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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Powerful Indian women at war

A FEUD between India's two most powerful women has erupted after the leader of the country's "Untouchables" tried to block a local job-creation project championed by the nation's top political leader, Italian-born Sonia Gandhi.

The dispute escalated yesterday when Kumari Mayawati, leader of the Untouchables caste and chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, barred Mrs Gandhi from addressing a meeting in her own parliamentary electorate.

Deep-seated political rivalry between Mrs Gandhi, 61, and Ms Mayawati, 52, has burst into open political warfare over a $556 million railway carriage factory that Mrs Gandhi wants for her electorate in the northern state, one of India's poorest and most populous.

The battle is seen as a crucial curtain-raiser to India's looming general election.

Uttar Pradesh, the traditional stronghold of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that has dominated Indian politics since independence 61 years ago, is likely to prove crucial to the outcome of the election.

While Mrs Gandhi leads the dominant Congress party, it is Ms Mayawati, as leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), who is in the ascendancy. Ms Mayawati could win enough seats to hold the balance of power following the national elections, due by May next year, and if she does is believed likely to demand the prime ministership.

Mrs Gandhi announced in February last year that the factory would be built in her constituency, and she and her son Rahul were due to lay the foundation stone yesterday.

But on Sunday Ms Mayawati used her power as Uttar Pradesh's chief minister to abruptly cancel permission for the project, which was expected to create 10,000 new jobs.

Claiming that local villagers were afraid of losing their land to the factory and that there could be violence similar to that seen in West Bengal against a proposed Tata Motors plant, Ms Mayawati blocked the allocation of the 190ha site.

The Railways Ministry, part of the national Government controlled by Mrs Gandhi, then rushed to Allahabad High Court and successfully applied for a stay order against Ms Mayawati's cancellation of the project.

Mrs Gandhi's supporters were jubilant, announcing that Mrs Gandhi would go ahead with a full-scale meeting at which she would "expose the Mayawati state government's anti-development attitude".

But their delight was short-lived after a local magistrate - apparently at the behest of Ms Mayawati - issued an order barring the meeting from proceeding, even though it was due to be held in Mrs Gandhi's own electorate.

Yesterday, senior Congress leader Digvijay Singh accused Ms Mayawati of "petty politicking of the worst kind", and sources said new moves were being prepared against the wealthy Untouchables leader who is already the target of a series of central government investigations into alleged tax evasion and "disproportionate assets".

Ms Mayawati, who has been a frequent target of corruption allegations, responded by accusing the national Government of being "anti-Muslim" - something that plays well with her supporters in Uttar Pradesh.

She also denounced the Government's civilian nuclear deal with Washington, saying it would turn India into a "lackey" of the US and alienate Iran.

Most analysts view the stoush over the project as the beginning of a fight to the finish between the two powerful women - one the custodian of India's Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, the other born an Untouchable, but who has developed wealthy tastes, especially for gemstone-encrusted jewellery, and is now said to be worth in excess of $17 million.

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