Millions of Indian voters will head to the polls this week in Uttar Pradesh, the country’s largest and most populous state. How big is it? Well, if it was independent, it would be the fifth most-populous country in the world. And there's a fight brewing for who will run it. A contentious campaign for chief minister is under way between Rahul Gandhi, the 41-year-old son of Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi and member of the Indian political elite, and the incumbent -- Mayawati, a 56-year-old woman from the lowest rung of Indian society. Mayawati, so famous she uses only one name, is a Dalit -- the people once called "untouchables" -- and the first female of this caste to hold the position.
At first glance, the battle lines may seem neatly drawn between wealthy political scion and scrappy populist. However, Mayawati, who certainly casts herself as a champion of the people, isn't quite so pure. In a state that struggles with extreme poverty and glacial development progress, the demagogue is famous for receiving garlands made of thousands of rupee notes (worth up to $1 million) and erecting massive statues of herself and her political party's symbol, the elephant. Her detractors say this is evidence of massive, base corruption. But as Sadanand Dhume writes in Foreign Policy, “Outsiders may scoff at her statue-building spree, but for Uttar Pradesh's 40 million Dalits who view her as a modern day messiah, the symbolism of public spaces honoring a group that has been ritually humiliated for centuries can hardly be called empty.”
Above, Mayawati's supporters cover their faces from clouds of dust kicked up by the helicopter transporting her to a rally in Uttar Pradesh on Feb. 6, 2012.
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