Friday, May 1, 2009

LUCKNOW, India — Her father was a low-level government clerk from a caste so poor and uneducated that it was shunned for centuries as “untouchable.” Her mother was illiterate.

But the daughter they named Mayawati sought a different destiny. She wanted political power, diamonds and - she’ll tell you - a chance to help India’s forgotten people. She wanted to build monuments to her heroes, memorials that would swallow up acres of this ancient city. Eventually, she got all that.

Now, as the nation of 1.2 billion people elects a new Parliament, she has an even larger goal: to run all of India.

In this election, a Herculean effort that stretches across four weeks and 800,000 polling stations, Mayawati lets no one forget that she emerged from a family of Dalits - as “untouchables” are now called - to run Uttar Pradesh, a politically powerful state with a population larger than France, Britain and Spain combined.

With India’s political scene increasingly fractured and national parties scrambling for allies, she now dreams of becoming a national leader - a long shot, but not an impossible one in the progressively divided politics of the world’s biggest democracy.

The mere fact that a Dalit is under discussion for prime minister reflects the huge change sweeping India this decade. Caste-based parties have existed for years in India, chiefly at the state level. Caste discrimination is illegal, but the vast majority of Dalits remain desperately poor and ill-educated.

Mayawati says she’ll end all that. “I brought so much change to Uttar Pradesh, and if I’m elected prime minister, I can do the same to the whole country,” she said at a recent campaign rally.

Mayawati, who has only one name, seldom looked up from her notes as she spoke, her words stiff and nasal. A short woman, she wore a matronly tunic and carried an outsized brown purse. It was hard to see her charisma. But thousands of voters applauded when she promised to bring jobs, clean water and an end to India’s religious divides.

“She’s from a poor family,” said Abdul Rehman, an 82-year-old farmer. “She understands what people are going through here, because we are poor too.”

Her critics deride her as the “Queen of the Dalits.” Her supporters call her “Behenji” - sister.

The 53-year-old former schoolteacher made her name by skillfully navigating the country’s political maelstrom, creating a voter base among her sub-caste - the shoemaking chamars - and then forging alliances of the moment with anyone who could help her career. In 2007, she stunned India by allying with Uttar Pradesh’s upper castes and returned to power as the state’s top official by bringing together communities traditionally at odds.

Technically, Mayawati is not running in this election. Instead she’s campaigning for her Bahujan Samaj Party, hoping it can amass enough power to propel her into the top job. India’s constitution allows almost anyone to become prime minister as long as they win a parliamentary seat within six months of taking office.

She portrays herself as a defender of the oppressed, a single woman dedicated only to politics, and blasts India’s main parties for clinging to power.

“In all these decades, the poor have become poorer and the oppressed Dalits have only seen more sufferings,” she said at another speech.

But it can be hard to see beyond the troubles of Uttar Pradesh and its 180 million people. It is a place ravaged by disease and lawlessness, where nearly half the population lives below the poverty line and even the state government Web site notes that “Life in Uttar Pradesh is short and uncertain.”

It is also riven by corruption, and Mayawati is among dozens of officials facing investigations into their finances. She insists that she’s incorruptible and that her vast wealth is simply gifts from her many supporters.

She isn’t given to modesty.

Mayawati has a 2,000-page autobiography and collections of diamond jewelry and homes. On her birthday, which she renamed Dalit “Self-Respect Day,” officials line up to pay her fealty.

But her most obvious legacies are in Lucknow, the state capital, where she is spending $460 million - four times the state health budget - building memorials celebrating Dalit heroes, her political mentor and herself. The monuments defy the state’s poverty: triumphal buildings, dozens of statues and acres of pink sandstone. Flanking one long marble walkway are 60 larger-than-life stone elephants, the symbol of her party.

But even if this makes her look like a coarse arriviste to India’s establishment, millions of impoverished low-caste voters revel in seeing one of their own openly flaunt her power and wealth.

Just ask Ajay Kumar. A 43-year-old Dalit who lives in a tidy Lucknow neighborhood, he has pulled himself up into the lower middle class by selling life insurance. He remembers when Dalits couldn’t enter Hindu temples, and when the idea of a Dalit chief minister, the state’s top position, was laughable.

“When Mayawati came to power, she ensured that Dalits also got their own statues, even bigger ones than the statues of the upper castes,” he said. “Now our statues dominate their statues.”

But can she become prime minister?

She certainly has a chance. While national politics have long been dominated by two parties - the left-of-center Indian National Congress and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party - neither is expected to be able to form a strong coalition. This has given regional and caste-based parties - particularly Mayawati’s - additional power as they negotiate to join alliances that will form after the five phases of voting end May 13.

Even Mayawati’s supporters admit her national support is probably not broad enough to become prime minister. But if the two main parties stumble badly, she could head a much-discussed “third front.” And she’ll almost certainly play a major role helping form the next ruling coalition.

Plus, some say, victory may not be her real objective. Not this time.

“The 2009 general elections are not the last general elections for Mayawati. They are the first,” said Shivam Vij, a journalist and longtime Mayawati watcher. “And if she doesn’t become prime minister this year, she’ll say ‘Look, they stopped a Dalit from succeeding.’ ”

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