What Mayawati means
Chitra Padmanabhan Posted online: Fri Jan 13 2012, 03:24 hrs
Few would be surprised at the news that UP chief minister Mayawati has
finally turned to professional image managers for the coming assembly
elections. The Bahujan Samaj Party supremo who once declared, rightly,
that she did not require the national media to connect to her core
constituency, has hired a firm to overhaul her party's image for a
wider voter base.
Of late, Mayawati has faced a pressing task — how to amplify the idea
of a rainbow coalition of interests even as she keeps her core
constituency intact. In fact, her desire to widen the BSP's circle of
acceptance reflects a shift in her self-perception, arising from the
unambiguous mandate she received from voters in 2007.
What is interesting is the manner in which Mayawati has chosen to
communicate this shift, both to the Dalit community and others.
Nothing illustrates this more clearly than the two mega-events she has
recently presided over. Both events reflected a preoccupation with the
notion of time as history in the making, but in a totally contrasting
manner, based on divergent aesthetic grids. Yet in their very
contrast, they created a large terrain for the symbolic play of
On October 14, 2011 — the day Ambedkar converted to Buddhism in 1956 —
the chief minister inaugurated a grandiose national Dalit heroes'
memorial in Noida built on the lines of Buddhist architecture. The aim
of the Rashtriya Dalit Prerna Sthal: to celebrate Dalit icons across
ages who have worked for social transformation. At the centre, against
a backdrop of Bahujan Samaj Party founder Kanshi Ram's statue and the
lofty image of Ambedkar stood Mayawati's statue, as sole inheritor of
the mantle. Constructed in stone, the veritable material of history,
the memorial revived an old link between architecture and political
ideology. The Sthal signified an attempt to inscribe into collective
memory the presence of the Dalit in history — mediated through
Mayawati's persona and vision. The sheer solidity of the structure,
conveying its intent to stand the test of time, communicated the
message that the Dalit presence was here to stay.
Sixteen days after unveiling the Dalit Prerna Sthal, the UP chief
minister graced the first Formula 1 Indian Grand Prix event in Greater
Noida. At the freshly minted Buddh International Circuit, speed and
acceleration held sway on asphalt, proclaiming a smooth entry into a
gilt-edged global sport.
Playing upon the notion of time, these two landmarks created a range
of associations. The Sthal's architecture seemed to push back the
lineage of Mayawati's present-day politics by a couple of thousand
years. Meanwhile, the Buddh International Circuit literally
inaugurated the fast track. It conjured images of a scorching
mobility, the prime attribute of modernity.
The memorial and the F1 race track have altered the physical landscape
of Mayawati's Uttar Pradesh. To what extent will these structures
change the field of perception of the people —Mayawati's core
constituency as well as other sections?
Many Dalit ideologues see the memorial as part of an ongoing task of
contesting the Hindu caste system — the creation of a contemporary
landscape swathed in Buddhist hues to counter the entrenched iconic
landscape of an Ayodhya or Varanasi. (Buddhism, after all, was the
earliest creed in India to articulate an ideology through artistic
Here, the accent is on challenging an oppressive tradition through a
"national" Dalit identity, via Maywati's brand of electoral politics
in Uttar Pradesh. On the other hand, the Formula 1 event communicated
different message. That it was the first ever Indian Grand Prix meant
that Mayawati had created an inclusive national "tradition", as it
were, for others to follow.
The visual jugalbandi of memorial and race track affords an entire
range of ways in which Mayawati can position her politics. One sends
out a message of consolidation of collective identity and
confrontation; the other holds out the lure of a personal choice to
effect a speedy exit from stifling historical contexts of a given
identity. These messages can potentially address different sections,
from the Dalit at the bottom of the scale to the emerging urban middle
class within the community as well as others.
As Mayawati knows all too well, a journey to the centre of electoral
politics is all about deploying the power of symbolism and the
symbolism of power.
The writer is editor of the children's website www.pitara.com
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