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‘The fact that I am standing, Mr. Advani, means the world is watching’
Tête à tête

Mallika Sarabhai laughed — and for the moment she had won the battle. Jay Narayan Vyas, Gujarat’s health minister, was clearly no match for the dancer and social activist contesting the Gandhinagar Lok Sabha seat against its four-term winner L.K. Advani. She used laughter as a weapon as she debated with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) functionary on television, and Vyas lost the thread of his argument. It was a minor but sweet victory.

Things are unlikely to be as easy for Sarabhai, 54, in the election in Gujarat, considered BJP heartland. That does not deter Sarabhai, who stresses she is contesting as much to win as to announce that there is an alternative.

In her office at the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts in Ahmedabad, a public trust she set up with her mother, danseuse Mrinalini Sarabhai, she is juggling calls and campaign posters. “Ask, lady. As long as you are okay with brutally frank answers, you can ask any, any question.”

Sarabhai had been contemplating electoral politics for many years — since 1984, in fact, when Rajiv Gandhi first offered her a ticket. Every election, the Congress offered her a ticket. “Funnily enough, this is the first election that they have not approached me,” she laughs. The IIM-Ahmedabad alumna believes she is more effective as an outside voice. “Over the last five to seven years, party politics has become dramatically dirtier. Today there is very little difference between the parties. They think winnability — meaning who can threaten people and get votes — is the factor by which to give tickets.”

Two Thursdays ago, a group of social activist colleagues called to say she should contest to represent what they stood for. “If we want India to remain as its constitution decreed and as I think most of us hope — as a pluralistic, multi-pronged society — we cannot let Mr Advani take over,” she says baldly.

Clearly, the conviction that everyone has to take ownership in decision making is inherited from her father. She was just under 17 when Vikram Sarabhai, who started India’s space programme, died. Till 13, Mallika was very much a “mama’s baby” and the four years of closeness with her father, she felt, were woefully short lived. “I miss him terribly. My entire value system is completely Papa’s. My emotional make-up is my mother’s.”

Mother and daughter went through rough times when the teenage Mallika chafed against the rules for girls of her age. Her father was the liberal one. “But after his death, it was as though Papa’s entire spirit went into Amma. She says I made her into a feminist, which I did. Amma was from a matriarchal Kerala family, where the need to fight was not existent.”

Sarabhai recalls her mother’s horror when Mallika first started living with somebody. “I explained to her why it was important for me to find out if I wanted a permanent commitment or not. But all through my IIM-A years, she was horrified. Five years on, I walk into her office and she is advising one of her young dance students to live with the guy before marrying him. I burst out laughing.”

The cellphone goes again. Maya, the sleepy Labrador, harrumphs loudly. Sarabhai hangs up to narrate how she went up and down a queue for a recent Ahmedabad flight from Delhi, asking people if they were voters in her constituency. “People were very amused.”

Does that mean the environment has become less hostile and dangerous than some years ago? For her, yes, she concedes. At a press conference earlier this week, she listed the charges that will be thrown at her during the election. “Mr (Narendra) Modi’s government still tries to make me out to be anti-Gujarat and anti-development.” She rejects both charges, pointing out that she stands for industry that is “equitable” for all stakeholders, which includes the earth. “I am totally against environmental degradation for industry.”

It was, however, after the post-Godhra riots in Gujarat that Sarabhai found herself in danger. The communal riots claimed 2,000 deaths, mainly Muslims, and thousands became homeless. Sarabhai was the first to file a petition in the Supreme Court asking for the Central Bureau of Investigations to investigate the riots. Around then, a case of cheating was filed against her and her passport impounded till the Supreme Court rapped the government. The case was later dropped. She and activist Medha Patkar were attacked by political goons at a meeting at Sabarmati Ashram in 2002. “They bashed our heads against the wall,” Sarabhai recalls.

At one point, anticipating a vendetta-fuelled arrest, she slipped out of the state hidden in the boot of a car to return only when the political climate had tempered. And to eventually stake her claim to a city that rejected her.

“My fearlessness comes from all the women, my extraordinary heritage, on both sides of the family. Both my aunts, who are still alive, were over the moon when I told them I was contesting. We knew there would be a woman fighter in each generation, they said.” Great-aunt Anusuya Sarabhai fought for the rights of textile workers. Aunt Mridula, a freedom fighter, later espoused the Kashmiri people’s cause. Her mother’s sister — Lakshmi maasi — is Captain Sehgal of the Indian National Army. Her cousins are Marxist Subhashini Ali and social activist Srilata Swaminathan.

But despite the contribution of the Sarabhai family to Ahmedabad (from setting up the Indian Space Research Organisation to textile museums and promoting art and theatre), she found herself friendless after she took on the Modi government. “To my surprise, I found I did not have one friend left in this city. Those who pontificate on liberalism didn’t support me. The great stalwarts of intellectual blah did not have the courage to pick up the phone and say, ‘good for you, Mallika’,” she says scornfully.

But her colleagues at Darpana stood by her. “They disconnected their telephones for two years because they were getting vile calls threatening abduction and rape. But not one person from Darpana left.”

And she made friends across the country, some of whom have come to campaign for her from as far apart as the United States and Haryana. Her support comes from the person on the street, especially the women, who walk up to her and say her articles in the Gujarati papers give them the courage to fight.

Why then did she want to contest from Gandhinagar? She quotes a verse in reply: Now you ask me to return, City, once you have banished me. With what memories and what aspirations will I return? To the city which gave me life, and to the city which called me its daughter. “I feel, hey, if you guys have been hijacked, I am going to be part of the movement to hijack you back into sanity, into becoming the great city you were.”

Sarabhai alleges that in his 20 years as MP from Gandhinagar her opponent has not tackled sewage, slums and drinking water issues. “Instead, he has built crematoriums. I understand that at a certain age one has to start thinking of death, but to say that the living who are suffering do not require more is strange.”

Her candidacy has been endorsed by veteran Gandhian Chunnibhai Vaidya and Justice V.K. Krishna Iyer. Author Salman Rushdie and actor Irrfan Khan have contributed to her campaign. Son Revanta and daughter Anahita are with her. And ex-husband Bipin Shah is busy with the fine print of the campaign strategy. “We have an extraordinarily good relationship. Our first break-up was very painful but we found that if our relationship was a 10-pointer, just two points about being married didn’t work. We had just become different people. We still run our publishing company together.”

Under the cool shade of the trees, at the Darpana cafeteria, Shah is peering at his laptop as a family of simians nestles along the trunk of a neem tree. Mallika and Shah had lived apart for five years after two years of marriage, as she travelled with Peter Brooks’s international cast for Mahabharata, where she essayed Draupadi. She returned a completely different person while “he perhaps realised he was not meant for marriage”.

What does she feel about the endorsements by industrialists such as Ratan Tata and Sunil Mittal of Modi as prime minister? “I have no qualms about Mittal, but I feel a lot has been lost between Jamshedji Tata’s ethics and values and the current generation’s. I am seriously sad about it.”

The debate, I tell her, in some circles is that she would either lose her deposit or spring a surprise. “The Indian electorate has never been predictable. Nobody thought Mrs (Indira) Gandhi would lose in 1977, or return three years later. Or that the Congress would win the majority in the Parliamentary elections from Gujarat one year after Modi got a thumping victory. I don’t think there are any certainties. I am going to give it a very, very hard fight. Then we will see. At least the fact that I am standing, Mr Advani, means that the world is watching. I am sure that there are a lot of international watch teams constantly going around.”

Vyas may have the last laugh, but Sarabhai has already added punch to the polls.

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