- Uttar Pradesh starts voting tomorrow
- Keshav Maurya, BJP state chief, is among top campaigners
- Is dealing with anger from those turned down as candidates
Reuters said that the Prime Minister's Office referred questions about Mr Maurya and his criminal cases to the BJP, where an aide to party president said there was no problem. The charges are related to Maurya protesting on behalf of Hindu causes, said the aide, and anyone who does so "is not a criminal in the party's eyes."
"Slowly," Mr Maurya told Reuters, "the BJP will be moving towards a direction where it will only have politicians who are absolutely clean and have no cases of corruption against them."
His career bears a resemblance to that of the Prime Minister. Both are from poor families and as young men helped their fathers sell cups of tea. Each rose to prominence through the ranks of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS, the ideological mentor of the BJP.
Mr Modi has made fighting corruption and removing vested interests from business and politics a key part of his agenda. His abrupt decision in November to abolish 86 per cent of the cash in circulation, in a bid to crush black money and tax evasion, was in keeping with his declared intent to stamp out graft. Then, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said that parties will no longer be able to accept cash donations above Rs 2,000 without explaining the source - the current exemption is Rs 20,000 and is flagrantly misused, allowing the source of political funding to remain murky.
Ahead of the world's biggest scheduled election this year in Uttar Pradesh, though, the BJP is sticking to an old formula: an elite with rap sheets and swelling bank accounts, some of whom are pitting religious communities and caste against each other.
As Mr Maurya criss-crossed Uttar Pradesh by helicopter and a Sport Utility Vehicle ahead of the month-long election, voters were doubtful of wholesale reform to the way Indian politics work. "That's not going to change - the corrupt and the criminal are able to get votes," said Rakesh Kumar Gupta, as he sold bread, cigarettes and snacks from the same cramped stand his father tended before him in Uttar Pradesh's capital, Lucknow.
Ashutosh Mishra, head of the Political Science Department at the University of Lucknow, said he saw no sign that PM Modi or any other major politician is serious about overhauling a system he described as "feudal".
"Why should they? They are enjoying the perks of power, they are living the lives of modern gods," Mr Mishra said.
If PM Modi loses Uttar Pradesh, he risks dissent in the ranks of his support base and a weaker position for his bid for re-election in 2019. But analysts say that if he wins, partly through divisive politics driven by men with controversial backgrounds, it undermines his populist narrative of a rising India.
Also at stake in Uttar Pradesh is the number of seats the BJP has in the Rajya SAbha, where the government is in a minority, allowing the opposition to delay some economic reforms.
In 2014, as he campaigned successfully for the Lok Sabha, he faced 11 cases and declared Rs 9.32 crore in assets. Mr Maurya blamed rival politicians for the criminal cases lodged against him. Asked how his declared assets rose so rapidly - nearly sevenfold in seven years - he replied: "My assets are very small, I don't have too much."
During the last Uttar Pradesh state polls, in 2012, those with criminal cases made up some 20 per cent of candidates but almost 50 per cent of winners, according to the Association for Democratic Reforms, a Delhi-based advocacy group that examines candidate disclosure forms.
The margin was even wider for those with declared assets of at least Rs 1 crore - 20 per cent of candidates and 67 per cent of winners.
Juhie Singh, spokeswoman for the ruling Samajwadi Party said her party sought to winnow people from its candidate list who had been named in criminal cases. "But ultimately the win-ability criteria does take over these things," she ceded. "It's still not such a mature democracy where we can completely discount it".
Ms Singh herself is a defendant in a public corruption case that relates mainly to her father. "I'm just a lateral entry into the whole case," she said.
Meanwhile, haggling for seats at the political high table goes on unchecked. Pulling up to the state headquarters of the BJP in Lucknow on a recent morning, Mr Maurya was greeted by a crowd of angry party supporters demanding to know why their candidates had not been given a slot to run for the state legislature.
Police pushed them aside to make way for Maurya's gleaming white SUV and clanged the gates shut. After Mr Maurya walked into the building, a guard slammed the front door closed and slapped a lock on it. "Let them in two at a time, no more than that," he told an aide as he settled behind his desk, flanked by police. Mr Maurya met three sets of protesters before saying he had other business he needed to attend to.
With that, Mr Maurya retired with a group of BJP leaders to an inner courtyard. A metal fence closed behind them.
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