The politics of the ethical
On the campaign trail with Mallika Sarabhai as she tries to put in practice a cleaner, more ethical and accountable politics…
She is already victorious, because she chose to engage with electoral politics… with independence, grace, and integrity.
Not pulling her punches: Mallika Sarabhai making a point in Ahmedabad.
Amidst the colour, din, dust and heat that typically mark elections in this chaotic, flawed but ultimately robust democracy — the largest in the world — there are always glimmerings of hope. During the current general elections held in the summer of 2009, one of these is the unexpected decision of a leading classical dancer, Mallika Sarabhai, to stand as an independent candidate, against one of the Prime Ministerial hopefuls, L.K. Advani, from Gandhinagar. This constituency has consistently returned him with large margins for many recent elections. Mallika’s battle has captured segments of the popular and intellectual imagination.
She explained that her decision was to establish the possibilities of a “politics of the ethical”. Her candidacy was an invitation to a new mode of politics. It was to challenge and establish ethical processes of politics: “the means, the culture and aesthetics of politics, (and for)… raising issues that concern us as citizens. The means have to be fair, democratic, just, civil, non-violent, and therefore transparent”.
Her announcement elicited endorsements of support from many corners of the country, firstly because of her brave, outspoken and ethical stand against the communal carnage that shamed Gujarat in 2002. It was her voice which first rang out with the words: I accuse. “I stand amidst the ruins of civilisation as I knew it… For, they have taken away my pride at being a human being… They have taken away my joy of belonging to a land of understanding and compassion.” She lamented the silence and complicity that enabled the massacre, and spoke of her own sense of guilt. “For letting myself become part of that silence. For trusting incorrectly. For letting everyday inanities dull myself to the genocide being planned and executed”. This earned her a great amount of credibility and admiration, more so because she did not waver despite a battery of harassment mounted by the State government.
For this reason, Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, himself one of the most credible moral voices among living Indians, notes that since Mallika “waged a spirited and consistent struggle on various fronts — judicial, social, cultural, political — against the forces of communalism and majoritarian extremism in the State”, he feels confident that if elected she will “uphold the secular and democratic principles as enshrined in our Constitution”.
But what has also won her a great deal of support is the idea that a person of privilege and accomplishment, but also of undoubted integrity, can choose to leap into what many regard as a cesspool of electoral politics. She echoes the despair of the majority of Indians with the state of our electoral politics: the “corruption and criminalisation everywhere” in mainstream political parties. “They are forever indulging in horse-trading and it has only become a game of numbers. The citizen is forgotten in this ‘game’. In the Lok Sabha of 2004-2009, there were 128 MPs facing criminal charges out of the total 534. Is that not shameful? We need to change this.”
Being the change
Her decision to contest derives from her realisation that she can alter the sickness of electoral politics in India only by participating in it; by attempting to adhere to ethical rules, and still surviving. “For very long now, politics has become a space for politicians and not for you and me. I have been waiting for long for things to change, for good people to come into politics and change the system. I realised that people with integrity do not want to enter politics because it has become such a dirty word. I decided to change that.”
Mallika believes that independent candidates like her can “bring a different style, a different sensitivity, a more personal concern to governance, to the questions of deprivation and exclusion, to the very idea of suffering”. It is this promise of the possibility of clean, ethical and sensitive, accountable politics that has generated much hope and expectation riding on her shoulders. Many like Anu Aga, herself a voice of conscience in Indian industry, have endorsed her candidature, declaring, “I am glad that people like you have decided to join politics. India needs you”. Hundreds of young people from within and outside Gujarat have volunteered to support her campaign, and I found them cheerfully braving the heat of Ahmedabad, dancing, beating drums, distributing pamphlets, urging people in homes and on the streets to vote for Mallika Sarabhai.
I followed Mallika on her campaign trail for a couple of days, and was riveted by the ease with which she related with the people in her constituency. She was assured, energetic, and empathetic: not seeming a novice greenhorn politician, but one born to the vocation. She spent eight hours every day on the road, most of it on foot, often running between settlements, leaving her young volunteers trailing and breathless. Her campaign team estimated that she has personally met in the first 25 days of her campaign more than a hundred thousand voters in 125 villages and city settlements.
Her volunteers lead with the beat of drums, others dance and people gather. In high-rise housing colonies in Ahmedabad, they collect in their verandahs, and listen to her from there. Mallika speaks to them from her hand-held microphone, or individually in small groups. She dwells on how established political parties have failed them. In 20 years, a small seed grows into a tree, she says, and you can rest in its shade. But in 60 years of Independence, political parties have alternately come to power, but have failed to provide you even clean drinking water, drains, toilets, work, food, schools, hospitals, and security for women. You deserve better, she declares, and they agree. If they work together, she promises, change is possible.
A new aesthetics
In announcing her candidature, Mallika had talked not just about experimenting with new means and a culture of politics, but also a new aesthetics, and this last was clearly evident in all her public meetings. The colours of her campaign were carefully chosen, and she explained them to her audience. White, she said, stood for non-violence, because she opposes the use of violence, both in public and domestic spaces. Purple is the international colour of women’s rights. And red is the colour of blood of all human beings, regardless of their faith, caste or wealth. She explains the significance of her election symbol, the harmonium. “Each note of it is separate, just as we are separated by our caste, religion, gender. But only when they are in harmony together do they produce music”. She ends all her campaign meetings by breaking into Gujarati folk dances, and many in the audience join in. She believes that elections must also be a celebration.
She tells me that she has seen so much human suffering and deprivation in this past month of campaigning that it is now impossible for her to turn her back to her people. At the time I write, and probably when you read this, we will not know how many votes have been cast in favour of Mallika Sarabhai. But she is already victorious, because she chose to engage with electoral politics against a formidable contestant, and demonstrated that it is possible to do so, with independence, grace, verve and integrity. And in trying to walk the path of a politics of the ethical, she has crafted authentic hope.
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