The Congress Party’s rising star Rahul Gandhi has set the populist chief minister of India’s most populous state in his sights.
Flamboyant Mayawati in battle to keep power in Uttar Pradesh
NEW DELHI // India's most flamboyant female politician is facing one of the toughest election challenges of her career as her critics complain that she runs a corrupt government and misspends public money.
Kumari Mayawati, who is known in India simply as Mayawati, is running for reelection as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state.
Her main opponent in the seven-phase election that begins on Wednesday and ends March 3 is Rahul Gandhi, the presumed heir to the leadership of the ruling Congress Party.
Mr Gandhi is the scion of India's most well-known political family, the Nehru-Gandhi clan. Candidates for four other major political parties and more than a dozen independent politicians also are challenging Ms Mayawati. They all say that she and her fellow ministers have been pilfering the public coffers, something she has long denied.
But in recent months, Ms Mayawati, 56, has sacked 26 of her 206 ministers, including Babu Singh Kushwaha, the mines minister. He has been accused of siphoning millions of rupees from leases and contracts to a syndicate of contractors he controlled,
BG Verghese, a political analyst with the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, called the sackings a "massacre".
"This proves she knew she had corrupt ministers," he said. "Mayawati has led a poor government. It is mediocre administration with tight control and corruption."
"People are fed up with the present government," Priyanka Gandhi, Mr Gandhi's sister, said on Friday during a campaign speech. "The biggest enemy for us is corruption and lawlessness and the people also feel this way."
The Congress party is expected to make major gains and more than double their seats from the present 20 seats to 79, according to a poll, conducted by AC Nielsen and released on Saturday. Ms Mayawati's party, which now has 221 seats, is projected to win only 101.
Ms Mayawati is one of 42 million Dalits, so-called "Untouchables," the lowest caste in Hinduism, in Uttar Pradesh. Her electoral success has been attributed to her appeal among the large Dalit voter population.
Ms Mayawati is campaigning by stressing her administration's achievements during the past five years. At a rally in Gonda in Uttar Pradesh on Saturday, she said her government had accomplished "many historic and extremely important works," more than "any state government combined." She attributed this to "the tireless efforts" of her political party, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which holds 221 of the 403 seats in the state's legislative assembly.
One of these "historic" and "extremely important works" was the Ambedkar park along the river border with New Delhi. Estimated to have cost 6.8 billion rupees (Dh513 million), the park contains gigantic statues of Dalit icons, including Ms Mayawati, and elephants, the symbol of the BSP.
There are 125 statues of elephants in four public parks in the state's capital, Lucknow, along with nine large statues of Ms Mayawati. There are three more towering statues of the state leader and 62 statues of elephants at a memorial park in Noida, a suburb that lies close to the border with New Delhi.
"She has spent millions on statues of herself and the elephant [political party symbol]. She has been extravagant in these matters and the arrogance shows," Mr Verghese said.
Last month, the Indian Election Commission ordered the statues covered up because they were built using public money and their display violated election rules.
"This is done to provide a level playing field to all the political parties," Umesh Sinha, the state's chief electoral officer, said at the time.
Ms Mayawati's extravagance has been on display in other ways. She was once photographed wearing garlands made of an estimated 50,000 1,000-rupee notes.
A 2008 US Embassy cable released by Wikileaks called her a "virtual paranoid dictator", who once sent an aide on a private jet to Mumbai to buy her a pair of sandals.
"She comes across more as an empress than a democratic leader. Now the symbolism of her as a Dalit person is beginning to wear off," Mr Verghese said. "The people want someone they can touch, see and feel, not sentimental promises that she continues to make about the lower classes. They will not ditch her entirely but they will not crowd around her either."
The perceptions of rampant corruption in the Mayawati administration present a prime opportunity for Mr Gandhi. While he has long been groomed as the replacement for his mother, Sonia Gandhi, as the Congress Party's president, Mr Gandhi, 41, has had an undistinguished seven years in parliament representing the city of Amethi in Uttar Pradesh.
"If the Congress has a better showing, then it can clear the decks and make way for the party to declare Rahul Gandhi the 'next emperor'," Mr Verghese said.
The Nehru-Gandhi clan has a long history of political success in Uttar Pradesh. "There is a very strong connection between Uttar Pradesh and the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. It is vital emotionally and symbolically for this family," said Jatin Gandhi, who is not related to the political Gandhis. He is co-author of a book about Rahul Gandhi.
Ms Mayawatti and Mr Ghandi could also face a strong challenge for Uttar Pradesh chief minister from Kalraj Mishra, vice president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Hindu nationalist party,
The BJP's attempts to woo voters have included promises of a cow for every poor family in the state, cheap laptops for students and construction of a "spiritual Disneyland" in Mathura-Vrindavan. The BJP also has promised the creation of Ram Mandir, or a grand temple dedicated to the Hindu God, Rama. This promise has symbolic significance in Uttar Pradesh and the rest of India.
The construction of a Ram Mandir in Ayodhya could spark religious tensions. The BJP tore down the ancient Babri mosque in 1992, because it believed it had been built over a Hindu temple dedicated to Rama. More than 2,000 people died in subsequent riots between Hindus and outraged Muslims in various Indian cities, including Mumbai and Delhi.