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Uttar Pradesh gets new idols
The change of regime in Uttar Pradesh is set to alter the state's iconography with chief minister Akhilesh Yadav taking a leaf out of predecessor Mayawati's book to bequeath a legacy that bears the stamp of his Samajwadi Party's socialist-cum-backward caste politics. Ambedkar is giving way to Ram Manohar Lohia and Kanshi Ram to Karpoori Thakur as Akhilesh invokes a new set of "samajwadi" heroes to replace Mayawati's dalit icons immortalised in parks, statues and welfare schemes.
As a first step, he has scrapped all 26 of Mayawati's projects named after dalit leaders. Some have been recast with new names and new target audiences. Others have simply disappeared. So the Ambedkar Gram Sabha Yojna for the development of dalit villages across the state is now the Lohia Samagra Gram Vikas Yojna, aimed at upgrading infrastructure in areas inhabited by those belonging to the most backward classes (MBCs). In his budget for the current fiscal year, Akhilesh announced a grant of Rs 250 crore for this scheme. He also announced a second project named after the late socialist leader, the Lohia Nalkoop Nirman Yojna, to supply water to MBC and OBC inhabitants in rural UP. Two other schemes have undergone a name change. The Kanshi Ram Awas Yojna has become Savera Aur Basera Yojna. And the Savitribai Phule Balika Shiksha Yojna (Phule was a 19th century activist credited with educating dalit girls) has been replaced with the Rani Lakshmibai Shiksha Madat Yojna for MBC girls.
This is not all. Akhilesh also seems to have fallen prey to Mayawati's penchant for creating memorials and parks. The following are on the anvil:
A memorial for Karpoori Thakur, an OBC leader and former CM of neighbouring Bihar
A park named after Janeshwar Mishra, a leading light of the SP and contemporary of Akhilesh's father, Mulayam Singh Yadav
A grand convention centre in Lucknow to honour the memory of Jaiprakash Narayan. So far, he has hesitated to demolish or rename Mayawati's parks for fear of a backlash but it is likely that they will just decay through neglect.
Defending the moves, SP spokesman Shahid Siddiqui says, "What's wrong? If the Congress can name all their schemes after Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi and Mayawati can invoke the names of Ambedkar and Kanshi Ram, then why can't we remember our leaders? Lohia, Karpoori Thakur and Janeshwar Mishra were important leaders of Independent India. But the country has forgotten them. We are simply trying to bring about a balance by reviving their memory in the national discourse. " Siddiqui insists that Akhilesh's plans are nowhere as grandiose as Mayawati's. The BSP leader is said to have spent over Rs 2, 500 crore on parks and memorials. Akhilesh's projects are still on the drawing board but the Janeshwar Mishra park, it was announced, will be spread over 500 acres. The government is currently hunting for a suitable piece of land. In a recent interview to the TOI, Akhilesh maintained that he intends the park to be a green belt, not a concrete jungle of statues that Mayawati built. But social historian and expert on dalit and subaltern issues Badri Narayan of Allahabad's G B Pant Social Science Institute believes that this is just the beginning. "It's bound to increase because of competitive identity politics between the SP and the BSP, " he notes. Narayan says Akhilesh and the SP want to create a larger backward caste identity by inventing OBC political heroes like Kanshi Ram and Mayawati did for the dalits. Lohia belonged to the lohar (blacksmith) caste, Karpoori Thakur was a nai (barber). "Akhilesh is building them into backward caste icons through memorials and schemes, " Narayan points out. "Like Mayawati, he is pandering to identity politics. The OBCs and MBCs need social respect and if Mayawati gave the Dalits that through identity politics and the creation of dalit heroes, Akhilesh believes he can do the same for his voter base. "
Sudha Pai, professor in Jawaharlal Nehru University's centre for political studies with expertise on Dalit politics, feels that Akhilesh and the SP are barking up the wrong tree. "People are fed up with identity politics. They want development. Of course, caste is still important but there is a new relationship between caste and development. I am surprised that Akhilesh hasn't realised this, " she says.
Akhilesh faces another problem. Unlike dalits, who are united by an institutional memory of victimhood, the backward castes are a fragmented and diverse group with vast socio-economic differences. A Yadav, for instance, has little in common with, say, a nai or a mallah (boatman caste) and two decades of political and economic empowerment have only widened the chasm. It may not be easy to unify them into an integrated backward caste identity. "It is a difficult task, " agrees Narayan. "But what Akhilesh is aiming for is a non-dalit mobilisation. If the dalits are with Mayawati, then the nondalits should be with the SP. " The deepening of the SP-BSP's brand of competitive identity politics does threaten to tear UP's social fabric. Yet, the imperative to create new caste-based social identities is likely to sharpen as the old brahmanical order crumbles under the surge from the bottom. "When people's aspirations grow, they need icons, deities and rituals, " says Narayan. "They also want development but governments are increasingly failing to deliver on that front. It's much easier for politicians to indulge in identity politics than to give good governance. "
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