* Indian PM Modi has vowed to clean up politics
* Voters remain doubtful of leaders' promises
* Poll in Uttar Pradesh a key test of Modi's popularity
* TV: Modi's reforms meet reality reut.tv/2luG6fI
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By Tom Lasseter and Rupam Jain
LUCKNOW, India, Feb 10 Indian Prime Minister
Narendra Modi has promised to clean up politics. The man running
the ruling party's campaign in a crucial state election, who is
facing 11 criminal cases, says it will take a while.
"At a time of elections, one has to forget every other
aspect and just focus on victory," said Keshav Prasad Maurya, as
his three-vehicle convoy carrying police with automatic rifles
sped through the countryside.
Polls open on Saturday in Uttar Pradesh, with a population
of some 220 million, and on the ground Modi's loftier aims for a
new India seem far away.
Maurya, the state's president for the ruling Bharatiya
Janata Party (BJP), says the charges against him are false and
politically motivated; unless he is convicted, they do not
prevent him from holding office.
His bosses are not concerned.
An official at the prime minister's office referred
questions about Maurya and his criminal cases to the BJP, where
an aide to party president and Modi confidant Amit Shah 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," 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."
Modi stormed to power in 2014 vowing to sweep away
corruption and vested interests from business and politics.
Late last year, he abruptly abolished 86 percent of cash in
circulation, in a bid to crush the shadow economy, force Indians
to declare their wealth and empower the poor.
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 who pit
religious communities and caste against each other.
The party's manifesto for the state poll, for example, mixed
development with a set of right wing Hindu causes likely to
upset the sizeable Muslim population.
WIN AT ALL COSTS?
As Maurya criss-crossed Uttar Pradesh by helicopter and
sport utility vehicle ahead of a month-long election, voters
were doubtful of wholesale reform to the way Indian politics
"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 Modi or any
other major Indian politician was 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," Mishra said.
The biggest of five state polls held in India this spring
points to a central dilemma for Modi.
If he loses the poll in 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 Modi wins 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 Modi
controls in the upper parliamentary chamber, where the
opposition has managed to delay some economic reforms.
Maurya's career bears a resemblance to that of the prime
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, a powerful Hindu
nationalist umbrella group that helped create the ruling party.
Unlike Modi, though, Maurya's criminal docket and wallet
have expanded in recent years.
In 2007, when he ran for office in the state legislature in
Uttar Pradesh, he had four criminal cases pending and some 13.6
million rupees (about $200,000 at current rates) in assets,
according to his election filings.
In 2014, as he campaigned successfully for a seat in the
lower house of India's parliament, Maurya faced 11 cases and
declared 93.2 million rupees in assets.
Maurya blamed rival politicians for the criminal cases
lodged against him.
Asked how his declared assets rose so rapidly - nearly
sevenfold in seven years to more than $1.3 million, in a state
where average annual per capita earnings are less than $750 - he
replied: "My assets are very small, I don't have too much."
The combination of wealth and criminal charges have a close
correlation with election success in India, data show.
During the last Uttar Pradesh state polls, in 2012, those
with criminal cases made up some 20 percent of candidates but
almost 50 percent 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 10 million rupees (about $150,000) - 20 percent of
candidates and 67 percent of winners.
The figures partly reflect wealthy candidates' ability to
spend on campaigns, although the gap between their earnings and
that of ordinary voters in India is eyecatching.
PLUS CA CHANGE
The BJP is not the only party with an imperfect image in the
Juhie Singh, spokeswoman for the Samajwadi Party, a main
competitor to the BJP, 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," Singh said. "It's still not such a mature
democracy where we can completely discount it."
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, in scenes that have played out for decades in
India's rough-and-tumble elections.
Pulling up to the state headquarters of the BJP in Lucknow
on a recent morning, 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 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," Maurya told
an aide as he settled behind his desk, flanked by police.
Outside, amid the cries of insults and threats directed at
Maurya, a man shouted, "You are a dictator! This is our party
too! Let us in!"
Maurya met three sets of protesters before saying he had
other business he needed to attend to.
With that, Maurya, who like Modi speaks passionately about
bringing a different brand of politics to the people, retired
with a group of BJP leaders to an inner courtyard. A metal fence
closed behind them.
(Writing by Tom Lasseter; Editing by Mike Collett-White)