Indian Classic dancer contests against BJP leader L.K. Advani

Indian Classic dancer contests against BJP leader L.K. Advani

The 15th Lok Sabha election in India commences from 16th April and completes on 13th May. The month-long general elections will be held in five phases on April 16, April 22, April 23, April 30, May 7 and May 13, and the results will be announced on May 16.

Indian politics has always been fascinating with twists and turns. No more all-India national parties can command influence in all states or obtain majority in the Parliament. They have to form coalition with minor parties to constitute governments in New Delhi.

The days of Congress majority government in New Delhi have disappeared as was seen during Indira Gandhi’s era.

India is so large with 1.5 billion people that regional interests override national interests and that is the reason why regional parties, based on caste or state-issues, do well in states. Regional parties or independent candidates are often personality-based and personality clash exists within the states.

It seems that the candidates from smaller parties and independent candidates are expected to play hardball with Congress and BJP. For some years the Congress or BJP has not been able to form governments in New Delhi because the two party- system has disappeared as various smaller parties represent interest groups in a country.

With barely couple of weeks before the Lok Sabha election begins, all the parties are campaigning hard and using all the campaigning tools they can get their hands on. Many candidates have turned web saavy and created election websites to attract the young voters. Voters are being inundated with SMSs from candidates on the mobile phones.

The campaigning has also started getting ruder, if not down right dirty with candidates questioning the capability of their opponents. Though one has to admit it is amusing to watch BJP’s parody titled “bhay ho” to counter Congress’s choice of “Jai Ho” as their campaign song.

An independent candidate against L.K. Advani:

Internationally acclaimed classical dancer Mallika Sarabhai is taking on India’s main opposition leader LK Advani of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the general elections from Gujarat as an independent candidate.

As a battle between political rivals, the fight for Gandhinagar cannot be more unequal – the Indian version of David and Goliath.

Advani is the 81-year-old veteran of Indian politics. He is the shadow prime minister, leads a conservative Hindu nationalist party and is backed by powerful and rich party machinery.
Sarabhai, 54, is a political greenhorn with no party but a lot of energy and an enviable reputation.

She is India’s best known dancer-actor-activist, has an MBA and doctorate from the country’s best business school and is the daughter of a renowned space scientist. She is also the scion of one of the country’s most progressive business families, a feisty liberal and a divorced mother of two.

Inner voice call:

A little over a fortnight ago, Mallika Sarabhai woke early one weekday morning and heard what she called an “inner voice”.

Over the weekend, a group of NGOs had approached her, promising to back her if she contested the general elections as an independent candidate.

The proposal left the busy Sarabhai in a spin. She had been in the middle of recording a TV quiz involving schoolchildren in western Gujarat state, where she lives and works. She thought over the proposal as such invitations were not new to her. Since 1984, she says, the Congress party has approached her at every election to contest its ticket.

“I always turned them down, saying that I was not ready,” she says. But this time, the “inner voice” intervened. “The time is now, the voice told me, although I know the independent candidates have very little chance in our political system” says Sarabhai.

This is how she finds herself in the turbulence of an Indian election. This is also how she finds herself pitted against the leader of the main opposition BJP and prime ministerial candidate LK Advani in the Gandhinagar constituency.

“This is how,” says Sarabhai, “within 15 days my life has changed. I have been doing 16-hour workdays and already have met over 100,000 people in my campaign.”

“I am not ruling out a win. I might get one vote or I may get 500,000 votes. But I am going to fight. Politics has reached its nadir in India,” she says, punching away furiously on her BlackBerry.
Spirited campaign: tactics borrowed from Obama’s strategy:

Sarabhai is also putting up a spirited fight with her army of plucky young volunteers.
They sing songs, dance, perform theatre on the streets and use their formidable online networking skills to spread the campaign far and wide.

There are satirical digs at her rival’s second name – Advani, in Gujarati, means “don’t touch”.
“I have no money to fight an election,” she says. “But we are managing.”

Sarabhai’s election site solicits donations and publishes data on the contributions – more than 600,000 rupees ($12,000) have poured in a fortnight, the site says.

There is no lack of pluck. A trenchant critic of the BJP government’s “inaction” during the 2002 riots in Gujarat, she was hounded by the state government, who slapped charges of “human trafficking” on her only to drop them after a national outrage.

Now she has challenged Advani to a public debate. For the most part, Mr Advani and his party have ignored her.

But Sarabhai is a consummate performer and communicator: on her walkabouts, she works the crowds, breaking into song and dance, in city neighbourhoods and shantytowns alike.

“She is a symbol of change,” says Wilson Battu, a New York-based retail management consultant and friend, who says he helped in the Obama campaign and is now assisting Sarabhai.

The Sarabhai campaign has an element of rousing youthful energy, not usually associated with Indian politics. Many of the young volunteers who have signed up for her – numbering about 700 – talk about tips they picked up from the Obama campaign. Catchy songs specially composed for the campaign blare out of speakers when she hits the road.

A campaign film and a mobile video van to ferry her message around the countryside is in the works. Volunteers are turned out in the campaign tricolour – red, white and purple – or wearing scarves. The campaign is on Facebook.

In the morning, she is working middle-class households in the city in what she calls “network meetings”. “What would we prefer – a clean society or a filthy one?” she asks a group of local denizens who have gathered in a musty room.

When dusk falls and the heat abates, she travels across her sprawling constituency, home to 1.5 million voters and, among other things, the factory making the Nano, the world’s cheapest car.

Sarabhai says her campaign has been a learning experience – of what she calls “exploitative and unequal” conditions in what is hyped as India’s most economically developed state. She says she has met struggling government health workers with earnings that violate the state’s own minimum wage, and a Muslim driver who wept after she offered him a job because he had been “rejected 40 times because of his religion”.

“And 70% of the villages and slums I have visited in my constituency have no toilets. What development is the government talking about? Whose development?”

Campaign badges and stickers show a beaming Sarabhai asking: “Won’t you support me? Won’t you vote for me?”

She – and her countless admirers – will know on 16th May. In politics, there is a saying nothing is impossible. Interestingly, it may be recalled that one female TV presenter, Maxine McKew, in Australia defeated the sitting conservative Prime Minister John Howard in the general election of November 2007. Howard suffered a humiliating defeat at his parliamentary seat in Sydney.

Even if she loses, Mallika Sarabhai promises to be back – she swears she is not going to be an accidental politician.

By Barrister Harun ur Rashid
Former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.

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