Mayawati, political queen of the untouchables, could become her country's next prime minister. But what does her unlikely rise tell us about the new India?by Meghnad Desai / May 4, 2009 / Leave a comment
Discuss this article at First Drafts, Prospect’s blog
When the first female head of India’s largest state celebrates a birthday, you wouldn’t expect an intimate private event. But when Kumari Mayawati celebrated her 53rd birthday in January the party became what Indians call a big political tamasha. Admirers brought presents, most often bundles of cash, because the birthday girl had announced a gift target of 120m rupees (£1.6m). In theory this was for party coffers, not herself, with each of 400 local branches aiming at 300,000 rupees (£4,000) each. Her followers were happy to oblige. Mayawati is not just leader of India’s poorest caste, the untouchables, in Uttar Pradesh, one of the country’s poorest states. She is also a behenji, or respected sister.
Yet even these lavish celebrations seemed subdued compared to previous years. There was no giant birthday cake laden with orchids. Mayawati dropped her favourite fuchsia dress in favour of a muted silver and pink suit, topped with a simple overcoat. Such reserve was a response to the allegation that one of her party’s legislators had bludgeoned a prospective guest to death for refusing to contribute to the birthday gift target. Her political rivals were also on the streets. One group held a “contempt day,” in which caricatures of Mayawati were ceremoniously spat upon and her effigy was set on fire. Another held a khooni divas, or “murderous day,” highlighting the murder allegation. Not to be outdone, her supporters in the Bahujan Samaj party (BSP) held an “opposition party contempt day” of their own, recounting similar misdemeanours by their opponents. For corruption or thuggery there is little to choose among the parties; politics in Uttar Pradesh (UP) is never dull.
In India’s 15th general election, held in April and May 2009, 714m eligible voters will decide the 545 seats in the lok sabha, the equivalent of Britain’s House of Commons. (The voting began in mid-April, and continues over a month, with the result announced on 16th May.) Indian politics has always been complicated, crossing boundaries of caste and class along with religion and region. But recent economic development, combined with stronger identification with regions and tribes, has made it more unstable, and intensified the scramble for allies after any election. In the first 42 years after independence in 1947 India had seven prime ministers; in the…