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Ms Mayawati's statue protection force

Soutik Biswas | 16:00 UK time, Friday, 29 January 2010

MayawatiFifty-three-year-old Ms Mayawati rules over a state where a quarter of India's poor live. With a population of more than 160 million - that's as many people as Brazil - Uttar Pradesh has some of the worst human development indicators. Government healthcare is a shambles, infant mortality is steep and millions of children are underfed. Endemic corruption means that potentially everything - from jobs to development projects - are up for sale. And the state's finances are precarious: the fiscal deficit leapt by nearly 50% in 2007-2008.

All this has not deterred Ms Mayawati, an icon for India's 160 million low caste Dalits, also known as 'untouchables', from splurging $1bn (£0.6bn) dollars on monuments of herself and other low-caste leaders. Courts have sought explanations about such profligate spending of tax-payers money, and opposition politicians have pilloried her.

Ms Mayawati is now calling for the creation of a separate police force to protect the statues she has built. This will bleed Uttar Pradesh further: she wants to spend more than $10m (£7.1m) to set up the force and another $3m (£1.6m) yearly to maintain it. This again, in a state, where law and order is poor, and even government officers have been murdered while carrying out their duties.

What is driving Ms Mayawati into what her critics describe as chronic megalomania when there are more pressing matters of the state to attend to?

For one, she feels her political opponents would destroy the memorials once she is out of power. One of them, Mulayam Singh Yadav, has even spoken about the need to "bulldoze" the monuments. So by creating a force by law, she is trying to make sure that the memorials are secure and not neglected even when she is out of power.

Many believe that Ms Mayawati's latest moves could be to do with her growing political insecurity. Securing one's legacy through building monuments will not work in modern-day India where aspirations are high. Dalits are no longer willing to wait endlessly for their lives to improve.

Ms Mayawati's fabled social engineering skills in building impregnable and impossible caste-based coalitions are fading as members of the upper castes and Muslims begin to move away from her party. If she leaves behind a lot of garish monuments and nothing much else, Uttar Pradesh will suffer more. But, more importantly, India's most deprived lower caste people will be the biggest losers. Will Ms Mayawati turn out to be the goddess that failed?

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