India

Kiran Bedi: Can India's tough ex-policewoman win Delhi election?

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Media captionCorrespondent Geeta Pandey followed Kiran Bedi on the campaign trail

Kiran Bedi, retired policewoman-turned-politician, is India's governing Bharatiya Janata Party chief ministerial candidate for the Delhi elections this weekend. The BBC's Geeta Pandey trails her on the election campaign to assess her chances.

On a warm February afternoon, as Kiran Bedi sets out on a lively roadshow in Connaught Place in the heart of Delhi with drummers and folk dancers, a few hundred young supporters enthusiastically cheer her on.

"Bedi... Bedi... Bedi," they shout.

The BJP has promised to turn Delhi into a "world-class city" by completely revamping its infrastructure and making it safe for women.

"This is a fight between truth and lies," Ms Bedi tells her supporters. "I will bring the police, prosecution, parents and teachers together to fight crimes against women. I will work to the best of my abilities, I will work very hard."

In recent years, Delhi has been in the spotlight for several high-profile rape cases. Many of her supporters say perhaps what the city needs is a tough former policewoman to fix it.

'Legend'

"She is a good person and she will work to improve women's safety. I will vote for her," says college student Zeba Khan.

Kiran Bedi, 65, comes with the perfect pedigree.

Image copyright Press Trust of India
Image caption Ms Bedi has kept a gruelling schedule, holding road shows and addressing rallies across the city

India's first woman police officer, she was known for being tough on criminals and traffic violators, and was awarded the President's Police Medal for Gallantry.

Reports that she used a crane to tow away a car that belonged to then prime minister Indira Gandhi "for wrong parking" turned her into a legend of sorts.

Her project to reform hardened prisoners as head of Delhi's notorious Tihar jail brought her global acclaim and won her the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award.

So three weeks ago, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah inducted her into the party and named her their candidate for chief minister, it seemed like they had a winning formula.

But just days before the vote - due on 7 February - it's obvious things haven't gone to plan and the BJP's strategy seems to be unravelling.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Anti-corruption campaigner Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) are running a tight race

Ms Bedi is challenged by Delhi's former chief minister and anti-corruption campaigner Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).

The two have worked together as anti-corruption campaigners, but they have fallen out in recent months.

Soon after her nomination, Mr Kejriwal challenged her to a public debate - a request Ms Bedi denied, saying her former colleague wanted to use the opportunity to throw "muck" at her.

Critics, however, say she shied away from a debate because she is no match for the AAP leader. According to almost all pre-election polls, he is expected to win the election.

Image caption Zeba Khan (right) believes that Kiran Bedi will work to make Delhi safe for women

Analysts say a panicked BJP parachuted in Ms Bedi to halt the AAP leader's march, but if she was meant to be the BJP's trump card, it doesn't seem to be working - with some in the party describing her even as a "liability".

At the BJP office, party workers sidle up to tell me how senior leaders are frustrated that an "outsider" has been brought in to lead them.

A few days ago, one of her senior campaign managers quit accusing her of being "dictatorial", although he was later persuaded to rejoin.

A senior leader says in the last few days, she has been asked to avoid journalists after a series of gaffes. "She talks too much and gets carried away," he said.

Writing for the NDTV channel, analyst Mukul Kesavan accused her of "humourless self-righteousness" - an unattractive quality in a politician.

Also, ever since Ms Bedi entered politics, there has been greater scrutiny of her past and it appears that at least some of the stories that catapulted her to fame were not entirely true.

Image copyright Press Trust of India
Image caption As polling day approached, BJP leaders put up a brave front publicly, insisting they would win

In a television interview last week, she was forced to admit that it wasn't she who towed away a car belonging to Indira Gandhi's fleet, but an officer who worked under her. The story also appeared a lot less glamorous once it became known that at the time of the incident, Mrs Gandhi was not even in the country.

Over the past three weeks, Ms Bedi has been keeping a gruelling schedule, traversing the length and breadth of the city.

Everywhere, she tries to connect with the voters by talking of her past "glories", when she was a "gutsy police officer" who took on powerful people, but it seems many voters are looking for something more.

Image caption Dozens of young women wearing saffron caps and carrying BJP flags participated in Ms Bedi's roadshow

At her road show in Connaught Place, there are dozens of young women wearing saffron caps and carrying party flags, but they are not all BJP supporters. At least two of them tell me they are going to vote for Mr Kejriwal.

I ask them why then are they cheering the BJP candidate? "We have our reasons," they say, refusing to elaborate.

Bhola Ram Patel, who sells cheap hand-made shoes from the footpath nearby, says the BJP has hired the women for 500 rupees ($8; £5) a day. Asked to respond, the women do not deny the charge.

With just 24 hours before the polls open, BJP leaders are putting up a brave front publicly, saying they will sweep to victory.

But in private, senior leaders admit a win seems out of reach and that Ms Bedi is not the leader who can deliver Delhi to the BJP.

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