Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati uses her birthday celebrations, marked by extravagance and misuse of the State machinery, to reassert the Bahujan Samaj Party's exclusive claims to the Dalit constituency.
BAHUJAN Samaj Party (BSP) leaders Kanshi Ram and Mayawati are known for converting personal events into public occasions to make political statements. The opulent birthday celebrations of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati, held both in Lucknow and New Delhi on January 15, was used to convey the message to other political parties that the BSP has a monopoly over the Dalit cause and that efforts to hijack it would be opposed.
Unfazed by criticism from the Opposition parties, Mayawati named her birthday "swabhiman diwas" (self-respect day) for Dalits and converted it into a state-sponsored show. It is estimated that over Rs.1 crore was withdrawn from the State's fund meant for meeting emergency requirements in order to meet the expenses incurred in organising the functions. A major part of the amount was reportedly spent on building a palace-shaped pandal bedecked in glass, decorating Lucknow with BSP flags and symbols, organising cultural programmes by troupes brought from all over the State, buying 1.25 lakh laddoos to be distributed to people who came to greet Mayawati and buying two huge cakes. All this was allegedly sponsored and managed by various government departments. On the occasion, Mayawati also dedicated to the public the Rs.200-crore Ambedkar Park project in Lucknow. After attending the Lucknow function, the Chief Minister and her team of supporters flew to Delhi to attend yet another pompous function at the Talkatora stadium in New Delhi. The entire top brass of the Uttar Pradesh government stood in attendance as Kanshi Ram vowed to make the party a leading force in the country and capture power at the Centre.
Ironically, the Uttar Pradesh government claims to have inherited empty coffers from the previous BJP regime and is apparently still running on overdraft. It also claims to have run out of funds to meet even the minimum demands of citizens such as educational facilities, health care services, motorable roads and reliable power supply.
BIRTHDAYS have been celebrated by politicians in the past too with even greater ostentation, but this one was different in that it was a personal event that was thrust on the State government and that it was used by the BSP to make a political statement. By proclaiming the day "swabhiman diwas" for Dalits, the BSP leadership made it clear to the Bharatiya Janata Party and Congress(I) that Dalit politics remained its forte. Significantly, the message came in the context of Uttar Pradesh BJP president Vinay Katiyar's attempt to portray Dr. B.R. Ambedkar as a leader who took an anti-Muslim and pro-Hindu stance. Katiyar, who has been undertaking a tour of the State since December 2002, has said, apparently quoting from Dr. Ambedkar's writings, that the latter was against the policy of `appeasement' of Muslims. Katiyar also claimed that Ambedkar was against the Partition of India. An annoyed BSP leadership took up the issue with Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. In response, the BJP central leadership stalled Katiyar's yatra. It was only after a brainstorming session at Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani's residence in the presence of top BJP leaders from Uttar Pradesh that the party high command allowed Katiyar to resume his yatra. However, Katiyar was asked to tone down his speeches.
The Congress(I) too has been trying to strengthen its base among Dalits in the State. In November 2002, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra had intervened on behalf of a Dalit person whose house in Amethi, the parliamentary constituency of her mother and Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi, was allegedly razed by members of the Thakur community (Frontline, January 3). Priyanka Gandhi, who looks after the constituency on behalf of her mother, accompanied the Dalit to the police station and lodged a first information report (FIR) against the accused and announced a shramdaan to get the house rebuilt. In an attempt to pre-empt the moves to rebuild the house, Mayawati clamped Article 144 in the State. Although this forced Priyanka Gandhi to cancel her programme, which had attracted thousands of Youth Congress(I) workers, she got an undertaking from the district authorities that the Dalit would be provided a house elsewhere. In December, Mayawati held a "savdhaan rally" (caution rally) in Amethi to denounce Sonia Gandhi's "conspiracy to create caste tension" in the area. She called upon the people of Amethi to be cautious of the Congress(I) president's 's designs and defeat her in the next Lok Sabha election.
Sonia Gandhi seems to be unfazed. On January 17, while on a two-day visit to her constituency, she presented the keys of the house, built by Youth Congress(I) workers at a plot of land provided by the district administration, to the Dalit at Gauriganj.
The birthday celebrations of Mayawati also turned out to be an occasion for BSP to declare its political ambitions. At New Delhi, in the presence of BJP leaders, Kanshi Ram said that at present the BJP was the number one party, the Congress(I) the second and BSP the third. He declared that his aim was to unseat the BJP from the number one slot. Apparently, the BSP supremo is planning to repeat the political manoeuvres that ensured Mayawati a record third-term in office, that too with the support of the BJP.
The extravagance of Mayawati's birthday bash has provided the Opposition parties in Uttar Pradesh an opportunity to attack the government. The Samajwadi Party (S.P.), BSP's main rival in the State, observed the day as "durbhagya diwas" (day of misfortune) and party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav described the celebrations as "state-sponsored aiyaashi". The Congress(I) too criticised the function and demaded an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation.. It would be sometime before the controversy and criticism generated by the celebrations die down. However, the event has electrified the political scene in the State that had been dull since the S.P.'s aborted move to topple the government.