Challenger Mallika's dance and song fill Advani vacuum

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By SUNANDA K. DATTA-RAY IN AHMEDABAD
  • Published 24.04.09
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It’s said here that if India’s Prime Minister-in-waiting doesn’t lose his seat on April 30, he will certainly lose face. That’s because if Lal Krishna Advani retains his seat and returns to the Lok Sabha, it will be riding piggyback on chief minister Narendra Modi.

The first reason for that is Advani’s invisibility in Gandhinagar constituency, Gujarat’s official capital, which he hardly ever visits and where many locals still resent his comments on Mohammed Ali Jinnah.

Second, Suresh Patel, his Congress rival, enjoys strong caste support whereas Advani, the oldest candidate in Gujarat, is the Sindhi outsider.

The colourful and unorthodox campaign mounted by Independent candidate Mallika Sarabhai, hailed as “Gujarat’s daughter, Gujarat’s pride”, may be a third factor. The Bhajap (colloquial for Bharatiya Janata Party) leader who pesters Manmohan Singh for a public debate responds with deafening silence to the volleys of serious social, political and economic questions with which she bombards him.

It’s fun to go canvassing with Mallikabehn as she laughs, chats, sings and dances her way through village after village because she herself so obviously enjoys interacting with simple folk.

The dancer daughter of one of the country’s most respected industrial families looks much younger than her 55 years. Nor is there anything in her light-hearted demeanour to reveal that she holds a master’s degree and a doctorate from Ahmedabad’s august Indian Institute of Management.

Her appearance — crimson kurta and churidar, trailing purple chiffon dupatta, glittering tilak and a long silver contraption like a mini-mobile dangling from her left ear in addition to less unconventional earrings — is determinedly flamboyant.

But there is nothing frivolous about the questions she shoots every few days at the silent Advani. Here’s a summary of the just delivered third round.

• What do you say about terror laws being misused?

• What are you doing about the thousands of families displaced — at least 15,000 living on the pavements of Ahmedabad — because of urban beautification

• Why are Gujarat’s Human Development Index and all social indicators slipping?

• Why is Gujarat’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme performance the worst in India, not providing work for even 45 days against the stipulated 100?

• Why are you silent on the allegations against Maya Kodnani, the minister accused of personally leading a murderous Hindu mob?

• How can the BJP guarantee security when reports show that the Sabarmati prison leads the country in violent incidents?

• Why has Modi not appointed a lok ayukta?

• Why does Modi’s one-man (Justice D.S. Sinha from Allahabad) human rights commission not have any local, leave alone minority community, member?

Such heavy stuff isn’t inflicted on the old woman whose hand Mallika reaches out to hold or the crowd that waves cheerfully from a balcony as we traipse along to the beat of drums, clash of cymbals and jingling tambourine.

“What has Bhajap done for you?” she asks, talking of potable water, sanitation, electricity, housing, schools and jobs, none in abundant supply in Vibrant Gujarat.

A father laments his son can’t get into college without paying a bribe though he has 90 per cent marks. A woman complains of the illegal stills and booming trade in liquor that the government ignores despite statutory prohibition. A scooter stops and the rider and his mate say they have been trying to catch up for days. They want change, and see Mallikabehn as the catalyst.

Two lithe young girls whirl and swirl around and ahead. Most are in crimson and purple, Mallika’s colours. Most are members of the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts, which was accused of “human trafficking” though the charge was dropped two years later.

There’s prettily dimpled daughter Anhita in her gap year before joining Sarah Lawrence College in the US, and a powerfully built unsmiling young man with a pugilist’s battered looks and great weals on his muscular arms who turns out to be her mother’s bodyguard.

A BJP spokesperson makes sneering comments about the Sarabhai family and Mallika. “She’s getting Rs 10 crore worth of publicity but will be lucky to get 10,000 votes!”

It’s not difficult to belittle such a glamorous phenomenon. But Tridip Suhrud, a respected sociologist and professor at the Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information and Communication Technology, welcomes the attempt to, as he puts it, “regain the democratic space”.

Medha Patkar supports Mallika’s demand for social and economic improvement. Celebrities being the order of the day, Om Puri and Shobhaa De have walked with her.

There are occasional disconnects. An official at a housing colony named after her father Vikram politely requests her to move on. “Can I leave my flyers with you?” Mallika asks, and the man apologises, “Sorry, we have no flowers.”

A group of women turn out to be not waiting supporters but a wedding party. Another group is Bhajap. Mallika and her entourage dance and sing past them with added zest, ignoring the shower of Modi-Advani leaflets. But on the whole, Mallikabehn, Daughter of Gujarat, is received everywhere with warmth and goodwill.

A policeman from the escorting jeep approaches as my cellphone trills. In far-off England, my son hears the policeman say very courteously that Mallikabehn’s permit is for three vehicles and my car should fall back a bit so as not to give the impression of a fourth which would be a technical violation.

“The rule of law,” my son murmurs 6,000 miles away, leaving unsaid “even in Modi’s Gujarat”.

Suresh Mehta, a former BJP chief minister, gives me a pamphlet titled, “Advaniji, why have you deserted Gujarat?” and accuses the PM-in-waiting of taking no interest in his state.

Clearly, when Thomas “Tip” ’Neill — a long-time Speaker of the US House of Representatives — said all politics is local, he didn’t reckon with Bhajap’s national aspirant without local roots.

• Gujarat votes on April 30