By Biswajeet Banerjee
The Associated Press
LUCKNOW, India (AP) — On Monday, March 15, hundreds of thousands of cheering supporters marked the 25th anniversary of a political party representing India’s lowest castes and feted its bejeweled leader as a “Goddess,” who currently leads the country’s largest state.
The rally reflected the spectacular rise of Mayawati, a 54-year-old former school teacher, as much as the political clout of her Bahujan Samaj Party. Since the 2007 elections, the party has governed Uttar Pradesh, home to 180 million people. Mayawati managed that by forging an unlikely electoral alliance with the state’s upper castes.
Although accused of amassing huge wealth through corruption and building lavish memorials for her party, Mayawati, who goes by just one name, commands an enormous voting base among the Dalits, who are at the bottom of Hinduism’s caste hierarchy.
Dressed in peach silk and adorned with diamonds, Mayawati, a Dalit, addressed hundreds of thousands who had crowded Monday into an enormous tented area in the state capital Lucknow.
Most were Dalits, who make up about 25 percent of the state’s population.
“I am proud of the Dalit people. Whenever I have needed them, they have supported me. I will not let their heads hang in shame until my death,” Mayawati said to loud cheers.
The rally brought the city to a virtual standstill. Blue decorations — the party’s color — were everywhere: flags, fountains gushing dyed water, lights, and elephants — the party’s symbol. Graffiti splashed on walls warned “anti-Dalits” not to mess with Mayawati.
“This rally is a show of strength for Mayawati to send a message across India that she is no pushover,” said S.P. Pandey, a local political analyst.
But her party, which was founded by Mayawati’s political mentor Kanshi Ram, has yet to replicate its success in Uttar Pradesh on the national stage. It is part of the opposition bloc and has just 20 members in the 545-member lower house of Parliament.
While she champions the poor, Mayawati’s political opponents and critics have accused her of accruing collections of diamond jewelry and homes. Government officials lined up to pay respects on her birthday, which she named “Dalit Self-Respect Day.” She has also spent more than 23 billion rupees ($500 million) — four times her state’s health budget — building pink sandstone statues to honor herself and other party leaders.
But to her followers, her conspicuous consumption is often seen as a sign that one of their own has breached India’s formidable caste system to reach high political office.
“For us, she is a Goddess. She has empowered us. Given us voice which now people are listening to,” said Jawitri Devi, a poor woman in a dirty sari, who took her grandson to the rally.
Baburam Kushwaha, a senior party official, denied claims from the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party that more than 2 billion rupees ($43 million) of state money had been spent on the day’s festivities in Lucknow. He said the party footed the bill. ♦