Scion of Gandhis takes on the Dalit Queen in battle for India's biggest state

Rahul Gandhi hopes to oust Mayawati as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh

Gorakhpur

Across Uttar Pradesh a fierce battle is under way for the domination of India's largest and most politically important state.

The Congress Party – its campaign led by Rahul Gandhi, a man often described as the nation's Prime Minster-in-waiting – is trying to wrest control from the hands of Mayawati, the so-called "Dalit Queen", who sits atop a huge vote bank made up of the poorest and most oppressed. The contest ahead of next month's state election is heated, vigorous and, at times, has seen moments of comedy.

In recent days, as Mr Gandhi has embarked on a five-day campaign tour in the east of the state, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has found itself at the centre of controversy after recruiting two state politicians accused of corruption and subsequently sacked by Ms Mayawati. Meanwhile, Ms Mayawati and her party, the symbol of which is an elephant, have been ordered by the election commission to cover up thousands of statues of herself she has erected throughout the state.

Whatever party gains control of the state government, headquartered in the once-elegant city of Lucknow, the prize is considerable; with a population of about 170 million, Uttar Pradesh returns 80 members to the national assembly, more than any other state. Eight of the 12 individuals who have held the office of Prime Minister have hailed from here and Uttar Pradesh exercises an unparalleled influence on national politics.

Yet the state comes with heavy baggage: it is corrupt and impoverished, riddled with crime and underdeveloped. Its indicators in terms of income, life expectancy and nutrition are in some cases worse than than sub-Saharan Africa. It was reported yesterday that at least 140 current members of the state assembly have criminal cases pending against them.

As he took his campaign roadshow to the rural hinterland in the east, where farmers grow rice and sugar cane, Mr Gandhi, 41, the son of Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi and grandson of Indira Gandhi, took direct aim at Ms Mayawati and her party. Delivering a well-polished speech, he said the people of Uttar Pradesh had suffered for too long from corruption and lack of development.

"In Lucknow there is a magic elephant," he said at a rally in a village 40 miles from the town of Gorakhpur. "Usually an elephant eats leaves and grass but the elephant of Lucknow flies in a helicopter and eats the money of poor people. Mayawati has said this is a drama, but I go to the houses of poor people. I eat their food, I take water from the same well. Mayawati never visits."

The Congress Party faces a battle to stop Ms Mayawati from securing the chief minister's office for the fifth time. Of the 403 assembly seats, it holds just 22. The party has ruled out a pre-poll alliance and, with little bluster, claims it will win by itself. Few believe that.

"They face a mammoth task. Mayawati is the only candidate with a solid vote bank," Ashwini Bhatnaggar, a journalist and commentator from Lucknow, said. "All being equal, I think Mayawati will get a simple majority."

Mr Gandhi, whose constituency is in the west of Uttar Pradesh, has celebrity status, enough to lure crowds of the curious. Yet it is not clear this will automatically translate into votes. "I like Rahul Gandhi, I like the way he talks. But I have not yet decided who I will vote for," said Arsan Ali, a fishmonger with nine children who attended a rally in the village of Pipraich, where the politician earned warm but not ecstatic applause.

Last night in Lucknow, where a huge amount of public money was spent erecting statues of Ms Mayawati and her elephants, none seemed to have been covered yet. But there were plenty of television cameras recording that for now, the chief minister and her powerful symbols remained very much on show.

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