Elephant symbols of empowerment are too powerful for India's Election Commission
John Elliott from Riding the Elephant blog
By John Elliott from Riding the Elephant blog
The Foreign Desk - International dispatches from Independent
Tuesday, 17 January 2012 at 8:19 am
Mayawati elephants covered 1 300x161 Elephant symbols of empowerment
are too powerful for India's Election CommissionThese giant stone
elephants sitting on their pedestals in a huge park outside Delhi are
a symbol of India's political development. Built here and in Uttar
Pradesh's capital city of Lucknow, along with other massive stone and
bronze monuments, stupas, and domes at a reported cost of Rs4,500
crore ($1bn), they are designed to glorify Kumari Mayawati, the
state's controversial chief minister and be a symbol of empowerment
for her Dalit low caste.
India's Election Commission ordered last week that all the elephants,
and statues of Mayawati, should be covered for the duration of the
state's current assembly elections – polling takes place next month.
The chief election commissioner, S.Y.Qureshi, said this was done to
stop Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) gaining "political mileage"
from the displays – just, he said, as pictures of political leaders
are removed from government offices during polls.
One can see Qureshi's logic because Mayawati is the chief minister
candidate in the elections and the elephant is her party's symbol.
(The fact that this maverick and autocratic politician, who brooks no
opposition, obeyed him is a testament to the uniquely independent
authority that the Election Commission wields in this unruly country).
But was Qureshi's instruction sensible, and was it counter-productive?
A retired top bureaucrat has told me that it was excessive and
unnecessary because the statues were permanent fixtures, not
photographs or banners hung on walls or highways. The expensive drama
involved in covering them also drew attention to Mayawati, and may
have led to sympathy from her supporters – she told them the
authorities were discriminating against Dalits.
This is a key election contest because Rahul Gandhi, the as-yet
unproven heir-presumptive to the leadership of the Nehru-Gandhi
dynasty, and thus to the prime minister's job, is leading his Congress
Party's election campaign. If he does well and raises the number of
Congress seats in the 403-seat assembly from the present 22 to 70-100,
he will have succeeded and could be on his way to being the next prime
minister quite quickly – if he wants the job, which is not known. If
he only manages 40 seats or less, he will have failed. He will still
be heir apparent, but will progress more slowly.
There is even speculation that if Congress achieves the higher figure,
and maybe wins Punjab, the other most significant state now going to
the polls, it might call a snap general election to try to shed
debilitating partners in its current national coalition.
So the elephants are important, covered or uncovered, and they are
also significant as a symbol of Mayawati's success. She is a Dalit –
the "untouchables" in the Indian caste system – and relies on this
caste for mass support in elections. But she has done little during
her four terms as chief minister to develop the state, especially in
Her main aim has been to impress her fellow Dalits by building up her
own extravagant exclusive image and life-style, and by building the
monuments that bring back memories of powerful Mogul rulers' palaces
and forts. With widespread and plausible allegations of massive
corruption, she has licensed impressive bribe-clad highway and other
projects, including a race track for a very successful grand prix
motor race last October.
The statues near Delhi – and the grand prix track and its associated
lucrative real estate developments – are in an 80-acre park in Noida,
a flourishing satellite city that lies within UP. In addition to
Mayawati, the statues are of Bhim Rao Ambedkar, a revered Dalit leader
at the time of India's independence, and Kanshi Ram who founded the
BSP. Ram spotted and coached Mayawati to be not what she has become
since his death in 2006, but a constructive leader of the lowest rated
in India's divisive social system.
She was 56 on Sunday and had a relatively low-profile birthday. That
contrasted with earlier extravagant parties, when Lucknow has been
decorated with thousands of lights and Mayawati has worn expensive
diamond and gold jewellery, with garlands (in 2010) of big-valuation
currency notes, reported to be worth Rs18 lakhs -$40,000, and
multi-tiered cakes weighing over 50kg.
The question is whether such excesses impress the desperately poor –
do they feel empowered by such success of one of their own and say
"look what one of us can achieve", or does it appal them?
Many people throng to the parks on holidays and admire the elephants,
enjoying the well maintained open spaces. But will they vote for her,
or swing back to her main rival, the Samajwadi Party that ran earlier
assembly governments (badly and corruptly)? And will they also give
enough votes to the energetic Rahul Gandhi, whose political future
will be much easier if he does well in UP? Pundits and opinion
pollsters disagree on which way the result will go – we will know in
For a longer version of this post, with more pictures, go to John
Elliott's Riding the Elephant blog – http://wp.me/pieST-1yj
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