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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Beauty Pageant Stirs Political Beasts

BANGALORE, India -- India's "garden city'' may never have been an ideal spot for the Miss World pageant, what with its water shortages, power failures and air quality of a bus terminal. But not even the most dour of pessimists expected mayhem of this sort, with the contest being assailed as a merchandising device for the decadent cultural imperialists of the West.

Fanatical protesters threatened to immolate themselves in the streets -- and one has already done so. Commandos smeared cow dung in public places. And militant farmers have promised to burn down the cricket stadium, the very arena where the queen is to be crowned as 2.5 billion people watch on global television.

Dozens of groups have come out against the Nov. 23 extravaganza. Beauty contests make for strange bedfellows, and this one has brought together modern feminists and turn-back-the-clock Hindu nationalists, left-wing students and right-wing politicians. Already, the swimsuit competition has been chased out of the country to the more hospitable Seychelles islands.

"Today it's Miss World; tomorrow it's electrolysis, liposuction, artificial eyes and face-lifting,'' said Pramila Nesargi, a right-wing state legislator.

M.D. Nanjundaswamy, the socialist leader of the farmers group, said: "The degeneracy of the West needs to be corrected, not exported.''

Defenders of the pageant -- and they enjoy the sympathy of most Indians -- find it hard to believe an event so trivial has provoked such a tumult. What about India's poverty? What about illiteracy? What about official corruption?

But to many, the Miss World contest is symbolic of something far more substantial, for what was once a stream of Western influences has recently become a gush. Embraced by some, deplored by others, change is penetrating India's soul. East is East and West is West, but now the twain have met.

Two great thresholds have been crossed in the '90s, one in the marketplace and the other on television.

Five years ago, this nation shrugged off the last vestiges of Nehru-era socialism and enacted reforms that welcomed the global economy. Executives of multinationals rushed to India like the British sahibs.

How could they resist? The potential of this market would speed the heartbeat of any merchant. One in every six people on Earth lives in India, and while 730 million of them have little in their pockets, an estimated middle class of 200 million has rupees to spare for consumer goods.

Among current sentiments is the suspicion that India has become a dumping ground for the West's rejects, and the Miss World pageant surely fits the bill. In 1990, after 39 years in London, declining interest forced the contest into a nomadic existence. It has since wandered to Atlanta and Sun City -- South Africa's answer to Las Vegas -- before making its current stop in Bangalore, a south India metropolis of 6 million with a booming computer industry.

Miss World promoters do not want their pageant confused with the rival Miss Universe affair, which was held last May in Las Vegas. The major distinction, they insist, is that Miss World's motto is "beauty with a purpose,'' the purpose being charity. About 10 percent of the profit -- an estimated $1 million -- will go to the Spastics Society of Karnataka, Bangalore's home state.

Bachchan thought this charitable gesture would be enough to subdue any likely opposition -- and this may well have been so. But when the sniping began, Karnataka's chief minister, J.H. Patel, inadvertently poured gas on the fire, defending the contest with the words: "If women want to show themselves in the nude, let them [and] let those who want to see, see.''

The statement predictably provoked the ire of feminists, some of whom have held their noses long enough to join fundamentalists at the protest rallies that have spread across the country in anticipation of the event.

For two months, the controversy has been a staple on India's front pages, delighting several gadflies and small-time politicians whose threats and invective are usually not taken so seriously. "The fury of the mob cannot be controlled,'' said the newly important legislator Nesargi of the Bharatiya Janata Party.