Noida: Mayawati's inauguration of her dream Ambedkar Park in Noida was the sort of stuff that Bollywood dreams are made of. And not just because of the budget - 685 crores spent on 33 acres.
She flew in from Lucknow in a helicopter, landing at a helipad specially constructed in the Apeejay School. She reached the Ambedkar Park exactly at 5 pm, surrounded by Black Cats. The military precision was enabled by the fact that most roads in the area had been sealed off all day, causing huge traffic jams. 2500 policemen ensured the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh arrived within seconds to a crowd of nearly 50,000 people according to some estimates, who had been bussed in all day. Special cameras provided by the UP government live-streamed the extravaganza for others.
Dressed in a pale pink salwaar-kameez, a big purse in her right hand, Mayawati headed to the central dome of the memorial. The special effects were lined up. As Buddhist monks chanted, she scooped handfuls of red rose petals and showered them at the feet of three massive statues - of Dalit icon BR Ambedkar, her mentor Kanshi Ram, and herself (her statue, like her, accessorises with a large handbag)
The park's dozen statues include some of Mayawati's parents. There's also a herd of unnervingly-large sandstone elephants, the BSP's symbol.
In a lengthy speech reverberating with the imminence of the elections in her state, Mayawati justified her unshakeable focus on getting this park built, despite court cases and objections to its price tag. "After Independence, the Congress has been in power for the longest time - but has done nothing for the Dalits," she said. "This memorial is for so many Dalits who now live in the capital and also for the people of Western UP who can't visit Lucknow." The Congress has failed to pay tribute to Dalit icons like Ambedkar or Kanshi Ram, she stressed. "Now we have given them that honour."
She also took on the Congress for using the CBI to persecute her with fake cases. "They accused of misusing my office for personal gain," she said, "A court found me innocent."
The Chief Minister said contrary to reports, she had spent 1% of UP's budget on her dream projects. The majority of the funds, she said, were based on donations. Her use of taxpayers' money for the Noida Park is still being challenged in many courts.
In the past, Mayawati's extravagant celebrations of herself - like wearing garlands made of money that added up to several thousand - have been criticised by her opponents, but praised her voters as expressions of Dalit pride. Today, some of the denouncement came from expected quarters. Congress spokeswoman Renuka Chowdhury said, "Her priorities are misplaced... with Mayawati it always about me, myself and I."
Mayawati certainly did stress how much her government has accomplished, thanking her audience for making her chief minister four times. She referred also to the lengthy legal battle she fought in the Supreme Court for the memorial park. Construction first began in 2008. Residents of the area objected to the park being made off-limits. When 6,000 trees were cut down, they took Mayawati to court. The Environment Ministry said the plans for the park violated some of its guidelines. The park's proximity to the Okhla Bird Sanctuary became another legal objection. But in December last year, the Supreme Court cleared the project with a rider - not more than 25 percent of the total 84 acres could be paved, the rest would have to be planted with trees.
Today's spectacle was engineered to wow Mayawati's traditional vote base. But as the elections creep nearer, coasting on form and not substance will get tougher. The accusations of corruption against her government are piling up as high as the statues in her park. In the last few months, she has removed two ministers who were linked to different financial scandals.
More than 400 children have died in and around Gorakhpur in eastern UP this year of the deadly Japanese encephalitis. The Mayawati government has sanctioned Rs 18 crore to combat the menace, promoting unfavourable comparisons to the lavish funding organized or the Ambedkar Park. The Uttar Pradesh Human Rights Commission wants her government to explain the increasing breadth of the disease, and what's being done to check it.
From Bundhelkand, one of the state's poorest regions, came the report that a bridge being built for several crores had collapsed hours after a visit by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi on Wednesday. Mr Gandhi's inspection had been prompted by his party's allegations that the UP government was using substandard material to build public projects, despite a whopping 7200 crore package from the Centre.