SITAPUR, India (AP) — One of India's most powerful and controversial politicians rises from a throne-like armchair, a clutch of candidates standing deferentially behind her and two large portraits flanking the stage. A gated semicircle keeps tens of thousands of supporters 20 yards (meters) away.
For the past five years, Mayawati has ruled like a queen over the gargantuan state of Uttar Pradesh. Now, the bottom-caste dalit leader is working to convince voters to choose another term of her brand of communal politics in an election with broad implications for the nation as a whole.
A re-election victory for the chief minister in the seven-stage election starting Wednesday could turn her caste-based Bahujan Samaj Party from a regional oddity — even if the state it controls is the most populous in the world — into a national force.
A strong showing by the Congress Party — a solid third place is realistic — could invigorate its national government, which has been hammered by corruption scandals and paralyzed by rebellious coalition partners. As a kingmaker in the state coalition, it could press the election winner to join the national government. It would also restore the shine to Rahul Gandhi, the party's prime minister-in-waiting, who has campaigned across the state for months.
A poor Congress showing could cripple India's government for the last two years of its term.
While the competing parties here pay lip service to development and corruption in the state of 200 million people, the real battle is taking place in the down and dirty world of caste and identity politics, as they alternatively try to woo and scare the state's divided communities.
"I have tried my best to bring benefits to the dalit community," Mayawati, who uses only one name, told the rally in the town of Sitapur, about 60 miles (90 kilometers) north of Lucknow. "If we don't win, all those benefits will disappear."
Her low caste supporters cheer her as a defense against the prejudice that keeps them at the bottom of the ladder.
"We take pride because a dalit woman has become chief minister and now other people bow before her. This is a matter of prestige for us," said Ram Pyari, a 50-year-old dalit woman who was once thrown out of a Hindu temple as she sought prayers for her sick daughter because of her caste.
As Mayawati sat smiling on the stage, a praise singer chanted a lengthy paean to her achievements: the love brought to the dalits, the respect given to Muslims, the raft of pensions dispersed to the disadvantaged.
Mayawati's larger than life presence has made her a folk hero to supporters and a national joke to her detractors. She appeared at a gathering wearing a garland of 1,000 rupee ($20) notes estimated to total hundreds of thousands of dollars given by impoverished admirers and spent 28 billion rupees ($560 million) on parks honoring dalit heroes that include 15-foot statues of herself. Meanwhile, her state's health and education systems lie in tatters.
An October 2008 U.S. Embassy cable released by Wikileaks called her a "virtual paranoid dictator" who intimidated opponents, forced parliamentary candidates to pay her $250,000 to run on her party's ticket and sent a private jet to Mumbai to pick up a new pair of sandals.
She fired much of her Cabinet in recent weeks, blaming those ministers for her regime's corruption. And she brushed off other criticism as discrimination.
"Congress and other parties can't easily swallow that the daughter of a dalit is ruling a state, the biggest state in the country," she told the rally.
Many of her supporters agree. She has given them grants to replace thatch huts with brick homes and stopped the rapes, kidnappings and general lawlessness of the "Goonda Raj" or "Thug Rule" of the Samajwadi Party government she ousted five years ago.
"She might have made some money, we are not concerned about that. We are only concerned with the benefits we have gotten," said Mansoor Ahmed Sadiqqi, a 42-year-old Muslim mechanic who touts her for prime minister.
Mayawati offered a warning.
"Beware of the opposition parties ... They are trying to confuse the dalits. They are giving false hope," she said, before picking up her handbag and walking to her waiting helicopter.
A day earlier and a few blocks away, Rahul Gandhi addressed a more sedate gathering at one of the more than 100 rallies he has held during his barnstorming tour of the state aimed at proving he has the charisma and political savvy to take over Congress.
"In Uttar Pradesh, there is no water, there is no electricity, there is no development," he said, part of a stump speech accusing Mayawati of corruption.
The crowd of several thousand politely applauded.
"People are looking to Congress to break out of caste politics and look toward development and other issues," said Kalim Khan, 41, a Muslim supporter of Congress.
But Congress is playing identity politics as hard as anyone.
Its campaign manifesto published this week called for new quotas in government employment for poor Muslims, for a group of low caste Hindus and, taking aim at Mayawati's base, for the very bottom of the dalits.
Despite Gandhi's efforts, the strongest challenge to Mayawati is the middle caste Samajwadi Party.
At a rally in a tent set up in the middle of a Sitapur street, Radhey Shyam Jaiswal, a state lawmaker from the party, railed against the chief minister, accusing her of attacking all who oppose her.
"There cannot be a government as cruel as this one," he said.
Jaiswal's supporters said he has broken out of the caste game during his three terms by delivering development to the district and helping constituents resolve their problems, no matter their community.
As he speaks, his supporters yell out different roads they want him to build.
"Yes, yes, I will do that," he responds.
Ravi Nessman can be reached at www.twitter.com/ravinessman