Friday, May 16, 2008

The impotence of being

You won't find me saying this too often, but there's a piece worth reading in the Hindu. In the opinion pages, Vidya Subrahmaniamexamines why Rahul Gandhi, scion of India's powerful ruling family, will fail to attract voters from the Dalit or untouchable community in the country's biggest state, Uttar Pradesh. She contrasts this with the vote-building success of Uttar Pradesh's chief minister, Mayawati, who leads a Dalit-empowerment party that swept to power last year.

The bottom line is that the Congress still functions as a royal court which pays lip service to the concerns of the downtrodden but is unwilling to let Dalit leadership advise the throne. In politics symbols are important. Mayawati's success as a politician is a spur for Dalits who see a conspiracy to keep them out of power. But images are themselves powerless. As Ms Subrahmaniam points out Mayawati is helpless to stop the everyday brutality perpetuated by other castes against Dalits.

Why the untouchable question remains central to the politics of India might confound western readers who are fed a daily diet of economic success stories about the rise of the country. The reality is that caste is central to the character of India's public life. People have yet to break the boundaries of gender and social-standing in India and are unable largely to choose a life for themselves.

Mayawati's rise seems to signify one big change. The first Indian regime was concerned with freedom from the British. It was also about defining the freedom of the self in the constitution. We are in the midst of the second regime where power is paramount. Power between the states and the nation and by one person over another.

The first regime, dominated by the Congress party, lasted more than 40 years. Mayawati's dream may be to be prime minister but I suspect her real role in politics will be to push India to the next stage of political development: that of rights of people and groups. When these become important in India, Mayawati will have won.

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