Mayawati Kumari: Untouchable and unstoppable

Mayawati Kumari overcame the prejudices of Indian society to become chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. Now she is talked of as a future prime minister. Andrew Buncombe reports from Lucknow

The Indian sculptor Shraavan Prajapati says he is used to taking commissions from high-powered people who might be described as having a fondness for the limelight.

Last year, he received an order for half a dozen statues of herself by Mayawati Kumari, the all conquering Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh (UP). And a decade or so ago, he says, he made a similar number of bronze statues for the late Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein – including the one erected in Baghdad's Firdos Square that was famously pulled down in a stunt organised by American troops.

"She herself guided me in the preparation of the statues," he said, sitting in his office where a large, framed photograph of Mayawati hangs from the wall. "She often visits the workshop and studio."

The statues, along with the portraits and images of Mayawati that stare out from hoarding boards and newspapers across UP, are just one clue as to the extraordinary cult of personality that has grown up around the "Dalit Queen", a woman whose remarkable rise to power has seen her overcome widespread prejudice against so-called untouchables to lead India's most populous state.

Diminutive in stature but mighty in her influence, she is currently serving her fourth stint as UP's Chief Minister. Many believe Mayawati, who courts controversy, now has her eyes fixed firmly on the position of Indian prime minister. Crucially, her party holds a simple majority in the state legislature that means she can stay in office unchallenged for a full five-year term, giving her time to project herself further on to the national stage and an opportunity to raise money to fund such a move. All of India is watching.

"Who doesn't?" said Shashank Shekhar Singh, Mayawati's cabinet secretary, when asked whether the Chief Minister had ambitions to become prime minister. "The day that you join politics, that is what you are looking at." Yet Mayawati's steady rise to a position of power that she wields with an iron and even autocratic fist has carried with it widespread controversy. She has been accused of corruption and is currently being investigated by the federal authorities.

The allegation is that she has amassed vast personal wealth from donations made by party supporters, although she and her officials strongly deny it. And her political opponents – some of them Dalits themselves – allege she has not actually done anything for the state's minority groups and that she is simply using them in a cynical means to secure power.

The occasion that set India's political commentators into frenzied overdrive was the politician's 52nd birthday, an event that she marked with a huge party in UP and by the release of the third volume of her memoirs, My Struggle in Life. At the state capital in Lucknow, Mayawati, dressed in an outfit of her favourite pink and accessorised with a double string of solitaire diamonds, she stood smiling as her genuflecting aides took it in turns to feed her from a 52kg, white-chocolate cake. Elected officials were each asked to contribute more than £3,000 to the coffers of her Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), donations that the authorities conveniently decided could be written off against tax.

Speaking to the crowds of well-wishers, she also used the moment to underline her political reach. "[Congress Party leader] Sonia Gandhi wished me happy birthday at 9am while Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called up all the way from China to greet me," she said, as people clapped and cheered.

Later that day, in a move that many believed symbolised her national ambitions, she flew to Delhi for further lavish celebrations at her residence. The roads around her home in the capital were festooned with balloons and banners and in what seemed like feigned coyness, she told one reporter: "Not once did I say that I wanted to become the Chief Minister. I left it to the people to decide. In the same way, my move to Delhi will depend on the preparedness of the party workers at the national level. If they urge me to go to the [federal government], I will fulfill their ambitions."

Mayawati entered politics in 1984 when she was fielded as a candidate by the newly formed BSP for a series of national parliamentary seats. After several defeats she won a seat in 1989 and was later elected to the upper house of the country's parliament. In 1995 she first became Chief Minister of UP and then led two other short-lived state governments in 1997 and between 2002-2003. Her most recent victory was in the summer of last year.

On every occasion she was elected, Mayawati – she is universally known by just one name – stressed the need to improve the rights of the Dalits, who have long suffered as a result of economic and social exclusion. Mayawati herself managed to study law and become a teacher as the result of quota scheme for Dalits that was established by the federal government.

Those looking to see Mayawati as a hero of the oppressed do not have far to look. Less than half-an-hour outside of Lucknow, a city with a treasure of historic buildings and culture, lies the village of Sarosa Bharosa. Recently selected by the government for inclusion within a scheme that gives additional funds to villages where there is a large majority of Dalits, few people in Sarosa Bharosa have anything but warm words for their Chief Minister.

One recent morning, the elected village head, or pradhan, 72-year-old Bechalal, led the way on a tour of Sarosa Bharosa and showed off the improvements carried out as a result of the scheme named after B R Ambedkar, the late Dalit leader and scholar who inspired Mayawati and the founders of the BSP.

"There have been a lot of development. New roads, the new village council building. There have been new bricks and drainage, the construction of a new school," said Bechalal, who has just one name. "This has all happened she came to power."

The village was calm and peaceful and remarkably clean. More than 100 water pumps had been installed. Another man, Jagdev, standing in the winter sunshine outside the freshly painted council building, added: "My forefathers were here for generations. My father, my grandfather. They were farmers. Before [the village was included in the scheme] there was nothing here – no roads, nothing. Mayawati built the road."

But alongside such achievements as the Ambedkar villages where life has seemingly improved considerably as a result of Mayawati's policies, there are plenty who criticise her and question what she has really done for the people she claims to champion.

S R Darapuri is the national vice-president of the Republican Party of India, a small party that promotes progressive policies and human rights in a state where corruption is still rife. He is also a Dalit. Stridently critical of Mayawati and the BSP, Mr Darapuri claims that the position of Dalits has actually got worse during the period when she has been the Chief Minister. His criticism of her administration focuses particularly on its record on land reform and redistribution, something that the BSP has long claimed is one of its priorities.

"Even now, Dalits in UP are in the worst position of anyone in India," he said. "Look at the census figures. Between 1991 to 2001, 23 per cent of Dalits have been changed to agricultural contractors rather than cultivators. That means they have become landless labourers." He added: "She is not bothered about the Dalits. She has used them as a vote bank and is emotionally exploiting them. I have been in UP for 34 years and I feel pity for her and pity for the Dalits. They are inflicting wounds upon themselves."

Other critics have seized on the vast amount of public funds that are being spent on questionable projects. In addition to the six statues of herself, Mayawati has commissioned similar statues of Ambedkar and the BSP's founder, Kanshi Ram. She is now building a park at a cost of some $100m (£50m) in the centre of Lucknow to honour Mr Ram, her mentor and the man who selected her as his successor as party leader in 2001.

In addition to the investigations carried out into her own personal wealth – estimated at more than £7m – there have been inquiries into her plan to build a shopping mall next to the Taj Mahal, perhaps the most famous building in the world. In a state where incomes are well below the national average, questions have also been asked as to why the administration has chosen to focus its efforts on building a £5bn highway along the banks of the Ganges.

Mayawati was unavailable for comment. But her Revenue minister, Phagu Chauhan, defended her policies and her decision to insist that her elected officials and supporters contribute to her schemes. "The wealth she is accumulating is for the mission and she gives money to the people who are carrying out [those tasks]," he said. "She takes money from the party cadre and others while other politicians take money from the industrialists and bureaucrats."

He praised the Chief Minister for her ability to take important decisions and asked whether he believed Mayawati could become prime minister, he said: "Why not? She wants to be the first Dalit prime minister. With the type of politics that is going on, that is quite possible."

With a general election likely to place in 2009, most analysts believe Mayawati and the BSP would struggle to make enough of a national impact for her to become prime minister. "The BSP can only have partial success in 2009," said Dr Vivek Kumar, a political analyst at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi.

However, some believe she has enough political momentum in UP and in other states such as Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, that the BSP could win enough seats to hold the balance of power in a hung parliament. Such power explains why the likes of Mr Singh and Mrs Gandhi were phoning her on her birthday.

It also explains why Mr Prajapati, the sculptor, is busy completing the statues of Mayawati and her political mentors. "In 2003, Kashi Ram asked that we put up statues in their lifetimes. We don't know what will happen after our demise," he said.

"Now Mayawati is building a statue that is 18ft high and will be placed on a pillar that is 100ft... She wants her memory to be immortalised."