Standing on a stone causeway on the banks of the river Gomti in Lucknow, five friends have come to admire the almost-imperial vision of their chief minister and champion of lower castes, Kumari Mayawati.
The young men, including a car mechanic and a teacher, gaze across a marbled park. Within its precincts are rows of gigantic stone elephants and a tiered mausoleum to B.R. Ambedkar, the lower-caste architect of India’s constitution.
Asked who they are voting for in this month’s crucial state election in Uttar Pradesh, a vote that will decide how aligned the state is to the Congress-led government in Delhi, they all say Ms Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party. The newly-built statue park – a monument to rapid construction as much as to the downtrodden – is one reason why.
Residents of Lucknow, the state capital, have seen their city change profoundly over the past five years,with the building of statues and temples to Dalit, or lowest caste, heroes. Many of the tableaux include Ms Mayawati herself.
Ms Mayawati’s unmistakable imprimatur elsewhere makes her a formidable election opponent. She has launched a Formula 1 racing track that won praise from former world champion Michael Schumacher and made progress with an autobahn-like “expressway” connecting Delhi and Agra, the city in which the Taj Mahal is sited. Lucknow will soon have a gleaming international airport; another is planned for Noida, a new city a stone’s throw from Delhi across the sulphurous river Yamuna.
Decried by some as wasteful vanity projects, critics have at the same time accused her of failing to build enough schools and hospitals.
One of the most identifiable politicians in India, Ms Mayawati’s appeal five years ago was clear – she would represent the lower castes, people that other leaders had ignored. Now she faces a test as to whether that appeal holds as the aspirations of India’s people grow.
Uttar Pradesh’s 7 per cent annual economic growth over the past five years is spurred, not by Kanpur, its long-time industrial hub, but by Noida which has sprouted private universities, shopping malls, golf estates, factory complexes and film studios.
Manoj Gaur, the executive chairman of Jaypee Group, the company that built the Buddh racing circuit, says the key is “iron will” to get things done.
“It’s not patience you need to succeed in India, it’s passion,” he says.
Ms Mayawati’s commercial achievements – particularly urban development – are badly underestimated, says Anil Padmanabhan, a senior editor at Mint newspaper.
“Rarely does anyone dare to go up against the lady and her writ, something very akin to China,” he says of her executive style.
“Beginning with the F1 race – the first ever in this country and on a world-class track – and working backwards, she has progressively worked to enhance the commercial value of real estate.”
Ms Mayawati is counting on this, and the buoyant rural economy growing at 17 per cent annually, to win a second five-year term as chief minister.
Among her rivals is Rahul Gandhi, the 41-year-old scion of the ruling Nehru-Gandhi dynasty at the other end of the social spectrum. The Congress party leader has made denying Ms Mayawati a majority when results are declared on March 6 a referendum on his own leadership and a key step to rebuilding India’s fractured national politics.
Yet the BSP is confident of the Mayawati appeal in a state of 200m people that had become a byword for misrule, violence and complex caste-based identity politics. Vijay Bahadur Singh, a BSP leader, says that the purpose of the statues is to give “the downtrodden pride” after centuries of denial of basic rights like drinking water, education and housing.
Many of her rivals reflect deep-seated prejudice for her lowly social status, giving her short-shrift.
Mr Gandhi, and his mother Sonia, have been unrelenting in their castigation of Ms Mayawati’s party as a corrupt, cash-guzzling elephant. They claim she has returned India’s most populous state to ‘jungle-raj’ and economic backwardness.
“The pace with which Hindustan [India ]is moving ahead, Uttar Pradesh is going back at the same rate,” Mr Gandhi warned a rally in Lucknow last week.
Political analysts are at a loss to predict the outcome of the race for the 403 seats of the state assembly – Ms Mayawati won 207 seats last time around. But some expect a further example of India’s notorious “anti-incumbent tendency” where disillusioned voters throw out administrations after one term in the hope of getting something better.
Mr Bahadur Singh says the most disadvantaged parts of north-Indian society are in no hurry for a return of past failures, like the Congress party. He is encouraged by the 60 per cent turnouts in the multi-phase election and claims Ms Mayawati can achieve a repeat of her 2007 victory.
Veteran Lucknow political pundits are not writing her off either.
“The staggeringly high turnout should normally be bad news for the incumbent,” says Vinod Mehta, a journalist and author. “However, Mayawati believes her supporters are coming out in droves in order to teach her detractors a lesson.”