Mayawati’s Iconoclasm and the statues

There is much self- righteous indignation in the media and others over the statues being installed by Mayawati all over the state of Uttar Pradesh. According to them, it is ‘clear’ to everyone with some common sense that spending Rs 1000 crores on the statues is a blatant misuse of public money.

What is missing in such ‘common sense’ perceptions is that Mayawati along with Kanshi Ram, like all innovators and path breakers, has been an iconoclast of the highest order. Between the two of them, they have created for the first time in Indian history a successful party representing some of the poorest and socially ostracized masses of the country. Like it or not, it is an unprecedented achievement. This has been done by technique and strategies that have made no sense to many because their politics is of a very different nature.

For instance, a party that claims to represent the socially oppressed, the BSP has never indicated any kind of social reform or advanced any social and economic programme for the Dalits. It’s party organization structure unique- it is neither cadre based nor does it have a hierarchy to accommodate aspiring next rung leaders. It has consciously abstained from agitation politics to focus only on creating a political machinery intent on winning elections.1 Indeed, were it not for its operation within a democratic setup, the single mindedness of its leaders is reminiscent of Lenin’s insistence on capturing state power.

Between Kanshi Ram and Mayawati, therefore, their politics has been based on iconoclasm. This iconoclasm is present even in the act of installing statues of the three icons of Dalit politics in contemporary India- BR Ambedkar, Kanshi Ram and Mayawati. It can be argued that the media is biased when it does not report the BSP’s political and economic acts of empowering dalits. It can be argued that the importance of creating dalit icons is paramount for those who have been long ostracized. It can be argued that the upper castes too have used public and private money in setting up their hegemonic symbols. It can be argued that those who urge using the money to be used for economic development instead of installing statues forget that they have themselves ignored doing exactly that for over six decades, else the BSP would not have existed. It can also be argued that if all they have done is to install statues of Gandhis and Nehrus, then they have little to expect other than the installation of counter icons.

Above all, fact of the matter is that Mayawati is a politician and a masterly one at that. Given the meteoric rise of the BSP under her leadership in UP, it is certain that she has done her homework before going ahead with this act.

Like all acts in politics, it is a gamble.

It is possible that she may gain a popular following by installation of these statues. It is possible too that this may boomerang. Even in the latter case, it is certain that she shall leave behind powerful symbols that will inspire future social struggles. In either case, it is a political advance for dalit and alternative politics.

(1) I owe these insights to Ajoy Bose, author of Mayawati’s biography Behenji (Penguin)


Author: bhupinder singh

an occasional blogger

13 thoughts on “Mayawati’s Iconoclasm and the statues”

  1. RW,

    agreed, but this is a model that cannot be repeated, the meteoric rise in UP alone is not enough, younger, able but less masterly politicians cannot learn and easily reproduce this kind of leadership even if they believe in such strategies. God forbid it, but if she were to die tomorrow, these symbols will remain powerful no doubt, i just wish the symbols were meaningful to the entire spectrum of dalits, right down to the ones in remote Tamilnadu who have never heard of Kanshi Ram or Mayawati.


    1. No, it is unlikely to be repeated elsewhere at least in the near future. In fact, there is a very serious possibility that the BSP might have reached the height of its power in UP and is likely to decline. It is also the concomitant result of identity politics- Dalits cannot go with the backwards castes and the alliance with Brahmins is also unfeasible, making it unlikely that the BSP can sustain on its own in UP. It is a miracle that the BSP has pulled it off for so long in the state against all odds. But that is not the bad news. The bad news is that other states have failed to do even that.

      Even if the BSP declines in UP and does not come to power again, these symbols will remain to haunt all those who once scurried even at the shadows of the ‘untouchables’.

  2. Throughout human history physical symbols left behind by women rulers have been eliminated leaving no trace of their achievements. Since Mayawati’s symbols represent gender and caste, destruction of these won’t be carried out with ease, there will be reactions and probably a resurgence of the dalit assertions, eventually though the collective memory of such symbols will be lost, right?

  3. I do not question BSP’s rise. I just question what has she actually delivered? In terms of development, in terms of tackling poverty.. Class identity – might work for some time, but don’t you think that it will collapse if nothing is done to cement that identity with a progressive agenda.

    1. No one denies the need for a progressive agenda. As I have pointed out in response to another comment below, as far as question of development is concerned, the poor, particularly the victim of caste oppression wants not only economic development but also self- respect and security. That is the purpose of the installation of the statues.

  4. So your point is she could not have done anything better for dalits in UP other than build these statues. And because others built Gandhi and Nehru statues before it is okay for her to build these. What I am disappointed about is that your post makes apparent the dearth of inspirational dalit leaders that you have to make such a creative argument to defend her blasphemous use of public money. Where’s the next Ambedkar?

    1. It is quite interesting that you should ask about ‘the next Ambedkar’. For those who have lived through the 70s and 80s would remember that Ambedkar was almost non- existent in mainstream media and politics. For a long, long time Ambedkar was viewed with suspicion because of his role in opposing Gandhi at the round table conference. It is the BSP that has revived Ambedkar as one of the central figures in modern India. As to the question of development, the poor, particularly the victim of caste oppression wants not only economic development but also self- respect and security.

  5. Your comparison of Mayawati with Lenin is remarkable.
    Should a left follower always support party line? Should a dalit enthusiast or a BSP supporter endorse every decision or political move of it?
    This is true that use of symbols is necessary for politics, but what kind of symbols?
    Ambedkar and Gandhi (even Kanshiram) did not use stony or crude symbols but powerful tangential and in-tangential symbols. Movements do not care about statues. Only POWER, political power relies on statues. Power needs both: Statues and Statute book!
    However it is true that many times a mix of movement and establishment is present.
    Please don’t equate symbols with statues. Symbols are more of statues.
    Installing statues of her! What sort of iconoclasm is this?… u have provided very wobbly explanation. In that respect every act of installing statue would become iconoclasm, as a concrete figure always eliminates the possibility of other statue… a choice-limiting function. iconoclasm certainly posses choice-limiting function, but every choice-limiting function is not tantamount to iconoclasm.
    In the times of Congress hegemony, the dalits got only ‘symbolic ’ representation in politics. Kanshiram and mayawati were instrumental in augmenting a real dalit politics. Now it must not trapped in another ‘symbolism’.
    I agree with your assertion that dalits wants not only economic development but also self- respect and security. But do you really think that self-respect and security (authoritative power) could be possible without turning the asymmetrical relationship of allocative power of socalled swarns?

    1. ‘Your comparison of Mayawati with Lenin is remarkable.’
      You ascribe more than what I have really said. My comparison is limited to the focus on single- mindedness in capturing state power. That too for the leaders of the BSP and not just Mayawati.

      ‘Only power relies on statues’.
      How does that prove that statues are not symbols?

      ‘Every act of installing will become iconoclasm’
      I do not think I imply that. I have placed the iconoclasm in this act in the background of the BSP’s overturning of many other accepted norms in how political parties conduct themselves.

      ‘But do you really think that self-respect and security (authoritative power) could be possible without turning the asymmetrical relationship of allocative power of socalled swarns?’
      No. The asymetrical power relationship has to change. The BSP has not set out to do that. It has not laid out any social or economic agenda for itself or the dalits except the capture of political power. When you say that you ascribe a far bigger role for the BSP than it has itself spelled out.

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