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An untouchable woman's unstoppable rise Add to ...

They left home early in the morning to get a seat at the front of the exhibition grounds for a campaign appearance by their political hero. They settled in on the rough mat floor, in their best bright polyester saris, prepared to wait for hours despite the 45-degree heat.

"I wanted to be sure I'd be able to see and hear her," Rajesh Devi said happily.

Rajesh Devi's devotion, and the loyalty of thousands of marginalized Indians like her, is fuelling the phenomenon of India's political season: Mayawati, a woman born to the bottom rung of the country's social order, now aiming for the highest office in the land: prime minister.

Mayawati, 53, is Dalit, the lowest in the enduring Hindu caste system, an "untouchable" born and raised in a shack in a New Delhi slum by an illiterate mother and a father who openly disdained his female children. With ferocious determination and unmatched political wile, she rose to the post of Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, India's largest state.

Now, as India awaits the results, expected this Saturday, of its marathon election, it is possible that she has succeeded in navigating her country's splintered politics to become the head of this would-be superpower.

That notion strikes horror in the hearts of the elites. They see an unpolished woman who speaks no English and is dogged by allegations of corruption and abuse of power, utterly unfit to lead.

But the prospect of a Prime Minister Mayawati thrills her simply dressed, barefoot, callus-handed faithful, who would see the ascension of one of their own as the fulfilment of their aspirations.

"We are the ones who sowed the seeds for the plant to grow big," Rajesh Devi declared with satisfaction as she sat in a circle with women from her village and listed the reasons why they love Mayawati. "And now she should become the prime minister."

Rajesh Devi credits Mayawati for the low-interest 10,000-rupee bank loan she used to buy a buffalo. Now she sells its milk and earns 400 rupees a day. Her neighbour Maruti Devi, 60, (like Mayawati, the women use no surname but add the honorific Devi to indicate they are married) is getting an old-age pension of 300 rupees a month. Shakuntala Devi chimed in, bracelets on her thin arms tinkling as she gesticulated enthusiastically. "Before a poor person was thrown out of the police station if they tried to make a complaint," she said. "Today you are made to sit and served cold water."

With mentor and party founder Kanshi Ram, Mayawati launched her political career by uniting Dalits through an intoxicating message - that they are the "people of the majority" who must use the tools of democracy to end their oppression. Over the past 20 years they have built the Dalit movement into a national force - low castes make up about 60 per cent of India's voters - and have four times seized control of Uttar Pradesh, India's largest state.

But with typical political cunning, Mayawati realized some years ago that she would need more than Dalits to make it to the prime ministerial seat, and so she declared her Bahujan Samaj Party the champion of all minorities. She reached out to Muslims and "other backward classes," as they are called - economically marginalized groups who are not in the lowest castes, such as Rajesh Devi and her neighbours. In recent years Mayawati has even courted Brahmins - the very top of the caste hierarchy - whom she once harangued as the source of Dalit oppression, by appealing to their new fears of the "middle castes," landowners and merchants who have boomed into India's confident new middle class and usurped the Brahmins' once-sacred place.

"She created a new social coalition of everyone who was not part of the newly dominant castes," explained Anand Kumar, an analyst with the Centre for Indian Social Systems at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

Now Mayawati is gambling that this coalition will take her to the capital. This Indian election, which has been under way since mid-April and which ends with the vote count on Saturday, is proving more opaque than usual. None of the big parties is expected to win the numbers needed to govern, and some traditional coalition alliances are in tatters over issues such as the war in Sri Lanka and a nuclear deal with the United States. New alliances and frenzied horse trading will produce the new regime.

Mayawati is hoping to win enough seats to play kingmaker, and she has made clear her price is the top job.

This idea has sparked euphoria in some quarters, and revulsion in others. "I can't live in this country if she becomes prime minister," said Priya Singh, an English teacher from Uttar Pradesh now working in New Delhi. She shuddered at the thought. "She's just - horrible. It would be an embarrassment for India."

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