The millionaire in sheep's clothing

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 November, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 November, 2004, 12:00am

Political champion of the poor lives in luxury while her people freeze to death

Mayawati Kumari, India's self-styled 'champion' of the poor and low castes, has been revealed as a millionaire with 72 properties and 54 bank accounts with a total balance of over US$2.6 million.

The 48-year-old leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party is being investigated by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) for her income and assets.

In a report to the Supreme Court last week, the CBI says that she used scores of poor sweepers, hawkers and rickshaw pullers to open 54 bank accounts operated by her and her relatives.

In return, they received about US$10 each. In a CBI raid on her New Delhi home last year, large quantities of cash were found.

Ms Kumari, the first woman 'untouchable' to be a chief minister, has campaigned vigorously for the lower castes, known as dalits or downtrodden, who make up two-thirds of Indian society.

But her rags-to-riches story - she was born into a family of sweepers - is likely to have an unhappy ending as the CBI amasses information that could lead to corruption charges.

It was a decision she took as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh last year to build a shopping complex near the Taj Mahal that proved to be her undoing.

Scandalised by a project that would have ruined India's most famous monument, a New Delhi lawyer lodged a petition in the courts.

This prompted the Supreme Court to ask the CBI to investigate the scandal, including Ms Kumari's income. Corruption among Indian politicians is hardly news but she is an icon for millions of low-caste Indians.

Her career has been marked by angry outbursts against the high castes and their wealth. 'They need to be thrashed with shoes,' she used to tell supporters. 'They have exploited us and got rich on our labour for 5,000 years.'

But according to the CBI report, Ms Kumari herself owns 72 assets such as plots of land, shops and houses, all registered in her or her family's name.

Her ostentatious lifestyle is well documented.

In February 2003, she used the state budget to pay for her 47th birthday party with 30,000 guests.

Asked if such ostentation was inappropriate given that 400 people had just died in the state from the cold, she retorted that if 'upper-caste women can party in five-star hotels and wear diamonds, what is wrong with a dalit woman doing it?'

Ms Kumari, who resigned last year when her coalition collapsed, dismissed the allegations as an upper-caste conspiracy.

But a senior Uttar Pradesh police officer said: 'She wanted to make money all the time, every minute of the day, over every contract, every decision.'

Given her solid low-caste political base, the corruption scandal is unlikely to cause immediate political damage. None of her rivals wishes to alienate dalit voters.