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Dancer steps into Indian politics

Mallika Sarabhai campaigning in her constituency
Ms Sarabhai is pitted against one of India's most powerful politicians

Internationally acclaimed classical dancer Mallika Sarabhai is taking on India's main opposition leader LK Advani of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the general elections from Gujarat. The BBC's Soutik Biswas hits the campaign trail with the feisty artiste in Gandhinagar.

A little over a fortnight ago, Mallika Sarabhai woke early one weekday morning and heard what she called an "inner voice".

Over the weekend, a group of NGOs had approached her, promising to back her if she contested the general elections as an independent candidate.

The proposal left the busy Ms Sarabhai in a spin: she had been in the middle of recording a TV quiz involving schoolchildren in western Gujarat state, where she lives and works.

She mulled over the proposal; such invitations were not new to her. Since 1984, she says, the Congress party has approached her at every election to contest its ticket.

"I always turned them down, saying that I was not ready," she says. "And I have never considered contesting an election as an independent because I knew independents have very little chance in our political system."

Mallika Sarabhai campaigning in her constituency
Ms Sarabhai says politics has reached its nadir in India

But this time, the "inner voice" intervened.

"The time is now, the voice told me," says Ms Sarabhai.

This is how she finds herself in the maelstrom of an Indian election. This is also how she finds herself pitted against the leader of the main opposition BJP and prime ministerial candidate LK Advani in the Gandhinagar constituency.

"This is how," says Ms Sarabhai, "within 15 days my life has changed. I have been doing 16-hour workdays and already have met over 100,000 people in my campaign."

We are sitting in her tasteful red-brick office near a thriving performing arts academy that India's most celebrated independent politician has built on the banks of the Sabarmati, which flows through the city of Ahmedabad.

"I am not ruling out a win. I might get one vote or I may get 500,000 votes. But I am going to fight. Politics has reached its nadir in India," she says, punching away furiously on her BlackBerry.

As a battle between political rivals, the fight for Gandhinagar cannot be more unequal - the Indian version of David and Goliath.

Mr Advani is the 81-year-old veteran of Indian politics. He is the shadow prime minister, leads a conservative Hindu nationalist party and is backed by powerful and rich party machinery.

LK Advani in Gandhinagar
The challenge is formidable - LK Advani is a powerhouse

Ms Sarabhai, 54, is a political greenhorn with no party but a lot of energy and an enviable reputation.

She is India's best known dancer-actor-activist, has an MBA and doctorate from the country's best business school and is the daughter of a renowned space scientist.

She is also the scion of one of the country's most progressive business families, a feisty liberal and a divorced mother of two.

Ms Sarabhai is also putting up a spirited fight with her army of plucky young volunteers.

They sing songs, dance, perform theatre on the streets and use their formidable online networking skills to spread the campaign far and wide.

There are satirical digs at her rival's second name - Advani, in Gujarati, means "don't touch".

"I have no money to fight an election," she says. "But we are managing."

Youthful energy

Ms Sarabhai's snazzy election site solicits donations and publishes data on the contributions - more than 600,000 rupees ($12,000) have poured in in a fortnight, the site says.

Campaign graffiti
Her supporters say she is a symbol for change

There is no lack of pluck. A trenchant critic of the BJP government's "inaction" during the 2002 riots in Gujarat, she was hounded by the state government, who slapped charges of "human trafficking" on her only to drop them after a national outrage.

Now she has challenged Mr Advani to a public debate. For the most part, Mr Advani and his party have ignored her.

But Ms Sarabhai is a consummate performer and communicator: on her walkabouts, she works the crowds, breaking into song and dance, in city neighbourhoods and shantytowns alike.

"She is a symbol of change," says Wilson Battu, a New York-based retail management consultant and friend, who says he helped in the Obama campaign and is now assisting Ms Sarabhai.

The Sarabhai campaign has an element of the hip - a youthful energy not usually associated with Indian politics.

Many of the young volunteers who have signed up for her - numbering about 700 - talk about tips they picked up from the Obama campaign.

What development is the government talking about? Whose development?"
Mallika Sarabhai

Catchy songs specially composed for the campaign blare out of speakers when she hits the road.

A campaign film and a mobile video van to ferry her message around the countryside is in the works.

Volunteers are turned out in the campaign tricolour - red, white and purple - or wearing scarves. The campaign is on Facebook and Twitter.

In the morning, she is working middle-class households in the city in what she calls "network meetings".

"What would we prefer - a clean society or a filthy one?" she asks a group of local denizens who have gathered in a musty room.

When dusk falls and the heat abates, she travels across her sprawling constituency, home to 1.5 million voters and, among other things, the factory making the Nano, the world's cheapest car.

Ms Sarabhai says her campaign has been a learning experience - of what she calls "exploitative and unequal" conditions in what is hyped as India's most economically developed state.

She says she has met struggling government health workers with earnings that violate the state's own minimum wage, and a Muslim driver who wept after she offered him a job because he had been "rejected 40 times because of his religion".

"And 70% of the villages and slums I have visited in my constituency have no toilets. What development is the government talking about? Whose development?"

Campaign badges and stickers show a beaming Ms Sarabhai asking: "Won't you support me? Won't you vote for me."

Three weeks from now, she - and her countless admirers - will know. But even if she loses, Mallika Sarabhai promises to be back - she swears she is not going to be an accidental politician.



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