LUCKNOW, India (Reuters) - For a leader dubbed the “Untouchables Queen” who runs one of India’s poorest states, it was indeed a birthday bash fit for royalty.
Dressed in a diamond necklace and matching earrings Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati stood as her mostly higher-caste party aides and the state police chief each scooped up slops of her 52nd birthday cake in their hands and finger-fed their boss.
“This is her revolution,” said Cabinet Secretary Shashank Shekhar Singh, one of her closest aides who participated in the birthday ceremony.
Since culminating an astonishing rise from “untouchable” or Dalit caste school teacher to head of India’s most populous state by winning last year’s election outright, Mayawati has stamped her presence in Uttar Pradesh with eyes on being the next prime minister.
For supporters she is reaching out nationally to millions of lower castes who feel left out from an economic boom, a new caste politics that will eat into the support of India’s traditional parties like the ruling Congress.
Critics say she and her Bahujan Samaj Party are exploiting Dalit votes to gain power while siphoning off state funds to pay for her personal whims, from expensive houses to bronze statues.
On her birthday, loyal party workers decked out Lucknow, the state capital, with hundreds of thousands of lights and donated thousands of dollars in a shadowy birthday “financial support” scheme that she said would be channeled to the poor.
Elected representatives were asked to donate about $7,500 to birthday coffers. Tax authorities made life easier for her by declaring her birthday gifts could be a tax write-off.
“My birthday is celebrated in a way that no other leader’s is. People donate money in my name,” Mayawati told India Today magazine this month. “
Musical CDs praising her blared out across the city.
“You’ll live for thousands of years and each year should have 50,000 days,” proclaimed one billboard.
Since her election win, she has inaugurated one of India’s biggest highway projects, spent millions on parks and statues celebrating her party, published a volume of her autobiography and wielded what critics say is a blatant authoritarian stick.
Some analysts believe she now has the political momentum to win enough seats in a likely 2009 general election to hold the balance of power in any hung parliament.
Mayawati already has an advantage. Uttar Pradesh, known as “UP”, provides the biggest single bloc of seats in India’s parliament. Most of India’s prime ministers have originated from the state, which has a population of about 170 million.
“If you are chief minister you must be the biggest fool on earth if you have no prime ministerial ambitions,” Singh said.
So far, graft accusations and charges she misspent millions of dollars have done little to dent her popularity in what is widely seen as one of India’s most corrupt and lawless states and where the average inhabitant earns half the national average.
She has already faced probes over her personal wealth as well as over a plan to build a shopping mall next to the Taj Mahal.
Now Mayawati is building a $100 million park in Lucknow in honor of her party’s founder. Other statues of her abound.
India’s Business Standard, quoting finance ministry officials, said her income last year was around $15 million, based on paid taxes, putting her on par with top Bollywood stars.
“She has become very ambitious ... power drunk,” said local Times of India Uttar Pradesh editor Atul Chandra
On her birthday, an opposition activist burnt himself alive to protest “the death of democracy” in Uttar Pradesh in a sign critics say of how her divisive politics could spark violence.
Her political momentum contrasts with a lackluster Sonia Gandhi, whose Congress party has suffered in state elections and who has only managed to draw smallish and unenthusiastic crowds.
Mayawati’s relative youth — at 52 she is much younger than many top Indian politicians — has added to her freshness. In a sign of her influence, even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh rang her up while on a trip to China to wish her happy birthday.
Her state win was the first time in nearly two decades a party has won an outright majority. That means she can stay in office for a full five-year term, giving her time and funds to propel her party onto the national stage.
One of nine children, Mayawati managed to study law and become a teacher through a government quota scheme for Dalits before being mentored by the BSP’s founder.
Even her critics say she is a good administrator who has appointed technocrats to powerful posts and helped reduce crime.
“To understand her you have to understand she came from absolutely nothing. She really was a nobody,” said Chandra.
Dalits still face huge discrimination. Often living in shacks, many are still not allowed to collect water or pray at the same temple as other higher castes.
Mayawati won the election with an unlikely alliance of Dalits and the high priestly Brahmin caste. The first politician to finger-feed her on her birthday was a senior Brahmin politician — a symbol for supporters of that caste revolution.
The symbolism can have a huge impact only a few miles away, where many landless Dalits live with no power or running water.
“I’m hopeful about Mayawati but let’s see,” said Mithilesh, a villager leader outside Lucknow. Villagers, who make just about $2 a day as laborers to make ends meet, stood around her.
With a population of about 170 million, Dalits number about Brazil’s population and they can be a huge political force — if united.
But in Uttar Pradesh, most rulers end their rule embroiled in sleaze and scandal.
“People are beginning to get angry. Disillusionment is coming,” said Mulayam Singh Yadav, the former chief minister who is himself now being probed for corruption.
Additional reporting Sharat Pradhan; Editing by Simon Denyer and Megan Goldin