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

"I want to reassure the upper-caste people that if we come to the centre we will also look to their concerns and demands," she added repeatedly.

As usual, she made almost no mention of foreign policy - and said only that she will "look after" terrorism and the Naxalite Maoist insurgency that is rapidly spreading across India.

In truth, Mayawati's political platform consists solely of the intention to obtain power, and then, as she has every time she has won the chief minister's seat in Uttar Pradesh, to launch a massive redistribution drive, funnelling public works projects, jobs and social grants to areas dominated by Dalits and other marginalized groups, and to suspend or transfer officials who don't make it a priority to boost her constituents up the ranks of the vast civil service.

Mayawati has never married, and she is unique in this region as a single female who has achieved political power on her own, rather than as someone's widow, wife or daughter. She and Mr. Ram, the BSP founder, lived together for years and there were endless salacious rumours about their relationship. While they may have been romantically involved, Mr. Bose said, that would have been only a small part of their formidable partnership, and Mayawati knew better than to marry him.

"Marriage in India takes place over all other relationships," Mr. Bose said. "Women politicians are never taken seriously if they are married. You can't have a Margaret Thatcher here, with Dennis in the shadows."

While Mayawati is campaigning hard, many obstacles (besides the scorn of the political elite) stand between her and the top job. Because of the ruthless games of making and breaking alliances she has played in the past, few of the other parties trust her. She has never had much skill with coalition politics, but deal-making will be essential in the coming months. And, Mr. Bose noted, her paranoia has prevented her from allowing any other BSP leaders to emerge. "If she allowed local leaders to come up, she would be a far more formidable force in this election," he said.

But whether she wins or not, Mayawati's mere presence in the race speaks to seismic changes in India.

"The most positive thing about her is not what she is," Mr. Bose said, "but what she represents - that Indian democracy is alive and well and it is possible for a Dalit, a woman, with no political lineage and no money at all to rise to where she is."

In Buland Shahr, Mayawati pledged to share her success. "I hope we will be able to realize the dream," she shouted, and Rajesh Devi and all the others shouted back in approval. "Uttar Pradesh is already ours, now Delhi will be ours!"

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CASTE IN IRON

The word caste was first used by 16th-century Portuguese traders; it is derived from the Portuguese casta, denoting family strain, breed, or race.

There are thousands of castes in India, each with its own rules and customs, but they are traditionally organized into four basic groups: Brahmins, commonly identified with priests and the learned class; Kshatriyas, associated with rulers and warriors, including property owners; Vaishyas, associated with commercial livelihoods; and Shudras, the servile labourers.

The Dalits or untouchables occupy a place that is outside, and beneath, that scheme. Their jobs, such as toilet cleaning and garbage removal, cause them to be considered impure and thus "untouchable." Historically the untouchables were not allowed in temples and many other public places. In 1950, legislation was passed to prevent any form of discrimination toward them, but they remain very much a visible part of Indian society.

The caste system has been perpetuated by the Hindu ideas of samsara (reincarnation) and karma (quality of action). According to these religious beliefs, all people are reincarnated on Earth, at which time they have a chance to be born into another, higher caste, but only if they have been obedient to the rules of their caste in their previous life on Earth. In this way karma has discouraged people from attempting to rise to a higher caste or to cross caste lines for social relations of any kind.

Sources: Mount Holyoke College, Encyclopedia Britannica, Encarta

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