Lakhimpur-Kheri, Uttar Pradesh - In Kotharipurva village in Uttar Pradesh state’s Lakhimpur-Kheri district, chronic poverty displays itself everywhere.
Mud huts with dung-polished porches line up the narrow lanes, naked children play on hay strewn streets and barefoot men and women are busy in their daily chores.
Villagers in Kotharipurva, which is located about 200km north of the state capital Lucknow, have never seen electricity despite India's impressive growth in the past two decades.
Men and women toil every day in the sugarcane fields of the upper caste Hindus. But they cannot celebrate major festivals like the rest of the country because what they earn is so little they cannot afford it.
Their children do not know Sachin Tendulkar, a sports icon, because no one owns television or radio. Yet everyone here knows "Elephant," the party symbol of Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) led by former Chief Minister Mayawati - a sentinel for millions of India's Dalits or former "untouchables".
|Ashok Kumar and his family said they will vote on the basis of caste. [Baba Umar / Al Jazeera]
Untouchability was banned shortly after India gained independence in 1947, but in the countryside, Dalits, who stand at the bottom rung of caste ladder, still face varying degrees of discrimination.
Kotharipurva is just another heart of India's darkness, but when this hamlet, part of Lakhimpur-Kheri parliamentary constituency, goes to polls on April 17, most of the villagers, like in the past, will rally behind BSP, a party founded to safeguard the interests of the marginalised Dalit community, who constitute about 21 percent of Uttar Pradesh's population.
"We trust her," Terath Ram, 50, a daily wager told Al Jazeera on Mayawati. "We have hopes from her though she never visited us. Neither does her party men."
The pradhan (village head), Rajesh Kumar, 30, who has grown up sleeping on the dung-coated floor of a hut without electricity or toilet, with barely enough food to eat, says all the 1,200 voters "will side with her" come Thursday.
Mayawati, born into the low-caste Hindu Jatav, has been a four-time chief minister of most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, which sends 80 members to parliament or Lok Sabha.
Starting her political career with shrill anti-Brahmin rhetoric – she once asked her supporters to throw slippers at the upper caste community – Mayawati has evolved into a politician with all the caste calculations in mind.
In the past elections, she successfully hemmed together both the minority Muslims and upper-caste Brahmins to swell her support base across the state.
"BSP already has the Dalit vote," she told a gathering at the riot-hit Muazaffanagar district on April 7 where Al Jazeera was present, "and with these 350,000 [Muslim] votes, I could defeat the BJP."
The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP is currently the election front-runner against the ruling Congress party, with the controversial Narendra Modi running as the party's prime ministerial candidate.
Three days later in Lakhimpur-Kheri, Mayawati called on Muslim community "not to get divided" and "prevent BJP from reaching the Centre by voting for her party".
Mayawati’s traditional base of Dalit voters is largely intact, but some within the community feel betrayed by her decision to side with the Brahmins, to whom she herself in the past had called “enemy of Dalits”.
Out of the 80 candidates her party has fielded for the parliamentary elections, 63 are non-Dalits. While there are 29 candidates from the upper caste, 19 candidates from the Muslim community are in the fray on BSP ticket.
"I have voted for Behenji (sister Mayawati) thrice but this time I will be voting for the BJP," said Rajinder Kumar Bhargav, a 30-year-old farmer. "For the change-sake, I am trying the BJP."
Bhargav, a Dalit from Muja Phulwaria village, a remote settlement close to the Nepal border, says the party is fast losing its Dalit character "by tilting more towards Brahmins and Muslims”.
Other Dalits like Suresh Kumar, a father of five and a painter by profession from the Singhaya village in Palia, says he may vote for the ruling Congress party.
"It is true that many Dalits may vote for her [Mayawati] because of the caste, but I am not among those," he said as he sat outside his mud and thatch hut.
|The BSP party assumption that all Dalits are with it is wrong, Suresh Kumar said. [Baba Umar / Al Jazeera]
"BSP has never helped reduce our poverty. They never come here. The party assumption that all Dalits are with it is wrong.”
Mayawati is banking on a Dalit-Brahmin-Muslim combination to score electoral victory, something she successfully experimented in 2007 assembly elections.
Dalits’ material well-being has barely improved, but many observers argue that Mayawati’s government gave a sense of leadership to the community which otherwise continues to remain "impoverished and beaten-down".
"Dalits were leaderless before Mayawati. She ended that leadership crisis. But on the ground, things have not really changed," Samiuddin Khan, a local journalist who has been covering Dalit areas, said.
"There are government schemes for Dalit welfare, but it has benefitted just handful of powerful Dalits, leaving behind hundreds of thousands of poor in the community who do not even know what rights do they have and what schemes are they entitled to enjoy."
There are 200 million Dalits out of India’s total population of 1.2 billion, but still they remain at the very bottom of the society, employed mainly as petty labourers and manual scavengers (removers of human waste despite stringent laws prohibiting it), street sweepers and cobblers.
Caste-motivated rapes and killings and other abuses, that often fail to generate mainstream media attention, are a regular occurrence in India.
A 2007 government report found most Dalits living on less than $1 a day.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh compared the condition of Dalits with black South Africans under apartheid.
|Shravan Kumar's family does not have identity cards like thousands of other Dalits, making it impossible for him to vote in these elections [Baba Umar / Al Jazeera]
"That is what Mayawati challenged," Kancha Ilaiah, a political scientist, writer and India's top Dalit activist, said.
"She is trying to give them some kind of symbol and status but she cannot sustain this fight for long without radically-rapturing the deep-seated caste system."
Ilaiah believes that economic poverty of Dalits is conditioned by the "caste-oppression", "untouchability" and "oppressive state mechanism" despite the presence of constitutional government in India.
"Dalits had no property rights until BR Ambedkar wrote the constitution of India. Now take, for example, judiciary or media, it is full of upper caste Brahmins. Caste system is a national phenomenon. How much will one Mayawati challenge [it]?" he asked.
The BJP has fielded same number of Dalit candidates as BSP in Uttar Pradesh. And with its powerful media campaign, the Hindu nationalist party seems to be attracting a number of Dalits towards it, but it is still in tickles.
If the BJP, which is the front-runner in general elections, and other parties want Dalit votes, they will have to find a much stronger Dalit figure than Mayawati. And currently, there seems to be none.
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