India’s Queen-in-Waiting

Changing the Meaning of Untouchable

Saturday 14 March 2009, by Nachammai Raman

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

She was ranked 59th in the Forbes list
of the 100 most powerful women last
year, only just behind Queen Elizabeth
II, whose great-great grandmother,
Queen Victoria, once subsumed India
to the British crown. The media call her
the Dalit Queen, but she simply calls
herself by her given name, Mayawati.

She is currently chief minister of one
of India’s most important electoral
provinces, Uttar Pradesh, and it is
widely reported that she has her eyes
set on the prime minister’s seat in the
upcoming general elections.

India is no stranger to female politicians
or heads of government; ever since
independence, the country has had
prominent female figures in politics:
India’s first mission to the United Nations
was led by Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, who
later became the first female President
of the United Nations General Assembly
in 1953; Indira Gandhi became prime
minister of India as far back as 1966.

However, it is doubtful as to whether
either of these two women could have
climbed to the heights they did if they
were not related to India’s first prime
minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who was the
brother of Vijaya and the father of Indira.

Even today the most powerful woman in
Indian politics, Sonia Gandhi, is from the
Nehru-Gandhi family. She is the widow
of Nehru’s grandson Rajiv Gandhi.
No wonder then that in 1995, a Dalit
woman’s election as the chief minister
of India’s largest province, Uttar
Pradesh, was seen as an historic
break from this mould. Besides her
lack of famous relatives, Mayawati
had overcome two other obstacles of
truly Himalayan proportions: gender
and caste.

In Mayawati’s traditional family,
sons were always preferred. In her
autobiography, Mayawati tells of how
her father gave her brothers the best
education he could (because they
would carry forward the family name)
while leaving her and her sisters to a
poorly run government school. That
Mayawati went on to get university
degrees in law and education was in
spite of the odds.

Mayawati’s greatest struggle came
from her caste. In India’s 3,000-yearold
caste system, the Dalits, or
untouchables as they used to be
known, fell outside of the pyramid
of respectable trades. They were
India’s slaves— condemned to do the
labour that caste Hindus didn’t want
to do, such as cleaning toilets and
disposing of corpses. Until Mahatma
Gandhi changed the rule, Dalits were
considered to be too impure to be
allowed inside temples. They were not
even allowed to fetch water from the
same well as caste Hindus.

Analysts credit Mayawati’s rise to her
shrewd political alliances. She began
her career by inciting the Dalits,
her biggest voter base, against the
high-caste Brahmins. Along the way,
realizing that she couldn’t defeat
rival political parties without Brahmin
support, she went on to embrace them
as well.

Apart from shifting political alliances,
Mayawati also has a penchant for
ostentation, which has earned her
the sobriquet Dalit Queen. Her taste
in clothes and jewellery is often
commented upon and her birthday is
celebrated as a de facto public holiday
in the province.

Many Dalits in Uttar Pradesh
consider Mayawati their hero. She
has championed a development
programme for a number of villages
that, as a result, will benefit from good
roads, public amenities, and safe
drinking water. Her critics, on the other
hand, think she hasn’t done enough;
they accuse her of spending public
money on self-aggrandisement.

Uttar Pradesh has the biggest single
bloc of parliamentary seats and most of
the country’s previous prime ministers,
including the Nehru-Gandhi family.
Following the upcoming elecitions in
May, it could be Mayawati’s turn to move
to Delhi. And in so doing, she will surpass
her fellow monarch on the Top 100.

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