New York, Apr 9: In the week gone by, she has indirectly engaged in a verbal duel with young Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, and sarcastically remarked that his meetings with Dalits or the socially underprivileged and backwards in Uttar Pradesh and in other parts of the country are followed by baths with scented soap.
But, if a first ever profile taken out by the Time magazine of her is anything to go by, there is no doubt that Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati, despite her low caste, is emerging as a national powerbroker, and may even be a potential Prime Minister of India. At 52, the magazine opines that Mayawati is an image dripping with symbolism, with aides and civil servants fawning over her.
On January 15 this year, the image of mostly high-caste men feeding a Dalit (formerly "Untouchable") woman was an incredibly powerful one in a country where discrimination based on caste has been banned for more than half a century but where many of the old barriers and prejudices endure.
The Time quotes Chandra Bhan Prasad, a pioneering Dalit newspaper columnist as saying that: "If you've come from nothing and then make money, it's a very understandable psychological drive to want to openly spend it."
"There is still a feeling among many in the upper-caste Hindu elite that she's (Mayawati) not acceptable," he adds.
According to the magazine, Mayawati has made clear that "she will use her popularity there (in Uttar Pradesh) to become an important player on the national stage at the next general election."
Given the fractured nature of Indian politics, that poll, due by early 2009 at the latest, is unlikely to produce any single winner.
"If Mayawati and her Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) can win 40 or 50 seats in the 552-member lower house - a real possibility given that Uttar Pradesh's 110 million voters elect 80 of those members - she would be well placed to decide which of India's two big parties, the Indian National Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, should lead a new government, or perhaps even wangle the premiership for herself," says the magazine.
"The fact that Mayawati is seriously discussed as a possible next Prime Minister is evidence of how far she has come," the profile says.
From being one of nine children born to a low-level civil servant and an illiterate mother, Mayawati has used her street smarts and the affirmative-action programs designed to help India's downtrodden to study teaching and then law.
She joined the BSP in 1984 and, as the head of unstable coalitions, went on to become Uttar Pradesh's Chief Minister for three brief stints before last year's breakout victory when the party won outright.
Mayawati's master stroke has been to reach out to Brahmins
"The difference with Congress is that they were using Dalits but keeping them on a bottom level, whereas we are all on an equal platform with a Dalit leader at the top," says Satish Chandra Mishra, the BSP's secretary general.
"That is getting a tremendous response around the country," he adds.
As far as her aspiration to be a nationally recognised leader is concerned, political analysts like Swapan Dasgupta believe that she has to overcome her abrasive and arbitrary style of functioning to make the grade.
The fact that she calls herself a "living goddess," and has ordered half a dozen statues of herself and is building a 100 million dollar park to commemorate BSP founder Kanshi Ram, may appeal to her supporters, but not to other people in Indian society.
To her critics, Mayawati's projection of Dalit power and wealth is "simply evidence of her vanity and opportunities for kickbacks."
Mayawati has "disproportionate assets." She herself has filed papers with election officials indicating she owns 72 properties and has 54 bank accounts.
Those records show Mayawati's wealth increased by more than 30 times over the past four years to 13 million dollars, a fact she puts down to generous supporters who have showered her with gifts of jewellery, art and cash.
Her aides say that the gifts are all fully recorded and accounted for, and stopped the moment she became Chief Minister.
In the past couple of months, as speculation has turned to the possibility of an early election, Mayawati has held a series of rallies around the country and has begun testing her political weight, perhaps to see how far she can go.
The magazine concludes by saying that on March 31, Congress leader Sonia Gandhi criticized Mayawati for not running Uttar Pradesh properly. Yet on her birthday, both she and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who was in China at the time, made sure to call her to wish her well.
"After all, they might need her support in a matter of months," it said.