The Supreme Court’s notice to the Mayawati government for its spending on memorials and statues, drawing heavily from the Uttar Pradesh State exchequer brings welcome public scrutiny to an emphasis that has attracted considerable controversy. Constructing memorials for Dalit icons has long been an article of faith with the Bahujan Samaj Party, with the Chief Minister according high priority to it in all three of her earlier tenures. Yet thanks to her image as an able administrator enforcing discipline and bringing a sense of purpose to governance, the memorial building drive received little public attention. But in contrast, Ms Mayawati’s fourth term as Chief Minister has been shadowed by controversy even as she is criticised for what is seen as an obsession with statue and memorial building. In the two years since Ms Mayawati assumed office, the BSP government has not only acquired hundreds of acres of fresh land in the name of memorial construction, but also ordered the reconstruction of many projects already completed. A Public Interest Litigation petition, in response to which the Supreme Court has acted, alleged an expenditure of Rs.2,000 crore on the constructions, among them a memorial each of Babasaheb Ambekdar and Kanshi Ram and dozens of statues of Dalit icons, including of Ms Mayawati herself.
The U.P. government justified the constructions in court, citing the example of the Nehru Memorial Centre in New Delhi. The comparison is dubious. The Nehru memorial is a leading centre of research in social sciences and houses one of the finest libraries in India. The point of stressing this difference is not to belittle Ambedkar or Kanshi Ram but to underscore the greatness of the two men. Ambedkar was a leading visionary who gave India its Constitution. Kanshi Ram took the Dalit movement to iconic heights. But the excesses currently on display in Lucknow and other U.P. towns only serve to detract from their phenomenal achievements. In May 2007, Ms Mayawati exceeded the wildest expectations to form U.P’s first majority government in 16 years. Regrettably, by 2009, she appeared to have squandered the goodwill, with her party finishing third behind the Samajwadi Party and the Congress in the Lok Sabha election. It was 14 years ago that Ms Mayawati brought a strong sense of empowerment to a community grievously wronged by history. It is her historic task to ensure that the collective sense of empowerment is consolidated through programmes designed to increase the social and economic clout of this historically deprived community. Ms Mayawati must remember that her voters will feel truly empowered only when she goes beyond the politics of symbolism.