BBC Home > BBC News > South Asia

Profile: Mayawati Kumari

16 July 09 09:24 GMT

Mayawati Kumari is an icon for millions of India's Dalits, or "untouchables" as they used to be known.

Having built a power base in the populous and politically crucial state of Uttar Pradesh, she aspires to replicate her regional popularity on a national level.

Becoming prime minister through the success of her own Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) party remains a remote possibility.

Her support still comes mostly from the low-caste Dalits, for whom she became a symbol of dignity and political aspiration after centuries of oppression by the Hindu upper castes.

Mayawati, as she is normally known, has also been reaching out to upper caste Hindus as she seeks to broaden her support.

Recognised as India's canniest grassroots politician, she has also been accused of autocratic ruthlessness and suffered scrutiny over her personal wealth.

Youngest chief minister

Mayawati was born into the low-caste Hindu Jatav, or Chamar, community.

Hoping to become a district magistrate, she studied law and worked as a teacher before embarking on her political career.

Her mentor, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) president Kanshi Ram, was keen to pass on his political mantle to her.

He is believed to have told his protege that she was destined to become a queen who would control the fate of many district magistrates rather than be one of them.

The dream became a reality in 1995, when she took over as the first low-caste, or Dalit, chief minister to head any of India's state governments.

At the age of 39, the unmarried Mayawati was also the youngest politician to become the chief minister in Uttar Pradesh.

Although her first government did not last more than four months, her political journey had begun.

"Behenji", or sister, as she is endearingly called by millions of her supporters, returned as chief minister two years later at the head of a BSP coalition government with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), this time for six months.

But it was not until the state assembly elections in 2002 February that her political acumen came to be recognised by even her fiercest critics.
She was given complete charge of the party by Kanshi Ram and she formed a government once again in alliance with BJP.

But her fragile coalition government broke up 18 months later amid recriminations over plans to build a massive shopping complex near the Taj Mahal.

Mayawati was accused of approving the project in violation of laws protecting the famous monument.

She denies any wrongdoing.

But her critics say considering her humble origins, she has done pretty well for herself - her assets run into millions of dollars with several properties to her name.

Her mega birthday bashes are major media events where she appears laden with diamonds.

Broadening appeal

In her years out of power, Mayawati consolidated her position and worked to broaden her base.

She opted for an image makeover - oily plaits and ponytails made way for short bobbed hair.

Having once campaigned telling Dalits to beat upper-caste Hindus four times with their shoes, she toned down her anti-upper-caste rhetoric.

Her new slogan invited everyone, including the higher castes, to "come ride the elephant", her party's election symbol.

In 2007 state elections, she fielded more Muslim and upper-caste candidates than ever before, securing a clear majority that may help her last a full five-year term.

Her party also did well in dozens of parliamentary seats outside Uttar Pradesh, becoming seen as a significant player in about 10 states.

But her hopes of becoming India's first "untouchable" prime minister were dealt a serious setback after the Congress-party led coalition comfortably sailed to power in recent general elections.

Related BBC sites

*