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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."

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.

"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!"

****

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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