The politics of building statues in India
NEW DELHI - While other parts of India focus on building software parks and special tax-free economic zones to attract investment, in Uttar Pradesh (UP) chief minister Mayawati has a different agenda.
Mayawati, who goes by one name, has erected so many statues of herself and her late political mentor Kanshi Ram that it has led to a public outcry and a complaint to India's Supreme Court. Her critics say the statues have also put severe strain on the budget of Uttar Pradesh, which is India's most populous state and one of its least developed.
The statues and parks are being constructed by the local government with a zeal some commentators say would be better channeled towards improving roads, healthcare, education and law and order.
Huge statues of Mayawati and Kanshi Ram have sprung up across the state, as have marble and stone carved elephants, the logo of Mayawati's political outfit, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).
According to estimates, the state has already spent over 15 billion rupees (US$313 million) on statues and parks, with the final aim of constructing 10,000 statues across the state. In its supplementary budget for 2009-10, the Uttar Pradesh government has allocated 7 billion rupees for memorials and parks, with 270 million rupees earmarked for new statues.
The sheer number of trees cut down for the expansive concrete parks housing the statues has angered environmental campaigners. Reports say nearly 20,000 trees were cut down to erect 30 giant statues of Mayawati and Kanshi Ram at a park in Noida, which adjoins capital New Delhi.
Like her late mentor Kanshi Ram, Mayawati is a Dalit, considered one of India's lower castes. She has said the structures will embolden members of the lower rungs in India's caste-based society. Dalits form the majority of her political support.
Before India's elections earlier this year, Mayawati was touted as a future prime minister. Given the nature of India's coalition politics, she was in a strong position as Uttar Pradesh contributes 80 seats to the federal parliament. Her brand of politics, which seeks to bring together Dalit and Brahmin (higher caste) voters, had already seen her win in provincial elections and was seen as a winning combination.
However, the development agenda of Rahul Gandhi, the 39-year-old scion of the ruling Congress party, appealed more to the state's electorate than Mayawati's focus on caste and communal politics.
Mayawati is not the first Indian politician to appeal to the poor and downtrodden as a shortcut to political success.
Former prime minister Indira Gandhi's famous slogan Garibi Hatao(remove poverty) of the 1970s and 1980s sought to build a pan-Indian vote base of the poor, without meaning much at the grassroots level.
Given the huge populations in the poorer states, votes divided between the "haves" and "have nots" will certainly favor the latter.
But there are exceptions. Lalu Prasad Yadav ruled the impoverished state of Bihar for years despite poverty remaining high under his rule. Lalu, too, wielded the wand of caste and symbolic politics to good effect.
Other than appealing to lower, more populous sections of society, during election time some politicians also resort to distributing clothes, food, television sets, scooters and motorcycles to influence voters. Loan waivers, free electricity and water that benefit mainly large and rich farmers are another incentive that stretch government finances but are useful in garnering votes.
India's main opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has long flirted with communal politics. The line was most virulent in the 1990s, but it is still being played out in states such as Gujarat under chief minister Narender Modi.
The BJP is now trying to reinvent itself following electoral reverses in 2004 and 2009, using terms such as Bandhutva(promoting friendship) instead of Hindutva, the original ideology that emphasizes majority Hindu rule.
If there has been a singular message from this year's election results, it is that the people of India want political representatives to engender a national policy focus on development and stable government. Its a political environment that doesn't bode well for the future of regional leaders hoping to ride to victory on narrow caste-based politics.
Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist. He can be reached at email@example.com.