Nafisa Ali, Samajwadi Party candidate from Lucknow, has a secret weapon hard-nosed politicians have no clue about. Her arsenal — the power of giggles, charm and accent — has political rival Lalji Tandon of the Bharatiya Janata Party, taking cover behind the Ramjanmabhoomi movement and trying to refocus the election from the personal to the religious. “She can’t pronounce Babri Masjid,” is the first arrow off Tandon’s quiver. Her faulty Hindi pronunciation is the second.
The 53-year-old social activist, actress and swimming champion is brushing it all off. “When one can get as much work done with laughter and kindness, I don’t understand the need for accusations and abuses, especially in politics,” she says. What are her Lakhnavi credentials, one asks. Food and sports it seems, as she delves into her past for evidence. “I am not an outsider here,” says Nafisa Ali. “My bonding with the city dates back to my school days. As a student of La Martiniere Girls, Calcutta, I used to come here every alternate year to take part in swimming competitions…I used to hate vegetarian food. Once, when I was here for a competition, we friends decided to have a non-vegetarian meal. We dodged our schoolteachers and went to the market but were caught. We were reprimanded but the complaint never reached my parents. My principal was such a wonderful person,” she said with a chuckle as Nafisa’s mother Philomena Torresan looks on. So does the owner of the famous Tunde Ke Kebab restaurant where one suspects the meat-eating took place.
Nafisa Ali is a woman of many parts. Miss India 1976, she is the daughter of photographer Ahmed Ali. Her grandfather was the Bengali writer, S.Wajid Ali. Her mother is Christian. It is perhaps this amalgamation of cultures that has made her at ease with herself, with or without the Hindi. As she files her nomination papers, there are whispers about her signatures. She is nonchalant. “You speak fine Hindi,” remarks a person, one of the many curious hangers-on that are a permanent fixture in starry campaigns. To that, Nafisa replies sportingly: “For now, focus on empowering the youth”. A lady walks upto her reminding her about the days when they used to swim together at the Dalhousie Club. “Right now I want you to help improve the voter turnout. It can’t be as low as 34 percent in UP’s capital,” Nafisa says smilingly. “It’s the question of empowerment of the masses. Surely you cannot allow the capital of UP to be so laidback…How can people take holiday on a day when they should be electing the candidate of their choice?”
This campaign will not be without catcalls. But the wife of renowned Polo player and Arjuna awardee, retired Col R.S. Sodhi, knows that her children are watching her. “Children learn from observing their parents and their commitments to their family and country as a whole,” says the mother of three — Armana (28), Piya (22) and son Ajit Ahmad. (20).
April 9 was important for her. Her son was born that day. It’s also the day when she filed her nomination papers to test her second electoral destiny — from Lucknow. (She had contested the South Kolkata seat on a Congress ticket in 2004 against Mamata Banerjee). In Lucknow will she carry the day? Will she survive the campaigning? Old friends like businessman-politician Luv Bhargawa says, “I told her as a social activist, you are in a good league. But politics is a dirty game.”
For now, Nafisa Ali is giving it all she has. It takes a strong person to swim against the current. Any dead fish will float with it.