One of India’s most powerful and controversial politicians rises from a throne-like armchair, a clutch of candidates standing deferentially behind her and two large portraits flanking the stage. A gated semicircle keeps tens of thousands of supporters 20m away.
For the past five years, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati has ruled like a queen over this huge state. Now, the Dalit (formerly known as untouchables) leader is working to convince voters to give her another term in office in an election with broad implications for the nation as a whole.
A re-election victory for the chief minister in the seven-stage election which starts on Wednesday could turn her caste-based Bahujan Samaj Party from a regional oddity — even if the state it controls is the most populous in the world — into a national force.
A strong showing by the Congress Party — a solid third place is realistic — could invigorate its national government, which has been hammered by corruption scandals and paralyzed by rebellious -coalition partners. As a kingmaker in the state coalition, it could press the election winner to join the national government. It would also restore the shine to the party’s Indian prime minister-in-waiting Rahul Gandhi who has campaigned across the state for months.
A poor Congress showing could cripple India’s government for the last two years of its term.
While the competing parties pay lip service to development and corruption in the state of 200 million people, the real battle is taking place in the down and dirty world of caste and identity politics, as they alternatively try to woo and scare the state’s divided communities.
“I have tried my best to bring benefits to the dalit community,” Mayawati, who uses only one name, told a rally in the town of Sitapur, about 90km north of Lucknow. “If we do not win, all those benefits will disappear.”
Her low caste supporters cheer her as a defense against the prejudice that keeps them at the bottom of the ladder.
Mayawati’s larger than life presence has made her a folk hero to supporters and a national joke to her detractors. She appeared at a gathering wearing a garland of 1,000 rupee (US$20) banknotes estimated to total hundreds of thousands of US dollars donated by impoverished admirers and spent 28 billion rupees (US$560 million) on parks honoring dalit heroes that include 4.5m statues of herself. Meanwhile, her state’s health and education systems lie in tatters.
An October 2008 US Embassy cable released by WikiLeaks called her a “virtual paranoid dictator” who intimidated opponents, forced parliamentary candidates to pay her US$250,000 to run on her party’s ticket and sent a private jet to Mumbai to pick up a new pair of sandals.
She fired much of her Cabinet in recent weeks, blaming those ministers for her regime’s corruption and brushed off other criticism as discrimination.
“Congress and other parties cannot easily swallow that the daughter of a dalit is ruling a state, the biggest state in the country,” she told the rally.
Many of her supporters agree. She has given them grants to replace thatch huts with brick homes and stopped the rapes, kidnappings and general lawlessness of the “Goonda Raj” (thug rule) of the Samajwadi Party government she ousted five years ago.
“She might have made some money, we are not concerned about that. We are only concerned with the benefits we have gotten,” said Mansoor Ahmed Sadiqqi, a 42-year-old Muslim mechanic who touts her for prime minister.