March 20, 2009 / 11:32 AM / in 8 years

Octogenarian Gandhi disciple puts best foot forward

RANCHI, India (Reuters) - At first glance he looks like India's independence hero Mahatma Gandhi, wearing only a knee-length wraparound and slippers, but Bagun Sumbarai is a seasoned politician bidding for a sixth stint in parliament.

One of the oldest candidates in the general election beginning next month, Sumbarai, 85, treks for miles to woo voters and is hugely popular with the people of Singhbhum district in the eastern state of Jharkhand.

"I believe in my work and follow Gandhiji's ideology. When I was young I witnessed how Gandhiji mobilized people for the freedom of the country," said the bald Sumbarai, who is contesting the election on a ruling Congress party ticket.

India holds its general election from April 16 to May 13, with the main battle between the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, better known as Mahatma Gandhi, pioneered the philosophy of non-violent resistance to British rule in India. He was assassinated by a Hindu radical on January 30, 1948, in New Delhi.

Sumbarai regrets not being able to meet Gandhi but says such was the leader's influence on him that he adopted not only his principles but also his simple sartorial style.

He stopped wearing trousers and shirts when he was 22 and began wearing a short version of the Indian wraparound worn by men, called the "dhoti."

"The secret of my health is yoga and I listen to my heart which keeps me healthy," he said.

Villagers say they love him for his development work and sympathy for the sick, and believe Sumbarai can lead them to prosperity. Many offer him food and water when he goes on his long campaigning treks.

"Bagun is an MP of simple living... Most of the MPs lead a luxurious life but he shares our problems and solves them," said Bhanu Mahato, a voter from Singhbhum.

Writing by Bappa Majumdar; Editing by Krittivas Mukherjee and Paul Tait

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