Lower-Caste Politician A Lofty Symbol in India

"Slowly things are changing," says Mayawati, a Dalit, or untouchable. (Photo By Emily Wax/twp - The Washington Post)
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By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 18, 2008

GADDOPUR, India -- On a muggy monsoon-drenched afternoon, Shakuntala, a rail-thin girl with bloodshot eyes, cooled her father's visitors with a bamboo fan, trying to ward off the heat and the flies while they feasted on lentils, stewed chicken and hot bread.

Like many women in this village of Dalits -- the lowest caste in India's social pecking order -- Shakuntala, 16, lives a meager existence. Her opportunities in life, beyond domestic servitude, are limited. If she remains in the village, she will probably be pressured to marry before she makes it out of her teenage years. As she was in her father's house, so she will be in her husband's.

But Shakuntala has one role model, a woman who overcame the limitations of caste: Mayawati, a Dalit daughter of the soil and, as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, one of the most influential politicians in the world's largest democracy.

Mayawati, who like Shakuntala uses just one name, is a powerful symbol of possibility for Dalits, once known as untouchables. By putting the issue of caste at the center of political debate, she is shaking the very foundations of this country's centuries-old social order, a system by which Indians' professions and status are inherited at birth.

Caste is seen by some as the most corrosive aspect of Indian society, much like racism and past slavery in the United States. But oppressed castes, including Dalits, represent a majority in India. Most Dalits cannot afford to educate their children in the private, English-language schools that prepare them for higher-paying jobs. Though illegal, violence against Dalits is still widespread.

Over the past decade, Dalits have achieved some progress, particularly in access to higher education and government jobs. There is now even a small Dalit middle class, thanks largely to affirmative-action programs and urbanization.

Mayawati is a symbol of such changes, but an imperfect one. She has repeatedly been accused of corruption. Critics say she has enriched herself and her family rather than her fellow Dalits, whom she publicly and passionately professes to represent.

She shows no compunction about flaunting her diamond rings and bejeweled necklaces. Her real estate holdings are vast. And a colossal bronze statue of her has been erected on a hilltop in the state capital of Lucknow, bathed in golden light bulbs, with the inscription "A Symbolic Place of Social Change."

Still, Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party (Majority People's Party) won a resounding majority in last year's elections in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state. She is now trying to use that momentum to help her party win in other states. According to analysts and aides close to her, she is positioning herself to become the country's prime minister.

"People have seen my work, seen my record. Now the nation is watching what I am doing," Mayawati, 52, said recently in a rare interview with a pair of American journalists in her sprawling residence in Lucknow.

"We have this culture in India and, being a Dalit woman, I faced more of it -- doubly -- as a Dalit and as a woman," she said later. "Slowly things are changing."

For Shakuntala, the 5-foot-tall, unmarried chief minister is a towering figure.

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