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India's Election May Empower 'Queen Of The Dalits'


In India, the votes in its general election will be counted within the week. No one's expecting an outright winner, it may well produce intense political horse trading as the biggest parties compete to cobble together a coalition government. That means leaders of smaller regional parties could become kingmakers. NPR's Philip Reeves filed this report on one aspiring kingmaker, a rich and powerful woman who some call a queen.

PHILIP REEVES: Political rivals slug it out in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The state lies on a plain that straddles the Ganges River and runs up to the foothills of the Himalayas. If it were a country, it would be the seventh most populous in the world. With 80 seats in Parliament, the state's the biggest prize on the Indian landscape. The politicians are fighting hard over it.

(Soundbite of yelling and chanting)

REEVES: Uttar Pradesh has produced more than half of India's prime ministers since independence from British colonial rule. It's also produced this woman.

MAYAWATI (Indian politician, current Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh): (foreign language spoken)

REEVES: Indians refer to her only by one name Mayawati.

Ms. SEEMA MUSTAFA (Editor, Covert): If you look at Mayawati, she's autocratic, she sends shivers down the spine of the ruling elite.

REEVES: Seema Mustafa is editor of the political magazine Covert.

Ms. MUSTAFA: You know, the people in Delhi are scared, they're terrorized if she comes to power, a Dalit woman.

REEVES: Dalit is the term used for the multitude of Indians on the lowest rung of the traditional Hindu social order. They used to be called Untouchables and have a long history of being victimized.

Mayawati started out as a school teacher, but rose to become chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, the first Dalit to hold that position. Political analyst, Mahesh Rangarajan, says she draws much of her power from one formula.

Mr. MAHESH RANGARAJAN (Political analyst): The very simple idea of the empowerment of Dalits, something like black power in its hay day. And the other point probably going in her favor is she has a party organization which is aware of the limits of such power, and has been trying to build larger rainbow alliances with other communities and casts.

REEVES: In this election, Mayawati is fielding candidates across much of the country. Pamela Philipose, a writer specializing in women's affairs, is following Mayawati's attempt to move onto the national stage.

Ms. PAMELA PHILIPOSE (Writer, women's affairs specialist): She's an ambitious woman, and that's what's interesting, that her ambition is quite limitless. She's actually set her sights on Delhi and becoming the prime minister of the country.

REEVES: You might think her wealth and flamboyance would alienate her Dalit supporters, who are mostly very poor. Jug Suraiya, a columnist with the Times of India, believes it has the opposite effect.

Mr. JUG SURAIYA (Columnist, Times of India): I think she's given them a sense of pride. Pride, because, you know, these were people who were considered to be worse than animals. Terrible - it's one of the most terrible things about Indian society. I, for one, am a great supporter of Mayawati and when people tell me, you know, that she's enormously corrupt, I say, well, can you just point out one major politician with a mass base who is not.

REEVES: In the coming days, we'll discover how big that base is. Mayawati's only 53. In India, that's young for a politician. Even if she emerges empty handed this time, she's sure to try again.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi.

(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.