By Soutik Biswas
Mayawati has been described as an unorthodox politician
Will an "untouchable" become India's next prime minister?
The way a number of Indian opposition parties are rallying around Mayawati, a Dalit or "untouchable" icon, and touting her as a future prime minister must be gladdening the hearts of 160 million members of the community she represents.
The 52-year-old daughter of a government clerk who grew up in a shanty town in the capital, Delhi, has emerged as the pivot of a fledgling "third front" in Indian politics.
It is trying to throw down the gauntlet to the coalitions led by the governing Congress and opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Ms Mayawati's "third front" brings together a slew of regional parties and communists, who are still smarting after they stopped supporting the government over its nuclear deal with the US.
"The impact of Mayawati has sobered a lot of political parties. She has a larger-than-life image. Now it's a third front with Mayawati as the nucleus," says Shekhar Gupta, editor of The Indian Express newspaper.
This despite the fact that her Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), a regional party based in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state, has only 17 seats in the parliament.
Since the 2004 general election, Mayawati's fortunes have soared. In the last state assembly elections a little over a year ago, her party swept to power winning 206 of the 403 seats and more importantly, had leads in 55 of the state's 80 parliamentary constituencies.
Her party also polled well in at least 60 parliamentary seats outside Uttar Pradesh, making her a pan-Indian Dalit icon of sorts.
The canny political strategist has also broadened her appeal, wooing upper-caste Hindus and Muslims - she has 29 Muslim and 52 upper-caste Brahmin members in the present state assembly.
In India's fractious and caste-driven polity, this is a masterstroke in social engineering - an unprecedented coalition of the poorest of the poor and the rich, and of Hindus and Muslims. And this has taken place in a state which accounts for one in seven MPs in the Indian parliament.
Mayawati is now the nucleus of the emerging new 'third front'
The upshot, say analysts, is that her party has become a factor in about 10 states, and could play the spoiler there for the bigger parties in next year's general elections.
The unorthodox Mahatma Gandhi-baiting politician with a penchant for gaudy birthday celebrations, expensive jewellery and personal statues has been an enigma for India's upper classes and journalists.
On the one hand, her homegrown charisma and mass-based leadership qualities have never been in doubt; on the other, she has been assailed with charges of amassing wealth and property beyond her means.
"Her political peers and journalists have persistently underestimated her and her party. She has been regarded as an unguided missile that has explosive intent, but no sense of direction," says Ajoy Bose, who has written a book on Ms Mayawati.
But he says her triumphant Dalit-Brahmin alliance in Uttar Pradesh has become a "blueprint for electoral success" in India.
Analysts say Ms Mayawati thrives best during periods of political instability, even when she appears to lack the numbers to form governments.
With only 66 legislators in the 403-member assembly, she took power in Uttar Pradesh twice. She secured a third term with 99 legislators.
"Each time she was short of majority. She was able to grab power because other parties prevented each other from forming the government," says Ajoy Bose.
This is exactly what could happen if the Mayawati-led "third front" mops up about 100 seats or more in next year's general elections which are expected to leave no party with a clear majority.
Uttar Pradesh is one of the most backward states in India
Analysts say that Ms Mayawati is also trying to move beyond a purely caste-based agenda to enhance her appeal among upper-castes and classes - her government recently brought in English in primary schools and announced new urban housing and health plans.
But she could also blow her chances because of what her critics describe as her "despotic" side, and a lack of any second rung of leadership.
"There is a kind of ruthlessness in her that can be self-defeating. Her party is too individual-centred, and does not have a policy management team.
"Then there is the looming threat of corruption cases against her," says political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta.
However, the prospect of Ms Mayawati becoming the prime minister has immense symbolic value.
"This would be a Dalit woman from the most populous Indian state and one who has earned her way to the top through education and political work, not inherited it via marriage or lineage," says analyst Mahesh Rangarajan.
The next general elections will tell whether Ms Mayawati manages to exploit this opportunity.