GHAZIABAD, INDIA // Wearing a snow white salwar kameez suit and chunky gold jewellery, Daya Rani, a eunuch, sits in her campaign office giving instructions to her team for the day of canvassing ahead. Those gathered - about 20 men and other eunuchs - hang on her every word. With a few weeks to go before India's national parliamentary elections, in which Ms Rani, 50, is a candidate, her office in the north Indian industrial city of Ghaziabad is constantly abuzz with visitors and supporters chalking out plans for campaigning across the constituency.
"Instead of mounting a stage and addressing stereotypical rallies, I prefer to tour through localities on a door-to-door campaign," Ms Rani told her campaign team. "It's strenuous but it's the best way to build a solid relationship with people and win votes. "You have to make people believe we will care for them [if we win]. We do not make hollow promises like most politicians." Ms Rani, who has lost in parliamentary and Delhi assembly elections in the past, is up against such heavyweights as Rajnath Singh, president of the BJP, the Hindu nationalist party, and Surendra Prakash Goel, a sitting Congress MP, this time around, yet she is hopeful of faring better.
"Roads are in bad shape, power cuts have reached horrific levels and women are scared to go outside alone. The sitting MP has done nothing to improve the quality of people's lives in Ghaziabad. This time people want to elect a new representative," said Ms Rani, who recently launched her own political party, Sarva Samaj Sewa Samiti [All Community Welfare Society], with herself as the chief. "Compared to previous campaigns, more people are coming forward to convey their best wishes and pledge their support for me. I stand a good chance this time."
Ms Rani's attempt to become a parliamentarian marks another step towards social acceptance for India's most isolated community, known as the "hijras", who number at least one million in the country. Often dressed in colourful women's clothes, jewellery and heavily made-up, hijras are a common sight in Indian cities and towns. Most hijras, almost all of whom believe they were born female, have been castrated and many have hormone-induced or surgically developed breasts. They refer to themselves as women and take female names.
Hijras in India date to the Mughal empire, where thousands were employed in royal courts as attendants of nobles and guardians of harems. But as soon as the royal quarters vanished, the hijras lost their role and influence. Today, hijras live on the margins of society earning their livings singing at weddings, blessing newborns and collecting cash "gifts" on auspicious occasions. They can often be found begging on trains and in the streets. In recent years, as hijras have looked to enter university or get government jobs, many have taken to prostitution to earn more money. The group demands that a certain percentage of government jobs be set aside for hijras.
An increasing number of hijras have also found an unlikely niche in Indian politics and at least half a dozen hijras have been elected as municipal councillors and even mayors in recent years. Hijras across the country rejoiced when in 2000 Shabnam Maosi became the first eunuch to be elected as a state assembly member in Madhya Pradesh. People fed up with corrupt politicians sometimes vote for eunuchs to snub established political parties.
Having no family ties and rarely owning any substantial properties, eunuchs are more able to portray themselves as servants of the people. Ms Rani said that despite having little education, she has political credibility. "I have no children of my own or anyone to look after, so, unlike other politicians I shall not grab all the money and I could never be accused of nepotism. I shall spend everything on my people," said Ms Rani, who lives with about a dozen eunuchs in a crowded Ghaziabad house.
"We the hijras are free from the biases of caste, community and class, and would genuinely work for poor and common people. This is another reason why we make better leaders." While support for eunuch politicians may not yet be widespread, disenchantment with corrupt politicians is. Mohammad Talib, 40, who works in a halal restaurant in the vicinity, believes eunuchs are less corrupt, more sincere and should be in administration.
"Our politicians beg us for votes during elections and don't show up after they win. For years [even before joining politics] Daya Rani always tried to help poorer people in our locality. We are confident that she can help us more if she becomes more powerful. We shall vote for her, indeed." While observers agree that running against such opponents as Mr Goel and Mr Singh in the high-profile constituency weaken Ms Rani's chances of winning, she and her supporters believe she can still pull off a surprise victory.
"The Congress MP and the BJP chief are supported by big parties and they are campaigning in grand style. But despite my low-profile campaign I know people from all communities love me and I stand a good chance this time," Ms Daya Rani said. Neelam, a eunuch and supporter of Ms Rani, said in a typical hijra style: "You don't need genitals for politics, you need brains. And our leader [Daya Rani] has plenty of those."