Can 'untouchable' be India's PM?

Born into lowest caste, Kumari Mayawati is trying to make history as she stirs controversy
Mar 26, 2009 04:30 AM

Kumari Mayawati is chief minister of India's Uttar Pradesh state, home to 190 million people. She is a Dalit, the caste once known as India’s "untouchables" at the bottom of the caste hierarchy. (March 15, 2009)

NEW DELHI–For centuries, Dalits, the "untouchables" of India, have lived as outcasts, barred from owning land, thwarted from marrying into a higher caste and forced into dirty jobs such as cleaning toilets – this despite the government's abolishment of the caste system.

Now, a 53-year-old former schoolteacher-turned-politician known across India as the "Dalit Queen" is running for prime minister – and political experts believe Kumari Mayawati has an outside chance to lead the world's largest democracy after an election next month.

A victory by a so-called untouchable in a national election here would have been considered unthinkable only a decade ago.

But as the Dalits began to receive more education and gain political control in states such as Uttar Pradesh as small regional parties have surged in popularity, the older, venerable national political groups such as the Gandhi-family-led Congress party have seen their own support wane.

That has made it possible for Mayawati to emerge as a legitimate candidate for prime minister, even though she has been touched by controversy over her unexplained wealth.

The Hindustan Times newspaper this week ran a full-page story headlined "Who's afraid of Mayawati?" and a columnist mused she "plays by her own rules ... shuns the cosy, members-only power elite that New Delhi is familiar with."

Known for her plain speaking style and omnipresent handbag, Mayawati, who is the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, has made caste part of the political conversation. "Struggle is the way of my life," she said at a rally in August, referring to her upbringing as a Dalit. "Who can stop me from reaching the top post?"

Despite efforts made by the Indian government to eradicate the caste system, it remains a deep-rooted part of Indian society and can still dictate someone's future prospects, particularly in rural areas. Even today, matrimonial ads in newspapers are divided by caste.

In many Indian communities, occupations such as doctors and lawyers have been reserved for Brahmins, the top caste in a country of 6,000 castes and sub-castes.

Someone like Mayawati, who was born a Dalit, is typically still excluded from mainstream life and that's what makes her political climb remarkable.

It helped that she comes from Uttar Pradesh.

Her home state, India's largest, is mostly agricultural and boasts both a large Dalit population and a large Muslim minority, both influential vote banks. With a population of 190 million, Uttar Pradesh has 80 seats in India's 543-member Parliament, the most of any of India's 28 states. Control Uttar Pradesh and you're on your way to becoming one of India's most powerful politicians.

In the last federal election in 2004, Mayawati's BSP party took 19 seats in Uttar Pradesh. Analysts say if Mayawati can secure 60 of the state's 80 seats, she may argue she has enough support to lead a minority government.

However, she has critics.

In a state where 32 per cent of the populace makes less than $1 a day, she has come under scrutiny for becoming wildly wealthy in office. India's Central Bureau of Investigation is examining how she and her family generated enough income to make her one of the highest income-taxpayers in the country. Mayawati has $3 million worth of property and $1.5 million in bank accounts, despite the fact Indian politicians don't make huge sums. (Mayawati's salary as chief minister is about $2,000 a month, before taxes.)

Mayawati said the probe has been fomented by her political rivals.

But it's not the only mark against her. In December, one of her political party members was arrested in connection with the murder of a public works engineer. Newspapers reported the engineer was allegedly beaten to death after he rebuffed a demand for a money to help pay for a Mayawati birthday celebration. Her government has denied any link, calling the matter a "mischievous campaign" by her rivals.

Then there's the issue of Mayawati's statues. Over the past two years, she has commissioned local sculptor Shravan Prajapati to make 15 larger-than-life bronze statues of herself. The statues now pepper state streets and parks in Lucknow, the state capital.

Prajapati, whose other works include the famous statue of Saddam Hussein that was toppled in Baghdad, is now at work on another three statues of Mayawati. "She wants her neck slimmer, her figure slimmer, clothes that aren't sticking," he said in an interview.

While critics have said Mayawati should be building schools instead of new statues, she has defended her decision to commission more, saying recently, "I always felt that that memorials should be built during the lifetime of icons."

Those who support her say she has made huge improvements in their lives.

"Our village has progressed," said Vajindra Mishra, a 40-year-old Brahmin priest who lives in the village of Bhainsrasi in west Uttar Pradesh. "We now see TV, can iron clothes, use a mobile phone charger, a wheat grinder, 100-watt bulbs in the street and, if there's a wedding, we have lights."

"In India, politics is about empowerment and identity, governance," said Ajoy Bose, author of a political biography of Mayawati. "Many people feel she is of the people. That's what matters most."



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