NEW DELHI, India — As her lavish birthday celebration approaches, Mayawati Kumari, a powerful politician known for fiery speeches and a diva's temperament, has once again run into controversy. This time, it's not the size of her cake or her diamond necklace that has her in trouble with India's muckraking press, but the alleged murder of an engineer from the state's public works department by one of her party workers.
There's a thin line between politicians and gangsters in India, with as many as a third of the politicians forming the government of various Indian states facing criminal charges. But when a member of Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) — a party dedicated to uplifting India's oppressed Dalits — runs afoul of the law, it gets special attention.
This time around, the Indian press immediately jumped to the conclusion that the accused — a BSP member of the legislative assembly in Uttar Pradesh, where Mayawati is chief minister — committed the alleged murder in the course of extorting money for Mayawati's annual birthday bash on Jan. 15. But now the police say there was no basis for the extortion motive reports.
Because she is a Dalit herself, Mayawati's birthday party has always been controversial. But due to her rising political power, the desire among her rivals to take her down a peg is today stronger than ever.
For centuries India's Dalits, the outcasts once called untouchables, were considered subhuman. Upper-caste Hindus forced them to do society's most humiliating jobs — like cleaning filth from toilets and sewers — and if they resisted, they were beaten, raped, dismembered or murdered.
Atrocities like these still occasionally take place. But today Mayawati is giving these long-persecuted people hope that soon they may win truly equal status in this obsessively hierarchical society. As parliamentary elections approach this spring, she has emerged as a
likely kingmaker and a dark horse possibility for the prime minister's office.
The daughter of a clerk in the government's telecommunications department and his illiterate wife, the pugnacious leader — known for her fiery speeches and diva's temperament — is sometimes called "the Dalit queen" and sometimes simply "Behenji," or "older sister."
A graduate of Kalindi College in Delhi, she holds bachelor's degrees in law and education, and worked as a teacher until joining politics in 1984, when she was instrumental in forming the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) with her mentor, Kanshi Ram, who was at that time India's most
prominent Dalit politician.
Eclipsing her mentor, Mayawati rose to prominence as a Dalit leader through strident rhetoric — frequently calling upon her people to beat the Brahmins with shoes.
But in a move that prompted some observers to call her India's Obama, she has radically reinvented herself in her bid for the nation's highest office.
Last year, Mayawati led the BSP to a stunning victory in her home state of Uttar Pradesh, becoming chief minister through a seemingly impossible alliance with the high-caste Brahmins she once threatened to slap with her sandal.
That was in itself an enormous achievement, as no leader has been able to win an outright majority in Uttar Pradesh — India's largest state — for a decade and a half.
But because Uttar Pradesh is a bellwether state with 114 million voters, and neither the Congress Party or the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been able to achieve an outright majority in national polls since the early 1990s, it also means that Mayawati could very well
determine who will be India's next national leader.
In a bid to make that happen, Mayawati is pushing the regional BSP nationwide. In state elections held in November, the BSP contested more seats in Delhi, Chattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh than ever before, and in each of the four states the party increased the number of its representatives in the assembly and won a higher portion of the votes than ever before.
"This is the first time a Dalit leader has attained such stature, as head of a vast social coalition consisting of haves and have nots," said Delhi University professor Mahesh Rangarajan. "She's the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, which has more people in it than Pakistan or Bangladesh. It's a state with 190 million citizens."
That's an impressive feat for any politician. But for a Dalit, it means even more.
"It is a really big achievement," said Chandrabhan Prasad, one of India's few Dalit journalists. "She has made Dalits visible and respectable. Earlier, people hated her or disliked her. Now they fear her."