Millions of voters will head to the polls this week for the first phase of what are often called India's second-most important elections -- for a new government in Uttar Pradesh, the country's largest state and home to about one in six of its 1.2 billion citizens. If it were an independent country, UP, as it is commonly known, would be the world's fifth-most populous, roughly the size of Brazil.
In the drama of Indian democracy, UP has always played a starring role. Eight of India's 13 prime ministers, including Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, have come from the Hindi heartland state, which sits along India's northern border with Nepal. UP is also home to the parliamentary constituencies of Nehru's heirs, Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi and her son, Rahul Gandhi, arguably the country's two most powerful politicians.
In recent weeks, the media has dwelled upon the 41-year-old Gandhi scion's effort to reclaim UP for Congress for the first time since 1989. Few expect him to pull this off: India's ruling party holds only 22 seats in the 403-strong state assembly. Nonetheless, a strong performance will be interpreted by pundits and party insiders as a sign of Gandhi's readiness this year to replace Singh as prime minister, an office held by Gandhi's great-grandfather, grandmother, and father before him.
Standing in Gandhi's way is a streetwise 56-year-old politician with a starkly different pedigree. One of nine children born in a New Delhi shantytown to a postal clerk and his illiterate wife, Chief Minister Mayawati (she uses only one name) leads UP's ruling Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), best known as the party of India's Dalits -- the people once called "untouchables" -- who comprise about 16 percent of the country's population.
Historically, Dalits occupied the lowest rung of Indian society, beyond the pale of the four-tiered caste system. Members of Mayawati's Chamar subcaste were traditionally leather workers, a trade considered unclean in Hinduism. In American terms, Mayawati's position is roughly akin to a granddaughter of slaves being elected governor of New York just a half-century after the abolition of slavery.
Thanks to UP's electoral weight and political symbolism, should Mayawati win another term -- she's been in power since the last election in 2007 -- she will be one step closer to her stated goal of becoming prime minister (though her limited appeal outside her home state still makes her a long shot). Even if she loses, though, the chief minister will remain a symbol of both the promise and the perils of India's burgeoning democracy.
For Mayawati's many detractors, she's a vivid reminder of everything that's wrong with Indian politics. Soon after she became chief minister of UP for the first time in 1995 -- she has lost and returned to the office three times since then -- Mayawati earned a reputation for megalomania, staggering corruption, and the privileging of narrow identity politics above the most elementary norms of governance.