India's powerbrokers make boisterous lot
A former cartoonist who advocates Hindu suicide squads, a self-professed Messiah to the poor proud that his wife can't read, and a cinema heroine whose supporters maim their faces in her honour.
The powerbrokers in India mirror the diversity of the 675 million people eligible to vote this month in the world's largest elections.
No Indian government can survive without building broad coalitions, putting more power in the hands of local bigwigs whose skill at securing concessions -- and propensity for outrageous statements -- win them fanatical followings.
In Bombay, the seat of India's top companies and movie stars, the most influential figure has never run for office, preferring to smoke cigars in his salon, clad in his trademark maroon pyjamas and black-rimmed spectacles.
Slender with a mop of ink-black hair, Bal Thackeray, 77, holds the whip over an "army" known as Shiv Sena. Its activities range from running ambulances for the needy to smashing up greeting card shops each Valentine's Day to protest the holiday's Christian origin.
Thackeray made his name drawing cartoons lampooning the migrants who had made Bombay their home. But he later found a more effective rallying cry than regionalism: Muslim-bashing.
In a 1984 speech at a Bombay park, Thackeray described Muslims as a "cancer" in India. And cancer, he noted ominously, cannot be cured.
Shiv Sena activists were accused of stoking Muslim-Hindu riots in 1993 that killed hundreds. In 2002, deploring attacks by Islamic militants, he told Hindus that "terrorists should be born among you too" in the form of suicide squads.
Despite his love of shocking polite company, Thackeray's plush home remains a must-stop for aspiring politicians. Shiv Sena rules the Bombay municipality and contributed a crucial 15 MPs to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's incumbent government.
On the opposite side of the country and political spectrum, Laloo Prasad Yadav, 55, is no less of a loose cannon.
His macho swagger and crude oratory pouring invective on upper-caste Hindus such as Vajpayee have made him the laughing stock of the New Delhi elite -- and earned him a god-like status to the millions of peasants in his state, Bihar.
A master of political theatre, Yadav leads rallies wearing only a white loincloth and hoisting a wooden cane -- the symbol of brutality against low castes and a symbolic rejoinder to the trident carried by right-wing Hindu activists.
His professed passion for social justice ran into trouble in 1996 when he was charged for allegedly billing the state millions of dollars for the upkeep of imaginary livestock.
As ever, Yadav rubbished the charges as a conspiracy by the upper castes. He installed as his replacement to lead impoverished Bihar his wife Rabri Devi who, he hastens to stress, is illiterate.
Devi married him when she was 14 and has borne him nine children -- a family size Yadav holds up as a model for the billion-plus country.
With his mass support from low-caste Hindus and the Muslim minority, Yadav, a diehard secularist, has thrown in his electoral lot with the main opposition Congress party.
Asked by India Today magazine if he "dreams" of eventually leading the country, Yadav replied wryly: "I am certain to be the prime minister one day."
But the ardour of Yadav's flock is surpassed by Jayalalitha Jayaram, a one-time celluloid dancing queen who leads the southern state of Tamil Nadu.
When she returned to power in 2001, one of her followers offered his tongue as an offering and another was so happy he chopped off his finger. Jayalalitha chided them and arranged to have their body parts reattached.
It was an unlikely show of humility by Jayalalitha, 56.
When she was arrested for corruption in 1996, police reported seizing from her 24 kilograms (64 pounds) of gold jewellery and more than 10,000 saris.
She is remorseless in her treatment of her critics, jailing opposition lawmakers for months under anti-terrorism laws and sending police to the headquarters of a leading newspaper.
And she knows how to keep power. When federal detectives launched a new corruption inquiry against her in 1999, she pulled her lawmakers out of Vajpayee's coalition. His government promptly collapsed.