[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Sunday, 9 May, 2004, 13:40 GMT 14:40 UK
Cheap saris and beauty queens

By Soutik Biswas
BBC News Online correspondent in Calcutta

Nafisa Ali is a regular fixture in the giddy, high society whirligig of the Indian capital, Delhi - she's an ageing trendsetter of sorts.

Nafisa Ali
Nafisa Ali - from 'sizzling water babe' to parliamentary candidate

Once upon a time, she was Miss India, a swimming champion and a part-time actress.

Today Nafisa Ali, 46, has returned home to the eastern city of Calcutta to stand for the national parliament for the main opposition party, Congress.

Her main rival is a feisty 40-something politician, Mamata Banerjee, who leads a breakaway Congress group called Trinamool Congress, a member of India's governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led ruling coalition.

The contrast between the two candidates could not be more glaring.

Cheap saris

Ms Banerjee is a street fighting, rabble rousing, plain living populist politician living in a slummy red-tiled one storey home on the banks of a stinking canal in a run-down Calcutta neighbourhood.

She turns out in cheap, pale, sometimes-tattered saris and strikes an instant chord with the millions of jobless young men and women in the state of West Bengal that has been ruled by the Communists for 27 years now.

Mamata Banerjee
Mamata Banerjee - a feisty, street-fighting populist

Ms Banerjee has also been representing the constituency of South Calcutta - a mix of upscale neighbourhoods, shoddily planned suburbs and leafy farming and fishing countryside - for over a decade.

Conventional wisdom has it that the battle for the seat will be a straight fight between Ms Banerjee and her hard-boiled Communist Party rival, Rabin Deb.

But the arrival of the Nafisa Ali has injected an element of glamour into what threatened to be a dreary, colourless campaign.

Mrs Ali says she is glad to return to Calcutta to contest her first elections because she was born here.

This was the city from where she became Miss India in the 1970s.

It is also where she developed into an ace swimmer - "Sizzling Water Baby" was how one magazine cover described her.

'Pretty embarrassing'

In the late 1960's and early 1970's, Calcutta was wracked by a violent ultra-left movement.

Nafisa says she remembers writing posters with lines like: "The time has come to skin the rich."

"When I look back," she smiles, "I find it pretty embarrassing."

On the campaign trail there's palpable excitement among voters gaping at her in her open-roof jeep.

"She has come from Delhi. She was a swimming champion. She was Miss World ... oops, sorry, Miss India," shouts a young man into a giant loudspeaker fixed to the jeep.

"She has come to meet you, to seek your votes - the famous Nafisa Ali!!"

Analysts say Mrs Ali may not sizzle very much when the votes are counted, but there is little doubt that her presence has added some novelty value to West Bengal's predictable contests where the Communists romp home, election after election.

Nafisa Ali
Nafisa Ali rejects the 'Delhi socialite' tag

I ask her whether her rivals have been putting her down as a lightweight socialite from Delhi trying her luck at the polls in a politically conservative Communist state.

"I don't know, but Mamata Banerjee has been telling people at meetings, 'Don't vote for Nafisa. She will run back to Delhi after the polls!'."

Nafisa tells me how she hates the socialite label given to her by Delhi's pulp-hungry newspapers.

"I am a normal person. I dress simply. I don't wear expensive jewels. I have even stopped going out. The media is so arrogant," she insists.

Small groups of people flock to her jeep.

"I will stalk you madam," says a dishevelled smiling young man. "I will stalk you till you provide me with a job. Give me your address."

'No worries

At the far end of the town, rival Mamata Banerjee exudes a quiet confidence on her home turf - she won by over 200,000 votes in the last elections.

But analysts say she's skittish about her party's prospects.

Mamata Banerjee
Mamata Banerjee appears unworried by Nafisa Ali

West Bengal in a state which has been reduced to a industrial wasteland. Joblessness is high and the state of education, health and infrastructure is appalling.

On the podium her face is dwarfed by a huge portrait drawn a fan as she launches into an emotional speech against West Bengal's ruling Communists.

It is a speech laced with fears of persecution, a pitch for Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and a dig at the Communists.

"They say I tear my clothes deliberately to be known as anti-rich. I want to ask the Communists: 'How do you manage to wear those shiny dresses?'"

She says she always worries about the people and leads a simple life.

"I don't sleep at night. I surf news television, paint and write. I don't fly first class. I don't claim allowances."

That night, Mamata Banerjee doesn't even mention Nafisa Ali. She seems to have no worries on that count.

When the votes are counted on Thursday, she'll find out if her confidence is justified.

India votes 2004: Full in-depth coverage here

Cabinet members Old faces return
Gandhi family loyalists back in from the cold, but no fresh blood in cabinet.




Ask the expert




The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific