[Assam] India's seismic shift - Houston Chronicle editorial

Ram Sarangapani assamrs at gmail.com
Mon May 21 07:50:19 PDT 2007

*India's seismic shift
*A stunning election result in the world's largest democracy bodes well for
millions of 'untouchables.'

Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle

In an amazing political coup, a single, 51-year-old Dalit — or
"untouchable"— woman from the lowest caste just led her party to victory in
India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh. She is being hailed as a serious
candidate for prime minister in India's next general election. She is former
schoolteacher Mayawati Kumari, known simply as Mayawati, whose Bahujan Samaj
(or All People's) Party stunned political observers by winning 203 of 403
provincial assembly seats to gain an unprecedented majority in this province
of over 170 million people.

Even more remarkable, she created the "rainbow coalition" that brought her
party to power by forming previously unheard-of alliances with people of all
castes. In a country steeped in rigid caste systems and centuries of
oppression by the Hindu upper castes, this is a welcome harbinger of a
seismic shift in Indian politics and a more equal footing for its millions
of less advantaged citizens.

Mayawati's natural supporters are the millions of outcasts who, like her
ancestors, make up India's most marginalized and impoverished population,
relegated to such "unclean" jobs as scavenging and cleaning toilets. They
were called "the people of God" by Mahatma Gandhi, who fought to better
their lives. And while India's constitution, adopted in 1950, forbids
discrimination based on caste, it is still pervasive, defining almost all
areas of social interaction.

Mayawati, a seasoned, ambitious politician, has been chief minister of the
state three times. She forged an unlikely partnership between Brahmins, at
the top of the Hindu caste hierarchy, and Dalits at the bottom, which
resulted in her party's fielding 86 upper-caste Brahmin candidates and 91

"People of all castes have brought us to power," Mayawati said after her
victory. "My government will provide a rule free of injustice, crime, fear
and corruption and one which is oriented towards development for all, but
priority will be given to the lower castes and those socially and
economically left behind."

Mayawati makes no secret of the fact that she would like to be India's first
Dalit prime minister. Analysts say that several factors could make that a
distinct possibility: The Hindu nationalist party had its worst showing in
the state in 15 years, and that party's Rahul Gandhi, heir apparent to the
dynasty that has given India three prime ministers, ran a lackluster
campaign. A fast-growing middle class that is getting weary of corrupt,
inefficient officials. All send a signal that Indians of all castes are
putting more stock in good government than in caste loyalties.

It is remarkable that a Dalit woman born in the slums of New Delhi could
empower the millions still trapped in India's caste system — an outlawed but
still powerful social structure that Mahatma Gandhi called the "greatest
blot on Hinduism." Whether she becomes prime minister or not, it is a
magnificent achievement.
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