- Current leader, Mayawati, became chief minister of Uttar Pradesh in 2007
- She enjoys wide support among Dalits, the lowest rung of the Hindu caste system
- Uttar Pradesh is India's most populous state with more than 200 million people
Voters in India's most populous and politically important state went to the polls Wednesday, in the first of seven ballots to select members for the 403-seat assembly.
The incumbent leader, known only as Mayawati, became chief minister of Uttar Pradesh in 2007 after leading her Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) to an overwhelming victory in this state of more than 200 million people.
An icon of the Dalits, once known as "the untouchables" and the lowest rung in the Hindu caste system, the 56-year old has been widely criticized for her perceived extravagance while leading one of India's poorest states.
In U.S. diplomatic cables leaked last year by WikiLeaks, she reportedly sent a jet to pick up her preferred brand of sandals from the Indian city of Mumbai -- a claim her party denied.
Though Uttar Pradesh is almost paralyzed by widespread poverty and extremely poor healthcare, political observers say caste and religion still take precedence over development in local politics.
"Religion and caste factor in right from the selection of candidates by almost all political parties. Candidates are chosen on the basis of the population constitution of constituencies," said political analyst J.P. Shukla.
"Development pays lip service in the manifestos of political parties. And voters have little option but to support someone from their 'clan'," he added.
Yet Mayawati's supporters -- not just Dalits -- praise her for bringing about what they describe as a "qualitative difference" to the lives of a rainbow of castes during her tenure.
"She built medical colleges, homes for the poor and improved infrastructure," said Narender Kohli, an upper-caste resident of the northern Saharanpur district. "She gave representation to various castes and religions in her party as well."
The country's two main national parties -- the ruling Congress Party and the opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) -- are struggling to revive their fortunes in a state that has delivered several prime ministers.
In the run up to polling, the Congress-led federal government, reeling from a raft of corruption scandals, approved job quotas for minority groups in a move widely seen as an attempt to woo the Muslim community in Uttar Pradesh -- which makes up an estimated 18% of the state's population, according to official figures.
However, the Samajwadi Party, which ruled until 2007, is viewed as the closest rival to the BSP. Led by Akhilesh Yadav, son of former chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav, the Samajwadi Party represents the interests of a caste group known as the Other Backward Classes and enjoys strong support among Muslims.
But some voters say it's time the state's political class rose above communal issues in elections.
In the state capital of Lucknow, teacher A.K. Sharma said national and state governments should work in what he calls greater coherence to help the most impoverished and vulnerable people.
"Development should be a greater priority on political agenda. Parties should view things from national perspective rather than seeing from the prism of caste or religion," he said.
"Development has to be even not sporadic -- I mean everywhere and not just on one corner of this large state."
He was referring to Noida, a wealthy industrial district of Uttar Pradesh that recently hosted last year's inaugural Formula One race in India -- an event many observers said did much to repair the country's reputation after the chaos and corruption allegations that plagued the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi.
But critics such as Arun Kumar, a professor at the Center of Economic Studies and Planning at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, questioned the validity of putting up such high-octane shows in a country where a quarter of its billion-plus people still lives on less than a dollar a day.
"The contrast between the rich and the poor is very large in India," he said.
"Here, about 40% of our people live in extreme poverty without even basic facilities. In a sense, it sounds very cruel that the nation is spending a large amount of its wealth on such sports."
The track complex, complete with stands and team enclosures painted in the colors of India's flag, was built by private developers on land acquired from farmers, who later alleged they were short-changed for their properties.
Polls in Uttar Pradesh will be conducted between February 8 and March 3. Counting will take place on March 6.