Wednesday, August 13, 2008
Will India Elect Mayawati its First Untouchable Prime Minister ?
While untouchables in India have generally been oppressed for centuries, there have been several high-profile examples of men and women from the lowest Hindu caste who have risen to high positions of power. The three Indians that stand out include India's first law minister and the architect of India's constitution, Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, former Indian President Dr. K.R. Nayaranan, and current UP Chief Minister Ms. Kumari Mayawati.
Unlike the president of India, Ms. Mayawati is not just a ceremonial token. She wields real power as the chief minister of India's largest state. Of the three well-known Indian untouchables, she is the most inspiring, living example to look up to for the poor, the women, the Muslims and the the lower caste Indians.
Ms. Mayawati has let it be known that she intends to make a bid for the Indian prime minister's position during the upcoming elections that must be held before May 2009. "When I can become the chief minister of the most populous state four times, why can I not become the prime minister of the country even if I am born in a Dalit (untouchable) family?" she told workers at a national convention of her Bahujan Samaj Party in the state capital of Lucknow Saturday, according to the Press Trust of India.
In addition to appealing to the lower caste Hindus and other minorities in India, Ms. Mayawati is expected to chip away at the Muslim support for her opponents to put together a winning coalition of constituents unhappy with the Congress rule and unwilling to support the right-wing BJP, the Hindu nationalist party of former prime minister Vajpayee. Ms. Mayawati’s efforts to create a dent in the Muslim support base of the Samajwadi Party (and the Congress), and to further consolidate her party’s hold on the minority community, have intensified with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) president meeting a delegation of leading Muslim clerics at her official residence on Wednesday, according to a report in The Hindu newspaper.
Regardless of one's views about Mayawati's personality or politics, she is a unique individual in South Asia. Laloo Prasad Yadav of Bihar comes close, but there is no one like a Mayawati in Pakistani politics. Mayawati's success and democracy have been possible in India because Nehru and the Congress party carried out extensive and early land reform in India that emasculated the big feudal lords. Ambitious and assertive Pakistani military has stood in the way of democracy in Pakistan. But democracy has not thrived in Pakistan partly because landowning has traditionally been the social base from which most politicians emerge, especially in rural areas. The PPP, the current ruling party, its leadership, and parliament members consist almost exclusively of the powerful feudal zamindars who have repeatedly failed the people when they have had a chance to govern Pakistan.
As India has seen the rise of the untouchables supported by the central government's quota programs in education and employment, its Muslim minority has continued to lag in terms of educational and economic opportunities. In 2006 a commission appointed by the government revealed that Muslims in India are worse educated and less likely to find employment than low-caste Hindus. Muslim isolation and despair is compounded by what B Raman, a hawkish security analyst, was moved after the most recent attacks to describe as the "inherent unfairness of the Indian criminal justice system", wrote Pankaj Mishra, an Indian writer in a recent Op Ed piece for the Guardian newspaper.
Mishra further wrote, "To take one example, the names of the politicians, businessmen, officials and policemen who colluded in the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat in 2002 are widely known. Some of them were caught on video, in a sting carried out last year by the weekly magazine Tehelka, proudly recalling how they murdered and raped Muslims. But, as Amnesty International pointed out in a recent report, justice continues to evade most victims and survivors of the violence. Tens of thousands still languish in refugee camps, too afraid to return to their homes." Predictably, Mishra says, the Hindu nationalists, most of them resident in the UK and US, inundated his email inbox, accusing him of showing India in a bad light. It's not just the Hindu nationalists that are in denial of the facts about Muslim deprivation and suffering in India, the Indian Muslim elite such as Fareed Zakaria, several Muslim image-makers and Bollywood stars promote the exaggerated image of India as a "peaceful, stable and prosperous" democracy.
Let's hope Mayawati's success as chief minister (and prime minster, if elected) inspires the common people in all parts of South Asia, including the Muslim minority in India, to assert themselves and bring true and diverse Lincolnesque democracy of the people, for the people and by the people to the region. Having suffered discrimination by Hindu nationalists, Mayawati, a Dalit, is more likely to appreciate the suffering of Indian Muslims and be proactive in alleviating it.