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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 April, 2004, 11:59 GMT 12:59 UK
Bandit Queen's electoral factor

By Ayanjit Sen
BBC correspondent in Mirzapur, Uttar Pradesh

Bandit Queen Phoolan Devi and supporters
Phoolan Devi was one of India's most famous outlaws

Although the biggest crowd puller in the northern Indian city of Mirzapur is no longer here, her colourful life and legacy are still much discussed.

Many people who came to vote on Monday in India's general elections still revere the notorious 'Bandit Queen' - the woman who abandoned crime to become a politician, only to be gunned down by unidentified men in Delhi nearly three years ago.

They remember Phoolan Devi to be fearless, headstrong and provocative - the woman whose life was the stuff of film and fable.

"I do not know who the sitting MP is. I have not even cast my vote. I only knew the name of our MP when Phoolan Devi was here," says Mohammed Gajanpar Hussain, a local primary school teacher.

'Phoolan soft spot'

Local opposition party members say that the governing Samajwadi Party, which she represented, is still to an extent reaping the benefits of what they call the 'Phoolan effect'.

"There are problems of water and electricity supplies," says one opposition member, "and many cement, metal and pottery industries have closed down recently.

"Even the carpet industry, which is mainly concentrated in the neighbouring town of Badohi and parts of Mirzapur, is in a bad shape.

Voters in Mirzapur
There is debate over how the "Phoolan effect" will influence the vote

"But people still have a soft corner for Phoolan and her party."

Yet one local Samajwadi Party leader does not fully agree with this.

"Yes, she was a force to reckon with but our party has also done a lot after her death for the development of the constituency - that is why we will be voted back to power," he says.

The party's candidate for the election, Sharda Prasad Bind, hopes he will win in May because of development activities undertaken during the last few years.

He says they are the sort of policies that will benefit the poor and socially deprived: people who face the same harsh circumstances as did Phoolan Devi.

Born into a low caste family, she suffered sexual abuse at a young age, and joined a gang of bandits who established a reputation for violent attacks.

Caste discrimination

The 1981 killing of 22 upper caste men who had allegedly raped her turned Phoolan Devi into a household name.

Although she denied leading the killers, she surrendered to the police two years later and spent 11 years in prison without trial.

In a dramatic transformation of her life, she later became an MP for the Samajwadi Party.

Mohammed Gajanpar Hussain
I do not know who the sitting MP is. I have not even cast my vote. I only knew the name of our MP when Phoolan Devi was here
Mohammed Gajanpar Hussain, local primary school teacher

In Mirzapur, the struggle against caste discrimination - which she championed - seems to have affected voting calculations.

Today the Samajwadi Party mainly depends upon the votes of Muslims and backward castes but some high caste people - including Brahmins - also vote for it.

Some analysts argue that the decision of the Samajwadi Party to field Phoolan Devi as a candidate in the first place was driven more by considerations of caste arithmetic than genuine appreciation of her political talents.

But public opinion on her legacy appears to be divided.

"In our society, a woman would never dare to challenge a man but she did it. I will vote for her party because it works for people of all castes," says Kanta, a housewife.

Others say the 'Phoolan effect' is dying fast.

"When she fought elections, she won by a huge margin but the gap reduced considerably in the by-elections held after her death," says Ravi Bansal, a grocery shop owner.

He argues that Phoolan Devi may have created ripples in the region's politics but three years after her death they are fast disappearing.

One thing though is certain: in death Phoolan Devi seems to attract as much colourful debate as she did when she was alive.


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