Agra: Allegations of corruption against Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati find no takers in large parts of this Dalit land where people from socially marginalised communities braved the cold to vote in large numbers.
A day after the first phase of assembly elections concluded in 55 constituencies, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) loyalists see nothing wrong in Mayawati`s penchant for tales of opulence or statue building.
Of the Taj city`s almost two million people, a quarter is engaged in the traditional leather shoes industry that has seen a significant turnaround in the past decade.
The Dalits of Agra region have become an economic entity and form the backbone of not only the shoe but iron foundries and glass industries as well.
"They are now vocal and empowered. They believe it has all happened because of BSP`s rise since 1989," says Abhinay Prasad, a consultant for the shoe industry.
The Dalits here reverentially address four-time chief minister Mayawati as `Behenji`, or sister.
In the predominantly Dalit areas of Jagdishpura, Bodla, Bheem Nagar or on the periphery of Agra, the refrain is the same.
"Mayawati is the new messiah who has done so much to lend dignity to our social reformers and leaders by installing their statues. What is wrong with that? Didn`t other parties do that earlier?" asked a young activist, Netra Pal Singh.
"The BSP is not just a political outfit, it represents the continuation of the Dalit struggle and is a manifestation of our deep-seated frustrations," he added.
After BSP founder leader Kanshi Ram, Mayawati has consolidated these sentiments. Dalits here vote en bloc for her, says activist Surendra Singh Chandel.
Corruption charges against her are seen to be motivated by caste prejudices.
"Behenji, single-handed, like Rani of Jhansi, is arraigned against the combined onslaught of anti-Dalit forces. She will defeat all of them," says a confident BSP member, Rukmani Devi.
The dense Dalit Jatav population in Agra, Mathura, Aligarh, Hathras and Firozabad has always been a crucial factor in any electoral outcome.
"The reason is that this segment has loyally voted for one particular group or party and leveraged its identity to advantage," said Forward Bloc leader Ram Kishore, a political analyst.
"The annual Bheem Nagri and Baba Sahab`s birthday celebrations are at par with Ram Lila," he added.
BSP leaders here are clearly happy that a whopping 62 percent voted Wednesday.
Said BSP`s Arbind Pushkar: "BSP voters came out in large numbers despite the cold and rains to make sure Behenji returns with a clear majority (in the 403-member house)."
If the cold wave continues, it could become difficult to mobilise voters, "especially the so-called elite crowd", warned Vinay Paliwal, a former socialist.
Political pundits, however, feel that a high voter turnout indicates the fierce contest in Uttar Pradesh.
"The party with the most loyal following and committed voters always stands to benefit," political commentator Paras Nath Choudhary told a news agency on phone from Ghaziabad.
Congress candidates Sumit Bibhav and Nazeer Ahmed see the high turnout as a hopeful sign for the Congress.
Social activist Anna Hazare`s followers are also taking the credit for the large voting.
"The Anna impact is visible everywhere. Parties have been a little more careful in fielding new and clean faces although caste continues to remain the ultimate qualification," said human rights activist Naresh Paras.
"Candidates with a criminal past have been identified and will most certainly feel the heat of the campaign," he said.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is also hopeful. "Wait for the results," gushed young BJP leader Deepak Khare, a corporator in Agra.
Supporters of the Samajwadi Party, which is determined to oust the BSP, are a worried lot. But they too have their fingers crossed.