MIRZAPUR, INDIA — It is early afternoon, and in the searing heat of the north Indian summer, the air smells of sweat, dust, and cow dung. Only the silken blue of the Ganges River soothes an otherwise scorched landscape.
This is India's Hindi-speaking heartland, the densely populated Gangetic plain that has traditionally determined which party occupies the seat of power in faraway New Delhi.
In the current general election, this former stronghold is now a battlefield for candidates from caste-based political parties who promise better lives for the poor and underprivileged.
Standing in the shade of a giant banyan tree, Phoolan Devi, India's "Bandit Queen," is one such candidate. After a lifetime of brutality and discrimination against her, she is battling her upper-caste opponents with votes instead of violence, hoping to achieve at the ballot box what the bullet could never do.
The rehabilitated rebel, whose two-year reign as a dacoit, or bandit leader, in the ravines of Bundelkhand is the stuff of books, feature films, and local folklore, is running as the Samajwadi or Socialist Party candidate for the Mirzapur-Bhadoi constituency in Uttar Pradesh state.
Garlanded with flowers by villagers who once trembled at the mention of her name, and protected by the same police force that once put a price on her head, Phoolan the politician is reveling in her new role.
"I need your love, I belong to you," she tells the crowd at Bhanapur, a village on the Ganges where Mallahs, or boatmen, who are members of her own caste, are in a majority.
"I have looted, yes, but only those [upper castes] who have looted everything of mine," she says to thunderous applause. "You too can loot them at the ballot box!"
The politics of caste hold a powerful sway over this election campaign. India's highly complex, centuries-old system of social stratification, comprising thousands of distinct social groups ranked according to such criteria as occupation and ritual purity, is too important for any political party to ignore.
At the top of the caste hierarchy are the "twice born" or Brahman castes, while at its base are the "untouchables," who Mahatma Gandhi called the "Children of God." Administratively, those at the lowest rungs are grouped as "scheduled castes and tribes" and are accorded special reservations in public-sector jobs and educational institutions.
"Caste and class are different," explains veteran politician Madhukar Dighe. "Class is mobile; caste is not. One who is born into a caste cannot change. Ours is a caste-ridden society."
Mr. Dighe's Samajwadi Party was one of the first to recognize the importance of caste in Indian politics. Led by a onetime amateur wrestler, Mulayam Singh Yadav, the party has a strong following among peasant farmers known as Yadavs, who are classified as "backward castes," as well as the sizable Muslim population in India's largest and most politically important state, Uttar Pradesh.
The state sends 85 members to the Lok Sabha, or lower house of parliament, and has supplied seven out of the country's nine prime ministers. With the lower castes making up 51 percent of the state's population of 146 million, control over this crucial voting group is considered essential for capturing political power at the federal level.
To improve its prospects at the polls, the Samajwadi Party has tried to broaden its base by recruiting candidates from as many backward castes as possible. It has also formed an alliance with another caste-based party, the Janata Dal, led by Laloo Prasad Yadav, a charismatic politician whose support base includes the untouchables.
According to sociologist T.K. Oommen of Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, the rise of such caste-based politics is a result of the inability of larger parties such as the Congress Party to articulate the interests of emerging interest groups.
"When a party is in power for a long period of time, a kind of fatigue sets in among the people," Professor Oommen explains. "You ultimately see the same set of policies and the same set of solutions to problems. It ultimately disenchants the people and erodes the ruling party's support base."
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Uttar Pradesh, where the Congress Party enjoyed a long period of supremacy after independence because of its support among the lower castes. But because of their growing political awareness resulting from exposure to education and economic development, the monolithic Congress can no longer accommodate their aspirations.
The result is that never before have so many caste-based parties contested an election. With political analysts and opinion polls predicting a hung parliament to emerge from three rounds of voting ending May 7, these political groupings could hold the balance of power in the next government, giving the lower castes unprecedented influence over policymaking.
For a candidate like Phoolan Devi, who spent 11 years behind bars for her anti-upper-caste crusade, a seat in parliament and the opportunity to represent the impoverished and oppressed would be more than she once had hoped for.