Letter From India: 'Queen' Of Poor Flaunts Riches
Indians have long been used to seeing their politicians flaunt their riches. Yet the extravagant behavior of one of the nation's top female leaders has caused gasps of disbelief.
Mayawati — she is usually known by one name alone — is chief minister of India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, whose estimated 190 million population includes many of the poorest people on the planet.
Her multitude of followers see her as an icon, not least because she is a Dalit — the term used for society's bottom rung, formerly called "untouchables" — who rose from humble beginnings to become extremely rich and powerful.
Accounts of Mayawati's ostentatious and profligate conduct have been making headlines for years.
Newspapers in India and beyond have lapped up accounts of her diamonds and pink saris, her fleet of aircraft, her extraordinarily lavish birthday parties, and her habit of populating the landscape of Uttar Pradesh with memorial parks and big statues of herself.
A Garland Of Cash For 'Queen Of The Dalits'
Her latest exploit goes further still, and is — in the view of one leading Indian newspaper — a "new low" for the woman widely known as the "Queen of the Dalits."
It happened several days ago, at a massive rally organized to mark the 25th anniversary of her political party. As Mayawati — a round-faced woman in her 50s — stood before the assembled throng, her minions presented her with a gigantic garland.
In South Asia, it is customary to honor people by draping a garland of flowers around the neck. The garland given to Mayawati was far too large to wear: It was at least 30 feet long, and as thick as a tree trunk. And it contained no flowers.
It was made entirely of money — pink bank notes for 1,000 Indian rupees ($22). The overall worth of the garland is not clear, but it is at least $1 million, according to most estimates.
Mayawati's aides say the jumbo cash garland was a gift from her adoring party workers. The Queen of the Dalits happily accepted it, apparently unmoved by the fact that many of the people in the multitude at the rally would take several weeks to earn just one of those notes.
When pictures of her garland reached India's TV screens, there was an immediate outcry.
Mayawati's political rivals created such commotion in parliament's lower house that the session had to be adjourned several times.
In a country where hundreds of millions still live in abject poverty, the sight of someone brandishing so much money was seen as vulgar and distasteful.
'Conduct Totally Unbecoming'
The Asian Age newspaper condemned Mayawati's behavior as "conduct totally unbecoming." It stated that the entire nation was shocked "in seeing Ms. Mayawati in all her finery and [with her] self-congratulatory smile ... weighed down by the burden of monies that did not go to the people." The Times of India accused her of "mocking the poverty of thousands of dedicated cadres."
Mayawati does not seem perturbed by the criticism. She is a shrewd politician who is widely suspected of harboring ambitions of one day becoming prime minister.
She may even gain from the incident: Some political analysts in India believe her impoverished supporters actually relish her displays of wealth, as they see it as a celebration of their collective political power — and proof that anyone, even an oppressed Dalit, can acquire power and riches.
Mayawati's response to her critics has been typically defiant. On Wednesday, she appeared on stage in public again — and once again accepted a giant garland made entirely of cash (this time it was worth less, as the notes were of a variety of values).
However, she and her supporters may yet have some explaining to do: The tax authorities say they intend to find out where all this money is coming from.
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