Toilet Symbolism

Mayawati’s proposal to name a thousand or so toilets after the Nehru-Gandhi clan is sure to create some controversy, arguably Mayawati’s daily breakfast. As a sign that challenges the national proclivity, particularly that of the ruling elite to commemorate key leaders with monuments that reek of high culture, surely this is a significant riposte. Why not toilets, too, asks Mayawati? And indeed, why not?

It is possible to read Mayawati’s recent actions in at least two ways. The middle class reaction is one of outrage bordering on fear for it seems as if she, apart from being thoroughly unpalatable to this group, seems to be an unstoppable force. The giant statues that she is putting up of Kanshi Ram and herself, dotted with elephants is seen as a monumental slap in the face of a large portion of the Indian electorate. Add to this the unembarrassed amassing of personal wealth, the unbridled displays of unprocessed power and a persona that thrives on battles that are as down and dirty as they can get, and you can see why Mayawati is the nemesis of the middle class.

The other way of reading Mayawati is to see her as a subversive radical turning all that mainstream politics practices covertly into an exaggerated overt agenda. She is therefore more brazen, allegedly more corrupt, more opportunistic and more unashamedly self-serving than anyone else and what’s more as a bonus she doesn’t even need to wear khadi. The toilet naming proposal is arguably a. masterstroke for it turns the pretensions of the upper castes against them- if this proposal was seen as an insult, then surely all the talk about equality and the dignity of labour is exposed as being just so much hot air. At a deeper level, it exposes the easy tokenism with which the mainstream treats those at the margins. An Ambedkar Jayanti here, an Iftaar party there and we are all equals. The ease with which the leaders of a certain section become ‘national’ while others are treated with exaggerated respect but confined to their designated slots as “dalit’ or ‘regional’ or ‘muslim’ leaders is now so much a part of our consciousness that we think of it as utterly natural. Ambedkar may have framed our constitution but he is today frozen in our memory as a dalit leader. The overblown use of monumental structures by Mayawati exposes this implicit hypocrisy at work.

Of course, the line between radical subversiveness and unsophisticated megalomania is a thin one. Under the cover of its-payback-time-for-the-Dalits, Mayawati can today pretty much get away with anything, provided of course she is able to retain her electoral base. No political party can oppose what is a flagrant violation of some laws and many conventions because no one wants to be seen as casting the first stone. It is a high risk game, but that has never deterred Mayawati so far.

What of the proposal to name toilets after the Nehru-Gandhi name? (incidentally, the conflation of India’s two most prominent surnames through an accident of marriage makes for some very convenient symbolism). If Gandhi were alive, it really would be not mush of a debate. He would in all likelihood personally inaugurate the project and puncture the symbol of any significance. Given today’s political climate, it is unlikely for the Congress to do the same. On Mayawati’s part, if she were a sophisticated player of the symbolic game, she would not go ahead with the proposal. Making the suggestion is a powerful symbol that challengies implicit assumptions, actually erecting these and giving them the names of Nehru and Gandhi is a tedious act of revenge. Since nobody has either damned or praised her with the description of sophistication, perhaps it would be too much to expect such restraint.