made public by WikiLeaks.

The BSP has spoken in Ms. Mayawati's defense, strongly rejecting
allegations of megalomania. They say that erecting statues of the
chief minister wasn't her idea at all – but that of late party founder
Kanshi Ram. A BSP official told India Real Time that Ms. Mayawati
"selflessly" erected her own statues. "Kanshi Ram's written will
requests that his statues should only be erected, if instituted
besides those of the current BSP president," he explained. "Opposition
parties are attempting to mock Behenji [Mayawati] as they fear losing
upcoming state elections," the BSP official added.

One of Ms. Mayawati's main political tools against Congress has been
to slam the party as "anti-Dalit," which she did again on Friday. "The
western banks of river Yamuna in Delhi are adorned with memorials
dedicated to Nehru and Gandhi, however, nothing has been done by the
Congress to honor the Dalit community, which has long been suppressed
and looked down upon" she said. "The BSP took it upon itself to do the
needful," she added. Ms. Mayawati said that at the 2012 state
elections, "not a single Dalit vote from Uttar Pradesh or any other
part of the country would go to them."

Mr. Singhvi of the Congress party rejected Ms. Mayawati's claims.
"Congress is an amalgamation of all castes and communities
representing India," he told India Real Time.

Experts say the BSP may not gain much from the initiative. George
Verghese, of the Delhi-based think tank Centre for Policy Research,
said that the Dalit memorial would only "marginally strengthen BSP's
voter base."

"Extravagant parks cannot feed poverty-stricken [people] across the
state" he said. "Voters no longer live in a fool's paradise." Mr.
Verghese further noted that the launch came at a time when the BSP
"strongly needed to substantiate their credentials" and that memorials
could do little to guarantee a wider voter base.

Srikant Pandey, a professor of political science at Delhi University,
similarly found that the BSP adopted a "short-sighted policy" in its
bid to woo potential voters. "The party might not be able to attract
the urban educated [elite], however it leaves no stone unturned to
secure voters among minorities and the underprivileged, which account
for most of the state's population" said Mr. Pandey. He said that
while this strategy might work initially, it is bound to backfire in
the long run.

The park in Noida is likely to be one of many similar initiatives Ms.
Mayawati's government is set to sponsor in the near future. U.P.'s
administration has set aside 500 billion rupees ($10.2 billion) to
build and maintain memorials, parks and statues around the state, and
only 1% of this amount has been spent so far, Ms. Mayawati said during
the inaugural. The park in Noida was funded partly with money from
this budget and partly through donations, a BSP party official told
India Real Time. Ms. Mayawati said entry fees (visitors have to pay 10
rupees for admission to the park) will help make up for the costs.

While her government has allocated significant sums for memorials and
similar, only 1,800 million rupees (3.6 million dollars) have been set
aside to fight encephalitis, a viral disease that has killed over 400
people in the state in recent months.

Mahesh Kumar, a BSP official, told India Real Time that "all necessary
measures were being taken" to combat the ongoing health crisis in
Uttar Pradesh.

Follow India Real Time on Twitter @indiarealtime.


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