Mayawati has massive support in Uttar Pradesh - but can it spread?
By Geeta Pandey
BBC News, Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh
The daughter of a humble government clerk father and a housewife mother, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati's meteoric rise in Indian politics caught many unawares.
An icon for India's 160m Dalits - formerly the "untouchables" - Ms Mayawati has been the state chief minister four times.
In 2007, she stumped her opponents and pollsters by sweeping the state assembly elections.
Now Ms Mayawati has her eyes set firmly on the seat of power in Delhi.
And as none of the two major parties in the race - Congress or the Bharatiya Janata Party - are likely to get a majority on their own, the spotlight is on smaller regional parties like Ms Mayawati's BSP.
And the Dalit leader has openly and repeatedly talked about her prime ministerial ambition.
As campaigning drew to a close, thousands of people gathered for a Mayawati rally at the Normal School ground in the northern Indian town of Gorakhpur.
Braving the scorching midday sun, men and women passed through metal detectors to get in.
Mayawati has openly talked about her prime ministerial ambition
Dressed in multi-hued saris, the women sat down in the middle enclosure with men occupying the flanks on either side.
Ahead of her arrival, BSP officials addressed the gathering, shouting: "Long live Bahujan Samaj Party, long live Mayawati."
Her election slogan is "Uttar Pradesh is taken, now it's Delhi's turn".
As her helicopter hovered into sight, her supporters cheered and clapped wildly.
Dressed in a beige salwar kurta (tunic and pyjamas) and surrounded by elite commandoes, the matronly 53-year-old leader took the stage.
"Ever since India gained independence, the centre and all states have been ruled by the Congress party and Bharatiya Janata Party. But sadly in the last 61 years, the Dalits, the lower castes and the minorities have been neglected. There has been little change in their social and financial status," she said.
Ramesh Gautam says he will always vote according to his caste
In her half-hour speech, delivered in a rather monotonous tone, she covered several topics including poverty, inflation, crime and terrorism.
"If you want to get rid of all these problems, you have to prevent the Congress or the BJP or their supporting parties from forming a government in Delhi at any cost," she said.
"You must vote in large numbers to ensure that our party, BSP, forms a government at the centre."
Her supporters greeted her statement with more claps and cheers.
Faith in the leader
Uttar Pradesh is India's most populous state - with its 175m plus people, it would be the sixth largest country in the world if it were an independent nation.
The state sends the maximum number of 80 MPs to parliament.
The BSP is expected to improve its tally in these elections
In the last elections in 2004, the BSP managed to win only 19 seats. This time, pundits predict that Ms Mayawati is bound to improve her tally, maybe even double it.
In her initial days in politics, Ms Mayawati's campaigns were rabidly anti-upper caste - her slogans were all about hitting them with shoes. At her rallies, she abused them.
That won her support from the low-castes and the Dalits who still make up her strongest allies.
"Caste is a major factor in Indian elections. More than 60% of people still vote according to their caste," says Utkarsh Sinha of the Lucknow-based Centre for Contemporary Studies and Research.
Half an hour's drive from Gorakhpur is Amahiya Maltola village. In the Dalit neighbourhood here, the entire community is unanimous in its support for the BSP.
"I will vote for my sister. We want her to win," says 55-year-old Mewati Devi.
The villagers tell me they want a paved road to the village, they complain there is no drainage system and, despite promises, no water pump. But their faith in their leader remains unshaken.
"Mayawati is doing a lot for us, she's giving us a lot, but it doesn't reach us because there are corrupt middlemen who pilfer it all. How can she see what work is being done here and what's not? It's not her fault," Ms Devi adds.
Says Ramesh Gautam: "We are chamars - a Dalit subcaste - and we will vote for her because she is a chamar too. We always vote for our caste, whether they do any work or not. What's the guarantee that someone else from some other caste will do something for us?"
But Ms Mayawati's election sweep in 2007 could not have been possible without what many call her "clever social engineering" where she wooed Brahmins and Dalits, Hindus and Muslims, men and women.
And to keep the Brahmins on her side, in the parliamentary elections the party has nominated at least 20 candidates from the community.
"We treat the sarva samaj - all castes - as equals," she told the rally.
She appealed for support to low castes and Muslims, Sikhs and other minorities. At the same time, she named the poor among the upper castes.
Mewati Devi says she will vote for the BSP
On the stage in Gorakhpur, she was accompanied by four of her party's candidates.
Three of them are Brahmins.
"No other party was giving any importance to Brahmins. Every one talked of minority welfare. This is the first time some party has talked about us," says computer teacher Alok Sharma.
The fact that Ms Mayawati's second in command, Satish Mishra, is a Brahmin also appeals to many in the upper castes.
"She talks about us because she realises that she cannot form a government without our support. But we're not complaining because we're benefiting from her," says NGO worker Satish Kumar Tripathi.
But taking the Uttar Pradesh victory to Delhi is a tough task.
Lucknow-based senior journalist Sharat Pradhan, says: "She will make a dent in the Congress and BJP's votes. But she is not going to win many seats outside of Uttar Pradesh.
"But that's not going to worry her too much. If not in these elections, then the next one. She's set for a long drive."