Classical Dancer Campaigns as `People's Candidate' in India

By Rama Lakshmi
(c) 2009, The Washington Post

GANDHINAGAR, India — On the campaign trail, the renowned classical dancer Mallika Sarabhai walks past a foul-smelling trash heap and a gate adorned with coconuts to enter the maze-like slum where this western Indian city's ragpickers live.

Little girls welcome her with rice grains mixed in auspicious vermilion paste and garland her with hand-spun cotton threads. She squats on the floor and breaks into a folk song, and women in floral polyester saris and colorful glass bangles clap and sing along.

"Other candidates wave at you and go away. Our democracy has room only for leaders, not for people like you and me," said Sarabhai, 56, a slim, short-haired woman with kohl-rimmed eyes and a red-glitter bindi, the forehead dot worn by many Hindu women. "But I have come here as one of you, as your sister."

A first-time independent candidate, Sarabhai is running for a parliamentary lower house seat in national elections this month from one of India's most high-profile constituencies, a state capital that has been polarized along Hindu-Muslim lines since riots in 2002. As a dancer, she has used performing arts for years to challenge social taboos that limit women's aspirations. In her new political role, she calls herself a "people's candidate" who is fighting to reclaim the idea of an inclusive and secular India.

Sarabhai eschews grand speeches, microphones, banners and slogans. Instead, she takes notes as people talk about the lack of bathing water, illegally brewed alcohol, bribe-taking policemen and the shortage of women's toilets in the slums.

One of a handful of professional people running as independents in the upcoming elections, Sarabhai rejects the standard Indian political appeals to caste, religion and linguistic ethnicity, and speaks of empowering voters to unseat corrupt and ineffective politicians. Her campaign, she said, seeks to reclaim the shrinking space left for ordinary people's voices in a democracy dominated by political parties that too often rely on mud-slinging, muscle-flexing and money power.

Sarabhai's constituency, Gandhinagar, in the western state of Gujarat, has suffered six bloody bouts of Hindu-Muslim rioting in the past four decades. The latest was in 2002, when Hindu mobs mounted reprisal attacks against Muslims that left more than 1,000 people dead. Many groups have blamed the state's ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government for abetting the violence. Later that year, Sarabhai filed a public interest lawsuit against the government in the country's Supreme Court, earning the wrath of the BJP's supporters, who have since lampooned her.

"The silence of the city's middle class toward the violence has been stunning. She is trying to extrude that silence by providing a credible alternative," said Shiv Viswanathan, a social scientist at the Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information and Communication Technology in Gandhinagar. "Her fight has a lot of symbolism in this city fractured by violence."

Sarabhai comes from a Gandhinagar family whose members include a freedom fighter who worked with Mohandas K. Gandhi, an industrialist, a scientist and several artists. She runs a riverside performing arts institute that also serves as a stage for her battle for social justice.

"My opponents say I should just go back to dancing," Sarabhai said. But she appeared unfazed, showing messages of support on her BlackBerry. "For too long, we allowed our politics to be hijacked by the corrupt and those who inflame religious passions."

Sarabhai is waging a David vs. Goliath-like battle not just against the entrenched political structure but also against a powerful opponent, L.K. Advani, 82, who has represented Gandhinagar since 1992 and leads the BJP. If the BJP prevails in the elections, Advani will be India's next prime minister. He is projected as a strong leader who can combat the growing threat of terrorism. A string of bombings struck several Indian cities last year, including Gandhinagar, killing several hundred people.

Sarabhai's platform, by contrast, is local. She talks about terrorism in terms of rising crime against women in the city.

"Our daughters and sisters are unsafe commuting to colleges and offices. They are harassed, attacked, raped," she told a group of middle-class women here recently. "Are these not daily acts of terror? Who raises these issues?"

Her opponents say they do not think she will dent Advani's image.

"She is insignificant," said Sudheendra Kulkarni, Advani's campaign chief. "Celebrities tend to appropriate political importance to themselves which simply does not exist. She may make news, but in terms of votes, it will be pathetically low. It is not a real electoral fight."

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