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India's untouchable icon aims for Delhi

12 February 08 13:54 GMT
By Geeta Pandey
BBC News, Lucknow

At traffic roundabouts in Lucknow, the capital of the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, huge billboards have come up in the last couple of months.

Looking down from them is the smiling chubby face of the state's Chief Minister Mayawati.

"Our Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) government is different from other parties. Other parties make promises, but never keep them. Our government does what it says," the billboards boast.

They also list major achievements of the government in the first six months of its rule.

Contrary to all predictions, Ms Mayawati led her Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) to a thumping victory in last May's assembly elections in India's most populous state.

And now her eyes seem set on Delhi - the prime minister's chair.

Colourful politician

In her first post-election interview, she spelled it out clearly. "My ultimate goal is Delhi," she said.

A former school teacher, Ms Mayawati is one of the most colourful characters in Indian politics.

She has been the state's chief minister thrice earlier, but as her party didn't have a majority, her government never lasted the full five-year term.

A controversial icon for millions of poor deprived Dalits (formerly untouchables) - who are generally considered out of the Hindu caste system - her earlier campaigns were virulently anti-upper caste.

In her early days in politics, she threatened to beat the upper castes with shoes, a great insult as the soles of shoes are considered unclean.

But in the last few years, she changed her strategy and went all out to woo the upper-castes. And it has paid off, ensuring an absolute majority for her government.

Ms Mayawati is trying to replicate the same strategy in other parts of India so as to be the winner in national parliamentary elections due next year.

"She will get a lot of support definitely. There are 20% to 25% Dalits in most states and if she gets all their support, it will be a big success," says Lucknow-based senior journalist Sharat Pradhan.

Age is on her side too. In a country where a large number politicians are in their 70s and 80s, she's rather young and energetic at 52.

Analysts say Mayawati attracts and repulses in equal measure.

'Message of hope'

Born to a humble government clerk father, there's nothing humble about the chief minister anymore.

Before the elections last year, she declared she had assets worth $13.7m. Last month, she paid $3.9m in advance taxes. Before the close of the financial year, she's expected to pay $1.3m more.

Her ever-growing wealth, explained by her officials as "gifts" from her doting supporters, has failed to convince many.

And she has often been caught up in allegations of corruption.

During her earlier stint as chief minister, she was accused of approving a project to build a massive shopping complex near the Taj Mahal in violation of laws protecting the famous monument. She has denied any wrongdoing.

Mayawati has a special fondness for mega birthday parties and she has been criticised by the media for cutting huge cakes while laden with expensive diamond jewellery.

But, Mr Pradhan says her core audiences appreciate her diamonds.

"Her diamonds are a message of hope to her supporters. It's like she's telling them - look today I am here. Yesterday I was like you. If I can get it, so can you. They feel very proud of the fact that she is one of them."

On her birthday in January, she said the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress party chief, Sonia Gandhi, had called up to sing Happy Birthday to her.

It's perhaps an indication of her growing political clout. She supports the government in Delhi, but never lets an opportunity pass to take pot-shots at the Congress Party.

Her supporters - who are mostly poor, backward, deprived villagers - applaud her when she demands a $2.1 billion special package from the federal government for her people.

It doesn't matter whether the money comes or not, what matters is the audaciously large number of zeroes she thinks up.

Obsession with statues

But governing Uttar Pradesh is not an easy job - it is one of the most backward states in the country with high crime rate, poor health services, and very high illiteracy rates.

Her officials say "it's impossible to change the 60 years of neglect in one year" but many in the state are beginning to question the government's priorities.

Ms Mayawati is also known for her obsession with statues - of past Dalit leaders and also her own.

Lucknow's best-known statue maker Shraavan Prajapati has made seven statues - big and small - of Mayawati.

On being challenged, a senior government official close to Mayawati counters with a question of his own: "How come no one objects when memorials are built for Mahatma Gandhi? Or when the Congress Party puts up statues of members of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty?"

Some say by building memorials and statues, Mayawati is fulfilling an emotional need. Besides, they say, a few million dollars spent on statues and memorials is small change for a huge state like Uttar Pradesh whose budget runs into many billions of dollars.


It's an argument which some do not find convincing. "How can the chief minister spend such huge amounts on memorials and parks when people are dying of hunger in the state?" asks Lucknow-based taxi driver RN Sharma.

Such criticism notwithstanding, Mayawati is a crowd-puller and her audiences are the poor rural folk, who are not influenced by the media.

The hoardings put up across Lucknow city and across the state are meant for the village folk.

It's unlikely the man in a car will stop to read the writing on the billboard, but a man on the bicycle or the ox cart or on foot will definitely stop to read it.

And they are the people Mayawati is hoping will propel her juggernaut into power in Delhi.

Says Sharat Pradhan, "Unless she makes a major blunder, she's set for a long drive. Her one big problem is her over-confidence. She needs to reach out to the people, and to the media who she thinks are irrelevant."

"If she addresses these issues, her juggernaut will be unstoppable. Otherwise, it may not reach it's intended destination - Delhi."

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