Leader of India's Lowest Rung Reaches for the Top

Mayawati Kumari is the chief minister of one of India's largest and poorest states. She's also the richest woman in India and one of the best known. Now there's talk about her possibly becoming the country's next prime minister.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

It's been said that every time you tell a truth about India, you're also telling a lie. The country is so complex and so diverse, it's impossible to make generalizations. So today we're going to take you to just one part of that country. We're going to one state. Its population is equal to that of more than half the United States and it's ruled by a controversial woman who came from the bottom rung of society but has towering ambitions. NPR's Philip Reeves reports.

PHILIP REEVES: Shraavan Prajapati is proudly polishing the nose of a king. It's lying on his workshop floor attached to a large bronze head belonging to an ancient Hindu monarch. Prajapati's a sculptor. Right now though, he's more concerned with the living than the dead. He's being paid to turn out statues of one of India's most powerful leaders, a woman with decidedly regal tendencies. She's known by one name only, Mayawati.

MONTAGNE: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: He's already built ten statues of her, he says. Now she wants ten more. If the territory under Mayawati's rule were a nation, it would be the world's seventh most populous country. She's Chief Minister of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, or UP as Indians call it. Her fiefdom stretches across the plains of North India, along the river Ganges, a vast swath of land south of the Himalayas. Here, Mayawati's also known as the Queen of the Dalits, the multitude of Indians formerly called Untouchables. They're people who remain mostly untouched by India's economic boom. To see that you only need visit this slum on the banks of the Gomti river, which runs through UP's capital, Lucknow. Several thousand people live in shacks built out of trash and driftwood. Hundreds of small bedraggled children somehow survive here, among the rats, the litter, and human excrement.

The slum dwellers try to wash themselves clean of the filth by bathing in the river, but its waters contain the city's raw sewage. Most of them are Dalits. Mayawati's rise to power is one of the more remarkable stories in the history of South Asian politics. She's a Dalit herself, the daughter of a clerk and one of nine children. She began her career as a schoolteacher. Now she's thought to be the richest politician in India, earning the same sort of money as a top Bollywood star. She says much of her money comes from gifts from her followers, who also these days include upper-class Brahmins. Mayawati's a homely-looking, plump woman, but she's a powerful speaker and she's lionized in UP like a film star.

MONTAGNE: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: At her 52nd birthday, recently, Mayawati, the Untouchable, wore diamonds and a pink sari. Thousands turned out to honor her as she was finger-fed chunks of birthday cake by senior officials, including her police chief. You'd think such a shameless display of luxury would alienate Dalits, who comprise one in four of the 170 million people of her notoriously poor state. But writer and journalist Shivam Vij believes it has the opposite effect.

MONTAGNE: Mayawati's lavish displays of wealth are meant for the poor. The poor love it, that one of us is the Chief Minister, one of us has these bungalows, one of us is wearing a diamond necklace. That is a kind of empowerment that is - that keeps Mayawati in power now.

REEVES: Mayawati's critics say she's autocratic and intolerant and heads a state whose bureaucracy is universally seen as deeply corrupt. Even some of her opponents are too frightened to talk to the foreign media in case they incur her wrath. That doesn't deter Atul Chandra, editor of the Times of India's Lucknow operation. UP is one of India's poorest and most backwards states. He says it's in danger of lagging even more behind the rest of India because Mayawati's ignoring the need to attract investors.

MONTAGNE: We still have to see investments coming to UP. She is not focused on that at all.

REEVES: Chandra doesn't like the way Mayawati's erecting statues to herself.

MONTAGNE: Normally we believe in statues of only the dead. This is the first time that we find the statues of a living person coming up in the state. And well, she's perhaps too obsessed with herself.

MONTAGNE: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: That doesn't seem to bother this man. Becha Lal is chief of what's known as an Ambedkar village just outside Lucknow. He proudly shows off his village's macadam road. The village is part of a scheme pioneered by Mayawati, singling out Dalit communities for infrastructure investment. The scheme's named after one of India's most revered figures, Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, an Untouchable who spent his life fighting India's caste system and who was the architect of the country's constitution. But this village is in trouble. Its pond has dried up. Hundreds of its men are unemployed. Lal, the village chief, is soon waylaid by a group of women complaining of disease caused by filthy drains.

MONTAGNE: They will get some kind of security from the state if they are oppressed by upper castes or powerful segments of society.

REEVES: That's Sandeep Pandey. He's a social activist who works in the Dalit community in UP. He says life has improved for Dalits under the rule of Mayawati and her party.

MONTAGNE: The symbolic presence of Bahujan Samaj party in power is tremendous, you know, morale boosting for them.

REEVES: Certainly, life's better for Dalits now than it was a few decades ago when India's Untouchables were treated as slave labor by landlords. These days there are affirmative action laws allocating job quotas to Dalits. Under the constitution, they have equal rights, yet discrimination is still widespread. Some Indians still refuse to eat with Dalits or to allow Dalits to use their water or to allow them into temples. Seah Ram(ph) is one of those living in the slum on the riverbanks in Lucknow. He earns just over a dollar a day, squatting on the ground, chiseling out stone to turn into cooking slabs.

MONTAGNE: (Through Translator) They look down on us, but that's because we have nothing. We have no money, we have no status.

REEVES: Mayawati, the maestro of caste politics, is hoping to harness people like these. Her ambition is to become India's Prime Minister, perhaps by holding the balance of power in a future coalition government. UP has supplied more than half of the country's prime ministers, including Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi. Pandey, the social activist, says Mayawati's working hard to add her name to that list. She's just bought a new helicopter so that she can more easily travel the country.

MONTAGNE: She's visiting all states and she's building permanent offices. I mean she has bought a building in Hyderabad. She is going to buy another property in Chennai, so she's setting up infrastructure necessary, you know, for a national party.

REEVES: But she will have some more hard selling to do. Back at the slum on the riverbanks, a young woman called Gita(ph) is holding her two-year-old child in her arms. The boy's naked despite the chilly day and covered in dirt from head to toe. Gita says the government's given her nothing. Now she says she and the other slum dwellers are being told to move out of town.

GITA: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: Ask Gita who she blames and she gives one name, Mayawati.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi.

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