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Any escape from Mayas and Laloos?

Last week the Uttar Pradesh chief minister, Mayawati, marked her birthday. The manner in which it was celebrated — especially the way i...

Written by Avijit Pathak |
January 21, 2003

Last week the Uttar Pradesh chief minister, Mayawati, marked her birthday. The manner in which it was celebrated — especially the way in which she was projected as the Buddha’s 21st century avatar — was quite revealing.

It could, possibly, be read as an assertion of Indian democracy: how the hitherto marginalised sections of society are overcoming their silence and gaining the appropriate socio-political space.

In a way, it is the assertion of new confidence, a new language that seeks to demonstrate that ‘we too can do it’. At the same time, it indicates how the space for a truly alternative politics is shrinking and that even the supposedly radical Dalit/subaltern politics is falling into the same trap of cultural narcissism.

Indeed, the style of politics has undergone a dramatic transformation in recent times. Enough has already been said about the corruption and lumpenisation of our polity, but what is equally worthy of observation is the exhibitionist character of the changing style of politics. It engages itself in an act of self-advertisement. It arouses narcissism. It does not hesitate to demonstrate the abundance of wealth. In the world of media spectacles, it projects itself as a slickly packaged item of consumption.

We have witnessed Amar Singh’s lavish parties, the naked demonstration of wealth when Laloo Prasad Yadav’s daughters got married, and now we have Mayawati’s much-publicised do. Possibly this represents a trend: it shows that the cherished ideal of the leaders of emancipatory politics adopting a lifestyle that merges itself with the experiential reality of the oppressed is out of date.

The common sense seems to be that since the new age is being driven by the rationale of hedonism, there is nothing wrong with leaders indulging in conspicuous consumption.

This is shocking. After all, emancipatory politics needs to create a new morality to fight the existing value system. If it allows itself to be hijacked by the dominant values, it loses its transformative potential. It becomes status-quoist. It is little wonder, then, that all great proponents of the politics of resistance spoke of alternative morals.

For instance, in his own time, M.K. Gandhi sought to embody the aspirations of the Indian peasantry in order to fight colonialism as well as the middle class dominance in the arena of politics.

It is in this context that the significance of the assertion of the Dalits and other subaltern communities has to be understood.

They are endowed with a great historical agency. It is believed that they would alter the prevalent patriarchal/Brahminical/capitalist social order, and create a just society. Their politics, therefore, needs to be refreshingly different from the existing one.

Indeed, as Paulo Freire argued brilliantly, the oppressed alone can think of and implement an alternative education or life-project. And we can understand that these alternative values ought to be reciprocity, a humble mein and simplicity.

But the tragedy is that the kind of Dalit/subaltern politics we are seeing today is far from this emancipatory project.

Instead, it is becoming purely instrumental. It is utterly devoid of a grand vision. All it wants is power — at any cost. Such politicians, not surprisingly, do not hesitate to compromise on basic principles. Although such politics valorises Jotiba Phule and B.R. Ambedkar, it has no problems aligning with the followers of Veer Sarvarkar and Golwalkar. The strategies for immediate power become more important than a single-minded devotion to a long-term project.

It is, of course, possible to argue that this kind of power-seeking gives confidence to the Dalits and other lower castes in an otherwise extremely caste-ridden society. But then, if power thus gained is devoid of the process of self-enlightenment, it only leads to the degradation of the original cause. Today, there is only decadence in Laloo’s political rhetoric and Mayawati’s narcissistic style of functioning.

Yet, there is a ray of hope. Ultimately, the awakening of Dalits is irreversible. And the gap between pampered Dalit leaders and ordinary Dalits, who suffer in silence, is getting widened all the time. Possibly, it is this awareness that will provide a new momentum — and trajectory — to Dalit politics in the country.

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