Mayawati: Indian politician refuses to stop erecting statues of herself.
India's low-caste political leader, Mayawati, has spent $500 million on statues of herself and others. But to supporters, the statues symbolize her monumental success.
Parth Sanyal / Reuters
Most political leaders are cast in bronze or stone only after their death. Not so Mayawati, the chief minister of India's populous Uttar Pradesh state and an icon of Dalits, the lowest caste of Hinduism formerly known as untouchables.
Mayawati is estimated to have spent $500 million of public funds on some 40 statues of herself and other Dalit champions, which now litter the landscape of Lucknow, UP's capital.
While many Indians are appalled by the statues, for Mayawati's poor and low-caste supporters, they symbolize her rags-to-riches success.
In September, India's Supreme Court ordered that Mayawati halt her statue building spree, after a public interest lawsuit claimed that such huge sums of money would be better spent in UP – one of India's poorest states – on public services. Amid reports that the statues were still appearing, a further hearing is scheduled for Monday.
For middle-class, English-speaking Indians, the statue scandal confirms their worst fears of Mayawati as megalomaniacal and venal. The former schoolteacher, who was born in a Delhi slum, has made an estimated fortune of $12 million during her political career and is being investigated over alleged corruption. She once planned to attach a shopping center near the Taj Mahal, though plans were scuppered after a high-level inquiry.
But political analysts say it could play to her advantage among her core constituency: Dalits and the very poor. For many of them, Mayawati's unapologetic ostentation with its message of "I did it, you could too" is part of her appeal.
"There will be a political calculation here for sure," says Ajoy Bose, her biographer. "The more she's demonized by the chattering classes, the more popular among Dalit voters she becomes… although it would be good if she did something more useful for her constituency too."
Towering ambition, but few public services
In the run up to India's general election in April and May, Mayawati hoped that her party, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) would repeat its stunning success in UP assembly elections in 2007, when it won a majority of seats. She planned to then play kingmaker, bargaining with either the Congress party, or its main opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to become India's first Dalit prime minister.
Indeed, so serious were her hopes that a huge bronze statue of herself, in her usual implacable pose, clutching a handbag, was commissioned to stand in the capital in the event of her triumph. Ultimately, though, the BSP took only a quarter of UP's seats and Congress, instead, triumphed.
Part of the problem was that while chasing national glory, Mayawati squandered support at home in UP. "Now she's back, concentrating on her home bastion," says Mr. Bose, who adds that the statue scandal is allowing her to take the "lazy option" rather than working for the needs of her constituents.
There are signs that her high-profile presence in the state is working politically: In recent by-elections in the state, Maywati's party got a strong showing.
Other parties build statues, too
Back in court, meanwhile, she is expected to show the usual chutzpah.
Political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan says the BSP has drawn up a list of memorials and monuments built to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that has ruled India for most of its post-Independence history, with which it hopes to embarrass Congress.
Mayawati has already criticized the Congress-led government in the state of Maharashtra for its plan to build a $25 million bronze statue of Shivaji Bosle, a 17th century warrior king, in a Mumbai bay. That statue is expected to be taller than the Statue of Liberty.