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

Mayawati does not speak English, her detractors often point out. They also call her insufficiently educated. She has a teaching degree and was studying law when she quit to join politics.

"There is a reason why the English-speaking elite hates her so much - she looks too much like the maidservant who works for them," said Ajoy Bose, author of Behenji: A Political Biography of Mayawati. "But she's not somebody who can be easily co-opted. ... She thinks the way she thinks. She's an unknown." The Indian media have demonized her, Mr. Bose added, in part because a villain always makes a better story. Mayawati rarely courts the media and declines all interview requests.

Mayawati's hero, to whom she has built statues and shrines all over Uttar Pradesh, is Bhimrao Ambedkar, who rose from a similarly grim childhood early in the last century to become one of the first Dalits to get a college education in India, then studied abroad, joined the fight to end British rule and eventually became the chief architect of India's Constitution. But Dr. Ambedkar could speak in the plummy tones of the elite and soothe their fears. Mayawati is uninterested in such niceties.

Of course, some of the distaste is caste-based. While caste discrimination has long been illegal and it is fashionable in middle-class India to say the caste system has been shed, in fact it continues to permeate life. Uttar Pradesh, in particular, is the source of persistent caste horror stories, of Dalits (who were historically consigned to "unclean" professions such as collecting human waste and burning the dead) being denied access to village wells or murdered for relationships with someone of a higher caste.

Caste remains the main organizing principle of life, especially in rural India, Prof. Kumar said. Today caste groups vote in blocs, not mindlessly for a politician of the same caste as they may have done in the past, but rather as "interest groups."

"There are now four blocks of votes in north India," Prof. Kumar said. "First, upper caste; second, middle caste [land-owning farmers and others who have gained out of political and economic reforms of the past 30 years] third, Muslims and the fourth is Dalits."

Mayawati has manipulated those interest groups with great skill, Prof. Kumar added, uniting three of those blocs against the fourth.

There is more than caste, however, to disturb her considerable camp of detractors. Mayawati has used harsh tactics to fight her way to the top in Uttar Pradesh, which with a population of 190 million is equivalent to the sixth-largest country in the world. She has bent the rules, such as using the Prevention of Terrorism Act to seize the property of an opponent, and, just to make her point, declaring the duck pond at his mansion a protected wildlife area, which she named after a Dalit hero.

"It chills you - she is extremely unscrupulous and ruthless," Mr. Bose said. Nevertheless, after years spent following her, he admires her. "Her primary driving force has always been her personal ambition. Her personal rise is the trajectory she wants for her community. And people with personal drive can also be very committed to the poor."

Mayawati is dogged by corruption allegations. Though she started out in penury 30 years ago and has since earned only a civil servant's salary, the disclosure form she filed with the government before the 2007 election listed her cash and assets at the equivalent of more than $12-million. She has built monster mansions in Lucknow and New Delhi. She claims all of it is gifts from friends and admirers. The Central Bureau of Investigation has repeatedly investigated, but no charges have ever stuck; many people believe she has simply succeeded in buying off those who pursued her.

"In India there is a huge nexus between politics and money. ... She's just following the example of other political leaders, Mr. Bose said.

Even her detractors are hard pressed to argue that she is any more corrupt than other political party leaders.

In any case, the talk of corruption does not bother her admirers. They delight in the pictures of the woman they call Behenji (Hindi for "honoured sister") in her diamonds and silks and mansions. "It's easy to put blame, but she is innocent until proven guilty and so far no one has been able to prove anything," said Hemant Kumar Gaur, 45, a court clerk who attended the Buland Shahr rally. "I think she's an excellent person."

At the rally, the crowd of about 5,000 people was electrified when Mayawati's helicopter touched down in a cloud of dust. Many made a futile effort to rush the stage through metal barricades and rows of stick-wielding police. She mounted the stage in the frumpy beige kurta-pajama she usually wears in public, and in a surprisingly deep, scratchy voice scolded the crowd, reminding those who had gathered that the Indian National Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party have done nothing for them, the poor, despite ruling in turns since independence. (Nearly half of all Dalits in Uttar Pradesh live below the poverty line, a figure about 10 points worse than the national average, and that number has not changed appreciably during her time in charge.) She went on to promise the crowd that when she is prime minister, she will work for "reservations" for all "economically backward" classes in both government and private jobs - that is, work to have even more jobs set aside for specific groups, in the way that nearly half of civil service jobs are now reserved for people from the lowest castes.

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