By Frank Jack Daniel
BELLARY, India (Reuters) - Stooping to feed grain to a black cow as a religious offering at his unfinished mansion, Indian politician and rags-to-riches millionaire B. Sreeramulu may need help from the gods if he is to win a hard-fought race for the parliamentary seat of Bellary.
He faces criminal charges, including attempted murder in a case dating back to 2007, and has close links with a jailed mining tycoon from the southern Indian town where the scandal has put thousands of miners out of work.
Sreeramulu's bid for office comes as India's 815 million-strong electorate votes in a staggered election ending on May 12 that looks set to oust the ruling Congress party, in part because of anger over corruption that is estimated to have cost the country billions of dollars in lost revenue.
The anti-graft Aam Aadmi ("Common Man") Party came to power in local elections in New Delhi last year in a stunning debut, and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), likely to lead the next government, has made tackling corruption a priority.
Yet it is the BJP who chose Sreeramulu as its candidate in a sign that, for all the rhetoric about cleaning up politics, parties are willing to back figures facing criminal charges.
Decades of experience show they frequently win. Such candidates often have deep pockets and a reputation for getting things done in parts of the country where the state is weak, making them popular with parties and voters.
Election spending, much of it to bribe voters, can exceed legal limits tenfold, officials say. Bellary, where an iron ore boom swelled politicians' funds, is known for lavish campaigns.
Ahead of last Thursday's vote, election officers in the town raided the homes of Sreeramulu allies after seizing $1.4 million from a money lender that was destined, they said, to buy votes.
It was the biggest haul of suspected slush money so far out of election-related seizures of $36 million nationwide.
"JUST A POOR MAN"
The son of a railway station worker in Bellary, in the state of Karnataka, Sreeramulu told Reuters that all charges against him were false. He has not been convicted of any crime.
"I'm just a poor man. My father was a luggage porter," he said, standing beneath a picture of his children smiling next to a gold, jewel-encrusted crown that was donated to a temple by his jailed associate.
In fact, Sreeramulu declared assets of $2.5 million when he registered as a candidate in 2014, a fortune by Indian standards. When finished, his imposing house will be the size of a hotel and feature a swimming pool.
Data compiled by the Association for Democratic Reforms, a civil society group, shows that one in six candidates registered for the first five stages of the 2014 general election faces criminal charges, slightly more than in the 2009 ballot.
These candidates have a far higher win rate than others, meaning nearly one in three lawmakers in the outgoing parliament face pending criminal cases.
"In the absence of an impartial state which can deliver benefits, protection and justice without bias, 'tainted politicians' can and will find support," said Milan Vaishnav, a South Asia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Whether locals support Sreeramulu and others like him could have a major impact on the outcome of the vote, and signs on the ground are that the contest for Bellary is desperately close.
At the last parliamentary election in 2009, the BJP won by only around 2,000 votes in the district of 2.5 million people. This time Sreeramulu is up against an elderly former judge with a clean image representing Congress.
"The Congress candidate is new, but he's a judge with no scandals," said Shivaji Rao, an unemployed mine operator in a Bellary town called Sandur, who said the BJP candidate had little support there. "Sreeramulu has too many scandals, although it's not proven, and Reddy is in jail."
FABULOUS WEALTH, POLITICAL POWER
He was referring to Janardhana Reddy, Sreeramulu's former business associate and mentor who, along with his brothers, accrued power and fabulous wealth by exporting iron ore to China but is now behind bars on charges of illegal mining.
The Supreme Court suspended virtually all mining in the area in 2011 as a result of the case, putting thousands out of work and bringing down the BJP's first ever Karnataka government - in which Janardhana Reddy and Sreeramulu served as ministers.
After paying his respects to the cow tethered to the bamboo scaffolding of his half-built mansion, Sreeramulu jumped into a white SUV for a last day of campaigning.
Plunging on foot into a teeming market, guarded by two armed policemen, he met vendors who told him business was better when he and the Reddy family ran the district before the mining ban.
Sreeramulu himself has been hit relatively hard, with his personal wealth now less than a third of the $8 million he declared during a local election three years ago and several politicians close to him imprisoned.
"In Bellary the mining has stopped. There is no flow of money, they are facing a very bad situation," said the candidate, who rejoined the BJP in March after resigning at the height of the mining scandal.
Sreeramulu's return split the BJP, with a top party leader who used to be his mentor publicly disagreeing with the decision to welcome him back. A BJP spokeswoman said the party offered Sreeramulu an election ticket because he had not been charged in the mining case that blights Bellary to this day.
She did not mention the eight offences he has been charged with, and said a key factor in choosing him was his strong support among populous tribal groups in the area.
The BJP's Narendra Modi - the man opinion polls show is most likely to be next prime minister - has promised to end corruption scandals that dogged the government led by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty's Congress party over the past decade.
He said last week that, if elected, he would rule on all criminal cases against politicians within 12 months. Often such cases languish in over-stretched courts for years.
EIGHT HOUR COUNT
Sreeramulu said he stuck to official spending limits. He said local government and election officials were unfairly targeting his campaign with video surveillance of his house and a series of raids on BJP workers.
He denied any links to the $1.4 million haul that police found stuffed into two wardrobes and metal trunks in 50,000-rupee bundles believed to be destined for polling stations, officials said. The cash took eight hours to count.
Anil Lad, a wealthy Bellary miner and local legislator for the Congress party, was candid about the pressure to breach spending limits to win campaigns. He said there were not enough candidates who were both rich and clean.
"If you ask me it's not the politicians who are corrupt, it's the situation that makes them corrupt," Lad said.
($1 = 60.3550 Indian Rupees)
(Additional reporting by Vishnu Ravindranath; Editing by Mike Collett-White and John Chalmers)