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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

In defence of Mayawati's monumentality

awati's monumentalityThe Indian middle classes never seem to be able to come to terms with Mayawati. At best there is grudging and condescending admiration of her rise to power against impossible odds; at worst there is a visceral loathing for her extravagant ways, her vulgar aggrandisement of wealth and the crudities of her style. Her obsession with creating monuments, which host her statues along with the Dalit pantheon is seen as being pathological and evokes uniform outrage. Yet, she seems impervious to ridicule and continues to do exactly as she pleases , decreeing as Kubla Khan reportedly did , yet another stately pleasure dome.
And ‘ Stately’ those domes indeed are. They are designed in the grand imperial manner, they are pure pastiche- an extravagant panty raid into the Lutyens closet- vaulted arches, Corinthian columns with an Indian twist, a wide stepped entrance, intricate stone jaali-work and of course the phalanx of elephants with raised trumpets. every feature is meant to strike awe. Triumphalism has rarely had so elaborate an expression.
I pass by the Noida monumental ‘park’ everyday. While it may not conform to my standards of architectural aesthetics, there is no doubt that the whole complex is pleasing to the eye. The proportions,the massing, and the groupings of the various structures are competently done. The quality of stone work is astonishing. The scale is very impressive and anyone who claims not to be impressed by the sheer grandeur of the structures and the landscape is pretending.Any day, in terms of design, the complex is far more impressive than the Akshardham temple or the Birla Mandir and infinitely superior to the ‘modernist humdrum’ monstrosities churned out by the CPWD.

Why then do the sneering and condescending classes feel so outraged ? The expression of outrage normally runs along the following predictable lines: ‘ Mayawati is an epitome of corruption, venality and pursuit of vaulting ambition and this obsession with scarring the landscape with her own statues is a typical example of her pathetic record of governance. The squandering of public resources on such an unprecedented scale, when essential priorities in health and education are so woefully neglected deserves unqualified condemnation. Our politico cultural traditions do not tolerate commemorations of the living.’

This deserves rebuttal. It is necessary , firstly to distinguish between Mayawati’s accumulation of personal wealth through the abuse of State power and her wasteful use of public resources. My guess is that Mayawati’s spend on parks and monuments contributes little ( If at all ) to her personal wealth, this expenditure being highly visible and subject to public audit. Most corruption income is not through such visible public expenditure but through the clever use of State power in such areas as grant of concessions for the use of land, mining, allocation of natural resources, licencing and the granting of approvals for various private economic activities. Associating her monumentality with her corruption is therefore incorrect. We need to de-link the two.

Mayawati’s corruption or the growth of her private wealth through the use of political power has a political, cultural dimension which is often ignored. It does not justify it, but it may offer a possible explanation for the blatant manner in which it is done.

Purely in terms of scale Mayawati will rank quite low in the gallery of rogues in comparison with many members of the Union Cabinet, many present and former Chief Ministers, sundry progenies and sons in laws of prominent political dynasties, and other shadowy denizens of Indian political life. Yet while most others will evoke nary a reaction from the chatterati, Mayawati’s conduct invariably evokes voluble expressions of revulsion. Caste prejudice is undoubtedly at work here.

There is also no doubt that as much as the upper classes hate her, her own constituency adores and admires her despite or maybe even because of the growth of her wealth.Her identification with her own lot is so complete that her growth is their growth and a form of retribution for centuries of servitude and exploitation.The growth of her personal wealth also corresponds to the growth in her political stature in a mutually reinforcing relationship so that her wealth and her open flaunting of it makes a strong political statement -that in a world so hostile to Dalits she has singlehandedly fought her way to the top. Her wealth is to be admired for the power it gives to her to continue fighting for Dalit pride. For them she increasingly becomes more iconic and each statue of herself that she unveils confirms the durability of the mythic hold she has in the minds of her worshippers. It is not vanity ormegalomania, it is a powerful political statement .

Whether intentional or not, these investments also have a sound economic rationale. First, it means enclosing a public space, adding value to it through architecture and design, and making it into a useful public asset. Compare this to what most politicians in power do- appropriate public spaces through means legitimate and illegitimate, create deliberate land scarcity, hive off scarce land to speculative developers/ builders and then take a share out of the windfall gains through the artificially induced astronomical rise in real estate prices. In Mayawati’s case public assets remain public and in fact become useful public recreational space. Second, as an asset creation investment which provides meaningful employment to thousands, it is far superior than any number of those brainless, rent seeking yojanas churned out by the Central Government Ministries and the Planning Commission in the guise of poverty alleviation( NReGA included) which create sub standard assets designed to to sink and collapse soon thereafter, to keep alive the rent seeking opportunities. Those investments perpetuate dependence on the state through wage slavery,while these provide to the workers and creators an income gain substantial enough for them to overcome their dependent status. Third, they are a major contributor to urban regeneration. Anyone who has visited Lucknow after Mayawati came into power has to acknowledge the regenerative and transformational role these creations ( with accompanying upgradation of civic infrastructure) have played in rescuing a city which had seemingly degraded and decayed beyond redemption and making it into a hub of urban vitality. Fourth, the interventions generate very substantial employment for a class of artisans steeped in traditional building skills, particularly, stone masonry and stone carving skills, which were otherwise on well on their way to extinction. Lost skills have been regained and reacquired without having had to set up expensive National Skilling Missions.

One of the arguments hurled against her monumentality is that of perverse priorities. While Mayawati’s fiscal mismanagement maybe comparable to most Chief Ministers ( and probably no worse than Punjab, or West Bengal or Andhra or Orissa) singling out her monumentality as an example of irresponsibility is uncalled for. There is an economic justification and more than that in any democracy, decisions on priorities in public expenditure are the sole prerogative of the Legislature and the elected Government. If an investment is openly and transparently a part of the Legislature approved and voted Budget, the question of priorities stands decided. That is the way of federal democracies and merely because we would have determined priorities differently if were in a position to do so does not make Mayawati’s priorities any the more inferior.