The Untouchable who would be prime minister

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 January, 2008, 12:00am

The symbolism was stark. India's high-profile Dalit leader cut her birthday cake beneath a gigantic chandelier in a five-star hotel in the Indian capital last week.

Wearing a silk outfit and gold-and-diamond jewellery, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati, 52, a member of the lowest rank in India's caste system once known as Untouchables, beamed as her high-caste civil servants took it in turns to perform a traditional Indian gesture - feeding her pieces from the 52kg cake with their fingers.

The celebration demonstrated to the nation's Dalits once again that Ms Mayawati has achieved a near-miracle for one of their own and a woman - to be powerful and feted by Brahmins in a luxury hotel. This is the kind of heady stuff that can wipe out, in one go, memories of upper-caste oppression.

The location was chosen deliberately. Ms Mayawati is the elected head of India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, which has an area the size of France, but with 170 million people. She normally celebrates her birthday in Lucknow, the state capital.

But this year she held a party in New Delhi because she intends to conquer the capital. After the 2009 general election, Ms Mayawati hopes that her Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) will emerge with enough seats to hold the balance of power. If this happens, she wants to be India's first low-caste prime minister.

Ms Mayawati earned her place in the history books in the 1990s when she became the first low-caste woman to head the state. The daughter of a post office clerk, Ms Mayawati earned the adulation of Dalits for turning the tables on Brahmins and other high ranks in the Hindu caste system.

Brahmins are still uneasy about sharing food or water with Dalits. In rural India, many Dalits live in segregated areas, their children forced to sit apart from high-caste children in schools. In tea shops they are served only in cups set aside for them.

Ms Mayawati is adored as a messiah who will compensate them, if only symbolically, for centuries of scorn and cruelty.

A former Delhi schoolteacher, Ms Mayawati has started preparing for the general election by travelling extensively outside her state, gathering support.

Her prime ministerial hopes are based on her belief that she can repeat a political experiment in her state - where she came to power for the third time last year by forging an alliance between Dalits and Brahmins - elsewhere in India.

Ms Mayawati started her political career with rabble-rousing anti-Brahmin rhetoric. 'Beat the Brahmins with shoes,' used to be one of her refrains at Dalit rallies.

But in the last election, she realised that to win she needed Brahmin support, and won it by promising to look after the interests of all castes.

Asked how she could achieve such a balance, Ms Mayawati replied: 'I see no contradiction in it. All Indians want to do well - not all Brahmins are rich - and I intend to look after everyone.'

No party is likely to win an absolute majority in next year's election. A coalition will eventually emerge after the single largest party has enlisted the support of one of the smaller regional parties to form a majority in Parliament.

'If the BSP can win 50 seats, Mayawati can decide who to back. In that situation, she is going to demand the top post for herself,' Dalit activist Udit Raj said.

To project herself as a national leader with a modern agenda who can appeal to all Indians, Ms Mayawati has been pushing development rather than caste issues in her state by, for example, launching a huge highway project.

'With her rainbow coalition of all castes, she aims to muscle in on the centrist ground that the ruling Congress Party has been steadily losing,' political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan said.

Ms Mayawati was amused at the alarm her national ambitions have sounded in the Congress Party. 'If you look at the way the BSP is surging ahead in popularity, we are obviously going to hurt the Congress. It's already started,' she said at her birthday celebrations.

She understands the power of symbols.

Some may laugh at her gaudy taste in clothes and jewellery. She sports a short hairstyle but when she had a ponytail, they made fun of it, along with her brightly coloured nylon outfits.

But she realises that it is important to show off her money. 'The symbolism of a low-caste woman sporting diamonds and cutting cakes in luxury hotels is powerful. The purpose is to drive home the point that Dalits are equals and can do the things the upper castes do,' commentator Parsa Venkateshwar Rao said.

In fact, the celebrations were modest compared with those on her gargantuan 50th - 30,000 guests, 100,000 boxes of Indian sweets, and 5,000 bouquets.

Critics point to her whimsical manner and to the corruption cases pending against her.

According to the Central Bureau of Investigation, when officials raided her New Delhi home they found documents showing 72 properties and 54 bank accounts. But corruption allegations have failed to dent her popularity.

No one doubts her consummate political skills but some analysts believe that her ambition to become prime minister is unrealistic.

'In south India, you have totally different caste and social dynamics. It won't be so easy for her to garner support from voters outside Uttar Pradesh,' said Sudha Pai, politics professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Meanwhile, in a demonstration of her political status, Ms Mayawati is acquiring all the trappings that top Indian politicians love to flaunt.

She has just bought a bullet-proof SUV and is buying security systems from Israel at a cost of US$600,000.