The recently concluded general election in India saw thousands of candidates contest to enter the Indian Parliament. Among the candidates I watched closely were writer Shashi Tharoor (who ran on the Congress ticket and was elected from Kerala state) and dancer Mallika Sarabhai (who ran as an independent candidate in the Gujarat state and didn’t win).
The classical dancer turned social activist had one of the more colourful campaigns in the world’s largest election: her public rallies included dance numbers, and her website (UPDATE in March 2013: no longer online) – featuring interactive elements like blogging, flickr images and online fund raising – was ranked the best by a communication research agency.
But where Mallika – whose performances I have enjoyed watching on successive visits to her home town of Ahmedabad – really stood out was in whom she opposed. She was the independent candidate from Gandhinagar, one of India’s most high-profile constituencies, a state capital that has been polarized along Hindu-Muslim lines since riots in 2002. Her opponent was Lal Krishna Advani, the prime ministerial candidate of the BJP.The two candidates couldn’t have been more different. The 82-year-old veteran politician epitomised Hindu nationalism and majority hegemony with its attendant intolerance of minorities. Mallika, hailing from an upper class Indian family of freedom fighters, industrialists and intellectuals (her father Vikram Sarabhai was father of the Indian space programme), stood for pluralism, non-violence and tolerance. When she entered the fray in March 2009, she described her candidature as a Satyagraha against the politics of hatred.
She didn’t win the election, but lost with grace and dignity. Within days, she wrote in Outlook magazine one of the most remarkable pieces coming out of the cacophonous Indian election. She made it into an open letter addressed it to L K Advani, her main opponent.
“As a proud Hindu and a proud Indian, I feel vilified by you,” she wrote. “You have reduced the great Sanatana philosophy to a Taliban-style Hindutva. As an Indian, you have tried to reduce my identity to a single factor—Hindu or not. You let your goons, saffron-clad terror units wielding lathis and worse, terrorise us and live above the laws of this country.”
For me, the most insightful paragraph is this where she takes on what it means to live with the huge cultural, social and political diversity that makes up India: “I am a post-Independence Indian. I was brought up to value and treasure my unique Indianness, to value our Constitution, which gives equal rights to all Indians, irrespective of belief, culture, practice or language. I learnt to revel in the differences that made us a rainbow country. We are a salad-like melange of cultures and not a soup where all variations get reduced to a homogeneous pulp—this, to me, is our greatest strength.”
And how I wish our own privileged upper middle classes would take to the rough and dirty game of politics, if only to stand up against the peddlers of hatred and hegemony. If only…
Mallika could easily have continued her cultural work through the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts and her social activism. She decided to take the plunge this year because she thought the time had come to get into active politics. She was encouraged by her friends, mainly social activists, united under the banner of Friends of Democracy. Mallika is one of the several petitioners demanding justice in the post-Godhra riot cases. She was quoted in The Times of India as saying she decided not to join any party as she believed that there was no party free of corruption, criminalization and horse-trading.
As the Washington Post reported during her campaign trail: “Sarabhai, one of a handful of professional people running as independents in the upcoming elections, 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 mudslinging, muscle-flexing and money power.”
She and other courageous Indians have miles to go before they can sleep. Encouragingly, she has pledged that her campaign will continue.
As she says signing off her essay in Outlook: “I may have lost this election, but I will continue to work for the disadvantaged and dispossessed, and to ensure that their voice shall be silenced no more.”