Shortly after Barack Obama's election last fall, a banner appeared in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state. OBAMA IS PRESIDENT OF THE U.S. NOW IT IS TIME FOR MAYAWATI TO BE PRIME MINISTER OF INDIA, it read.
Mayawati (she uses only one name) is Uttar Pradesh's chief minister. It's a big job; if U.P. were a country in its own right, its 190 million inhabitants would make it the sixth largest in the world. Yet Mayawati is now gunning for a bigger one. With national elections beginning this month, her supporters are trying to position her as India's answer to America's youthful black president. There's no chance that her party will actually win a majority of the seats in Parliament. But the likely outcome is that the two main parties, Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), will be forced to rely on coalitions. Mayawati's followers hope she'll emerge as kingmaker in the negotiations, with enough clout to grab the top job herself. Her party's aim is "to make Mayawati prime minister," as her top strategist puts it, and there's a chance it will succeed.
There are indeed parallels between Mayawati and Obama. Like America's president, Mayawati is young—just 53 in a country where most political leaders are in their 70s. She is also an outsider who comes from a long-oppressed segment of society: the Dalits, the politically correct term for India's Untouchable caste. The lowest of the low in the traditional Hindu social order, Dalits were long consigned to jobs such as waste collection and considered so impure they were denied education and other basic rights. India's Constitution outlaws caste discrimination, but the age-old hierarchies continue to play an outsize role in life there. In fact, the gulf between high and low caste in India is arguably bigger than that between black and white in America. And the political impact of low castes is potentially larger: they represent 60 percent of the Indian electorate by some estimates, with Dalits alone making up nearly 20 percent. Blacks, by contrast, represent just 12 percent of U.S. voters.
So Mayawati is both a bigger underdog and a potentially bigger threat to the established order than Obama was. While he benefited from a first-class education, she grew up in a shantytown with eight brothers and sisters and attended poor state schools. Obama enjoyed the backing of a long-established party, while Mayawati's organization, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), has been built up largely by Mayawati herself—and in a part of the world where women have made it to the pinnacle of power only as wives, widows or daughters of beloved male leaders.
But unlike Obama, who promised a new politics that would transcend not only race but traditional ideology and corrupt Washington ways, Mayawati has built her power on demagogic class warfare. As her national ambitions have grown, she recently began reaching out to upper-caste voters—but by playing on their fears of the upwardly mobile middle castes, not by appealing to their better, caste-free angels. She has accumulated a suspiciously ostentatious fortune, and is dogged by corruption charges. She is admired by many Dalits, but often more for her power and jewels than for her limited accomplishments on their behalf. Her victory, if it comes, may be seen as a great leap forward for India's oppressed—but, ironically, will end up bolstering the caste system that has kept them in chains.
Mayawati would likely be a highly divisive national leader—an anti-Obama—and not only domestically. With his Kenyan father, Indonesian stepfather and inter- national outlook, Obama appeals across national borders and has already begun to steer the U.S. away from George W. Bush's unilateralism. Mayawati, by contrast, is parochial in the extreme. She almost never speaks about foreign policy, and when she does, her pronouncements are so vague as to be practically meaningless. And where she's been specific, the substance is worrisome: she has decried U.S. efforts to secure Indian support for sanctions on what she's called "our old friend Iran," and has promised that a BSP government would renegotiate the nuclear deal India signed with Washington last fall. On trade, she's sounded sharply protectionist notes, promising to safeguard "the interests of small shopkeepers" and "not to make any policy to benefit capitalists." She would be—at the least—a wild card at the international summits attempting to repair global capitalism.
The best place to start evaluating Mayawati's potential is her home base, Uttar Pradesh. Dalits there know her as "Behenji," a term that means "honored sister," and she is a heroine by virtue of her biography. "She makes a difference to history not by what she does but by who she is," says Yogendra Yadav, a political analyst with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi.
To give Mayawati her due, her rise has been impressive. She was born to an illiterate homemaker and a low-level government clerk who got his job through affirmative action (India's Constitution sets aside 15 percent of government-sector jobs and university places for Dalits). Although she grew up in a Delhi slum, Mayawati had it better than many of her caste. Special set-asides like the one her father enjoyed have led to gradual improvement in the living conditions of the country's 165 million Dalits; in the past 10 years in particular, literacy and educational levels have improved markedly. But many have yet to catch up with the rest of the population—slightly more than a third of all Dalits still live below the poverty line, compared with about a quarter for Indians overall.
As a city dweller, Mayawati escaped some of the hostility Dalits face in rural areas and was able to attend a government school. But she was forcefully reminded of how the other half lived when she would visit her grandparents in their U.P. village. Other travelers on the bus would shun Mayawati's family, and her grandparents were forced to live in the most squalid section of their hamlet. These experiences left their mark: "From a very early age, I learned to hate the caste system with all my might," she writes in her autobiography.
As a student, Mayawati, like many of her generation, longed to join India's prestigious national civil service. At university she toyed with radical Dalit politics, but after graduation she worked as a schoolteacher while studying law at night and prepping for the difficult government- service exams. In September 1977, she attended a political convention in Delhi at which India's health minister outraged many Dalits by referring to them as Harijans (literally meaning "God's children," the term was coined by Gandhi but most Dalits now find it condescending). Mayawati, speaking after the health minister, castigated him for his use of the term and attacked mainstream political parties for ignoring Dalits' concerns.
Her outburst caught the attention of Kanshi Ram, the BSP's founder. Ram was a union activist whose vision was to organize Dalits working in government to give them a voice. Ram persuaded Mayawati to join him and ditch her civil-service ambitions, beginning a close partnership that would continue until Ram's death in 2006. The ambitious young teacher soon became the Lenin to Ram's Marx, in the words of Dalit researcher A. K. Gautam: "He was the thinker, she was the doer."
Ram, a confirmed bachelor, was often rumored to be romantically involved with his much younger protégée, though both of them denied it. Still, Mayawati has never married and has no children (a fact her opponents sometimes try to use against her). In 1984, Ram put Mayawati in charge of establishing his new party in Uttar Pradesh. The state controls 80 seats of the 545 in India's Parliament, more than any other. A party that can win big there automatically earns a big voice in national politics. This is especially true as the influence of Congress and the BJP has declined, forcing them to rely on fragile coalitions of smaller, regional players.
Caste and communal divisions run deep in U.P., and Mayawati quickly acquired a reputation as a demagogic caste warrior. In fiery speeches, she lambasted Brahmins, telling Dalits that they were kept enslaved by upper-caste conspiracies and should "beat the Brahmins with their shoes." "We all know that upper-caste [Brahmins] do not want Dalits to eat well, dress well or do well," she told packed rallies in the late 1980s.
Three times—in 1995, 1997 and 2002—Mayawati managed to become U.P.'s chief minister with the support of other political parties. But these clumsy coalitions each disintegrated in a matter of months. Still, she had enough time in power to promote Dalit causes, often at the expense of others—for example, by replacing more than 1,000 upper-caste civil servants with low-caste ones and upgrading roads, water and electricity in 11,000 villages with large Dalit populations while neglecting almost equally deprived ones with higher-caste populations. She also pushed police and prosecutors to rigorously enforce a law that made it easier for Dalit victims of caste-based violence to bring charges against their assailants and promised stiff jail terms for those convicted.
Such programs helped consolidate her base but rankled those from the upper and middle castes. Nearly one in five U.P. voters is a Dalit, and most now support the BSP. "There is no other party in India that has ever received nearly 80 percent of the vote from a single ethnic group," says Ajoy Bose, a journalist who wrote an unauthorized biography of Mayawati. (The Gandhi dynasty, which controls the Congress party, is also based in Uttar Pradesh and once could count on attracting most of the Dalit vote, but the party today has just nine seats there.)
Yet there is little evidence that Mayawati's policies actually did much for her devoted supporters. Dalits in U.P. today remain worse off than those in many other states: about 45 percent of rural Dalits there live below the poverty line, a rate 8 points worse than the national average for the caste and one that has improved only slightly under her reign.
Caste-based apartheid remains particularly nasty in U.P., where Dalits can still be banned from attending regular schools, accessing public water supplies, staging marriage processions and voting. Despite Mayawati's efforts to protect them, Dalit boys are sometimes even lynched for flirting with higher-caste girls, and victims who go to the police are often ignored. Although India's emergence as a global outsourcing center, coupled with national affirmative-action programs, has created a small but growing Dalit middle class, it is particularly small in U.P., which has attracted little of the foreign investment in high-tech companies and call centers that is creating a new India in other states.
Meanwhile, the old adage that in India you don't cast your vote, you vote your caste, is as true as ever. "In India, there are no independent or individual political choices, there are only collective choices," says Bose, the Mayawati biographer. Caste matters in politics because it can translate directly into opportunities—places at universities, jobs in the public sector or government contracts.
In Uttar Pradesh, both Dalits and Brahmins have chafed against the rising power of the middle castes, which have their own political party and have used their clout to secure the most government positions and university spots. Poor Brahmins also resent the power of wealthy middle-caste landowners and were frequently the victims of middle-caste crime syndicates. This presented Mayawati with a unique opportunity, and ahead of state elections in 2007, she boldly appealed across caste lines to her former enemies, the Brahmins, by promising to restore law and order. The strategy worked, and Mayawati managed to capture almost a third of their vote that year, helping return her to the chief minister's residence. Her fans now hail the high-low alliance as revolutionary. "She has succeeded where Mahatma Gandhi failed," says Shahid Siddiqui, an M.P. and a BSP general secretary. The BSP has formed "brotherhood groups" that bring the two castes together to discuss political issues. "All the people now like to meet together, sit together, eat together," says U.P. cabinet minister and BSP state president Swami Prasad Maurya.
But such gestures have actually done little to erase divisions. At her rallies, Brahmins and Dalits still sit in segregated areas, and one of the policies she pushed to win Brahmin votes—reserving them spots in government—has simply extended caste-based politics.
No one should confuse the BSP's brotherhood groups, moreover, with the grassroots groups that brought Obama to power. The BSP is a top-down organization that critics charge is aimed more at advancing Mayawati personally than addressing social ills. Raashid Alvi, a Muslim politician who was once a top BSP official, describes a one-woman party in which Mayawati calls every shot and does "whatever she thinks is in the interest, not of her party, but her own [self]." The chief minister can also be insular and aloof. She often snubs visiting dignitaries and rarely gives one-on-one interviews to the press. (She refused repeated requests for an interview for this story.) Even a top adviser, who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the matter, admits that Mayawati can be "dictatorial" but says that is "necessary" in Uttar Pradesh.
Since becoming chief minister again in 2007, Mayawati has launched a host of large public-works projects. She has built new highways, power stations and water-purification plants that her advisers say are designed to attract big business. She has also launched a progressive scheme to reward families for having daughters and keeping them in school. But her most visible legacy is a slew of monuments to Dalit heroes, many of which glorify the BSP—and Mayawati herself. In Lucknow, on a dusty expanse next to the Gomti River, there now sits a towering pink sandstone hall resembling a Buddhist temple. Inside, a colossal bronze statue modeled after the Lincoln Memorial depicts Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, the Dalit lawyer who authored India's Constitution. Nearby, a bronze frieze portrays Ambedkar with other Dalit leaders, including Mayawati. There are hundreds of these monuments under construction in U.P., which could end up costing $250 million, including $142 million for the Lucknow project alone.
Critics see this spending as symbolic of Mayawati's reputation for corruption. She is among India's richest politicians, with a taste for diamond jewelry and glittering silk saris and kurtas (she is especially partial to pink). Her 2007 filings put her cash and assets at 520 million rupees ($10.4 million). In 2003, India's Central Bureau of Investigation, while probing allegations that she had embezzled money from an ill-conceived project to build a giant shopping mall next to the Taj Mahal, found that Mayawati and her family owned 72 houses, including several mansions in Lucknow and New Delhi. She claims all this wealth has come as gifts from her admirers, and in 2003 said that the CBI "has found nothing, and they do not have any case against me." But CBI investigators uncovered evidence of poor Dalit sweepers, rickshaw pullers and hawkers being paid to front bank accounts through which large sums of cash flowed to Mayawati.
In a country influenced by Mahatma Gandhi's ascetic ideals, one might think such riches would be a political liability. But many Dalits, consigned to destitution, seem to view their champion's riches as a source of vicarious pleasure. "Money has to come from somewhere," says Gautam, the Dalit intellectual, with a shrug when asked about the corruption allegations.
Still, a new spate of cases is undermining Mayawati's attempt to run on a law-and-order platform. On April 13, a politician who'd campaigned against the BSP was found hanged from a tree. The police called it suicide, but his family suspects he may have been murdered by the local BSP candidate, and the national Election Commission has sent a team to investigate. And on the night of Dec. 24, 2008, a village engineer in the U.P. town of Auraiya was abducted, tortured with electric shocks and beaten to death. The police charged a BSP state legislator and his goons with the crimes. They have denied the charges, but the victim's family alleges that he was killed for refusing to make required "donations" to a fund collected each year on the occasion of Mayawati's birthday. The chief minister has said there was no directive to collect birthday funds, but this month, a young civil servant committed suicide and left a note saying he'd been pressured to pay off senior officials.
Whether such allegations will derail Mayawati's rise remains unclear. The BSP is hardly the only party linked to serious crime. And BSP insiders claim their party, which now holds 19 seats in Parliament, will win 60 in the general election. Political analysts put the number significantly lower, at 25 to 40. Yet even the lower estimates could be enough to make the BSP the third-largest national party, after the BJP and Congress but ahead of the Communist Party. That could give Mayawati enough leverage to demand key cabinet posts in exchange for joining a coalition.
Whether she can claim the prime minister's office for herself, as supporters hope, is another matter. Few politicians outside the BSP trust her. Sachin Pilot, a Congress M.P. from Rajasthan, says, "I don't think anyone will risk tying up with her in a way that places that much power in her lap. She is known to be very mercurial." Her brand of identity politics won't work on the national level, where leaders "cannot so blatantly and outlandishly appeal to caste," says Arun Jaitley, a BJP member of Parliament and a top strategist. "I see her as a divisive figure. She is not a unifier of Indians."
That does not mean either major party can stop her. Congress and the BJP have been losing support for years, thanks to geriatric leadership and the rise of more dynamic local parties. The coming vote is likely to boost Mayawati's strength, as she builds support outside U.P. and her Dalit base. She kicked off the current campaign last month in the state of Kerala, where she has had little presence in the past. And she has named a significant number of Brahmins as candidates around the country. Even if she does not wind up in national government in this election cycle, she will have built credibility for the next. If she does eventually become India's leader, it will represent a historic victory for one of the world's most oppressed peoples. But those who expect her to govern India as a Gandhi—or even an Obama—will be deeply disappointed.