Lower-caste champion defiant in all her finery

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 October, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 October, 2003, 12:00am

When Mayawati - India's most famous low-caste politician - celebrated her 47th birthday in January when chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, she looked dazzling. Diamond-bedecked, she enjoyed an extravagant bash that cost the taxpayer billions of rupees.

When detractors criticised the extravagance, the woman who projects herself as the champion of India's downtrodden (known as dalits) she was belligerent in her defence: 'Is it all right for the upper castes to celebrate parties and have birthday cakes, but not the lower castes? Am I doing something that no other politician has ever done?'

And when the authorities recently accused her of corruption and raided her New Delhi home to find millions of rupees in cash stashed in wardrobes, Ms Mayawati, now out of power, was once again unrepentant.

'I am being persecuted because I am a 'dalit',' she almost shrieked to reporters summoned to her bungalow. 'The police never go after high-caste politicians. The government is anti-dalit ... I am a victim of that agenda.'

But that argument is becoming increasingly hard to square with the evidence unearthed by investigators who allege Ms Mayawati has accumulated property worth more than US$3 million - more than 20 houses, hotels and land - that she holds in the names of relatives, and a bank account with a balance of about US$1 million.

'The properties are worth far in excess of her stated income so we have to find out how she procured these assets,' said P.C. Sharma, who heads the inquiry into her affairs.

For centuries, dalits were not allowed to enter upper-caste homes in north India except to clean the toilets.

In 1995, when Ms Mayawati was elected chief minister, her triumph seemed to symbolise a social breakthrough. Somewhere along the way, however, Ms Mayawati seems to have abandoned her roots. She still claims the support of dalits, but her behaviour is drawing sharp criticism.

'Mayawati has no policies to end dalit oppression. She is engaged in the pursuit of power, not the pursuit of their welfare,' commentator Inder Malhotra said.