The 17th Lok Sabha has 78 women MPs. At approximately 14 per cent, this is the highest representation of women MPs since Independence. Of these, 46 women are first-time MPs — including Bhubaneswar MP Aparajita Sarangi and Karur (Tamil Nadu) MP S Jothimani. Both of them made it to the House without any political connections. While Sarangi, a former IAS officer, defeated BJD’s Arup Patnaik, Jothimani, who has been with Congress for 23 years, took on former Lok Sabha deputy speaker M Thambidurai of the AIADMK and won by over four lakh votes
COOMI KAPOOR: What inspired you to fight elections?
APARAJITA SARANGI: I was in the Indian Administrative Service for nearly 25 years. I was last posted as Joint Secretary in the Ministry for Rural Development. I handled the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Gurantee Scheme (MGNREGS) for five years… But after 25 years, one day, while sitting with my family, I asked myself if I would like to step onto a bigger platform from where I could serve the people better. That is when I decided to join politics… My family, seniors in the bureaucracy, and others helped me take the decision.
COOMI KAPOOR: Did you approach the BJP or did the party approach you?
SARANGI: It was a mutual love affair. There were three parties — the Congress, the BJD, which has been ruling Odisha for 20 years, and the BJP… The Congress was out of the question because there is a leadership crisis in the party. The BJD was counting its last days… What does one look at when joining a party? You look at the objective. The objective of the BJP is development and that attracted me. I admire Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s work, determination, willpower, transparency and accountability.
S JOTHIMANI: About 23 years ago, politics happened to me all of a sudden. After completing my graduation, I had taken a break because my mother was unwell. I got the opportunity to see what a village actually looked like — the Dalits and the other castes lived separately. In my village, drinking water was in excess, but the Dalits had not been getting it for years.
In 1996, when I was 21, reservation for women was introduced in the panchayati raj system. At the time, I didn’t like politics, but decided to join the Congress. I told my cousin about it, but we didn’t know how to get a ticket. When I told my mother, there was hungama (pandemonium) in the house, and no one helped me. Somehow, my cousin and I managed to find a block president who could give me a ticket. When I went to meet him, I ran into my uncle, who asked me what I was doing there. I said I wanted a ticket. A few Congresspeople from Chennai were there too. My uncle told them not to give me a ticket since I was from his family. All I wanted to do was to get water (for the Dalit families). We didn’t have any other big ideas then. Soon, I was informed that the Congress party had decided to give me a ticket for the panchayat elections.
After I filed my nomination, I never told anyone about the reason I was fighting the elections… When I visited three-four Dalit villages, I realised that the panchayat elections are not like the other elections. It was a difficult task. So I thought I would get water for the Dalit homes and then quit politics and pursue my education. Then, just like in the parliamentary elections, I got a huge mandate.
When I went to the panchayat office, I found that there was no power, money, nothing. When I said I fought the elections to get drinking water for Dalit homes, many were irritated since they were from other castes. Earlier, I thought (getting drinking water to Dalit homes) would be a 15-day job, but I had to fight three polls before the issue was finally resolved.
When Rahulji (Gandhi) took charge of the Youth Congress, he found out how difficult it was to get a ticket, how the doors of politics are closed to 98 per cent of the people. He would say in internal meetings, “I am a symptom of the disease”. He sent a team of young MPs across India to find people like me, who believed in changing the political system.
After working in the party for many years, I realised that while it is good for all of us to maintain status quo, we must fight it. I would ask him (Gandhi) whether we will see the change in our lifetime. He said it doesn’t matter. He convinced people like me and so we are still fighting.
COOMI KAPOOR: Is being a woman a disadvantage in politics?
SARANGI: Not at all. In fact, I’m very proud to be a woman. In fact, it is an advantage being a woman. When I went for door-to-door campaigning, I could go inside the kitchen or the bedroom of a woman. I would draw women out from behind their doors… If you’re a woman, you can go and talk to them and that’s what I did… Women are more sensitive. They understand problems and comprehend them in a much better way.
JOTHIMANI: There is an advantage as well as a glass ceiling… When a man fights for justice, he has to fight for justice alone. But women have to fight for gender also… You have to prove your mettle so that you are not taken for granted.
LIZ MATHEW: After attending Parliament, have you found anything that has surprised or shocked you?
SARANGI: It has been too short a period. When I decided to quit my job in the IAS and join politics, I was apprehensive. I was planning to join the BJP in Odisha but I was scared. But there was a very good atmosphere. Things have changed over time, politics has a lot of good people. After I entered Parliament, I met MPs from different parts of the country. It was an exhilarating experience…. The definition of politics and politicians is changing. We need to study and know a lot more… If you come to Parliament, you should be fully prepared to take part in any kind of debate.
LIZ MATHEW: Jothimani, in 2011, you only wanted to be an MLA. Has parliamentary politics come as a shock to you?
JOTHIMANI: I still want to become an MLA and work in Tamil Nadu. Last time (the 2016 Tamil Nadu Assembly polls), I couldn’t stand for election. So this time (2019 general elections), in spite of opposition from party leaders who believed I could not fight the deputy speaker of the Lok Sabha (the AIADMK’s M Thambidurai), I won.
I’m happy that there are so many women MPs, and young MPs, cutting across party lines. What disappointed me was that when we were taking oath, slogans such as ‘Jai Shri Ram’ were raised… So MPs from Tamil Nadu decided to say ‘Tamil Vaazhga (long live Tamil)’. It has now become an identity issue… India is a federal country, one cannot impose anything on anyone.
COOMI KAPOOR: Did you get the Congress’s nomination only because of Rahul Gandhi’s support?
JOTHIMANI: The Congress’s state president told me that party leaders were opposed to my nomination. But Rahul Gandhi stood his ground. He believed I would win with thumping majority because he knew the work I was doing. He was the only person who stood by me in the central election committee…
COOMI KAPOOR: How tough was the contest against M Thambidurai?
JOTHIMANI: M Thambidurai is an icon in Karur. But I have been working in the district for 23 years. The people there know me well… The day I filed my nomination, many people tried to stop me. The collector called me at 1 am to tell me that he was going to recommend the cancellation of polls. Next morning, Abhishek Manu Singhvi and Kapil Sibal visited the Election Commission’s office. We literally fought a battle everyday. As the DMK is our alliance partner, the party’s district secretary, Senthil Balaji, and I decided that we would not resort to violence. We ran a very positive campaign…. On the last day of the campaign, they (workers of other parties) arrived with iron rods to beat the people who had assembled. About 98 per cent were women. So while they were threatening, the women stood there like a disciplined army. That was the moment we realised that the margin was going to be high. It made us more determined.
SHALINI NAIR: What is your stand on the women’s reservation Bill?
JOTHIMANI: I’m actually for 50 per cent (reservation for women). We should bring it. I have worked across India… A lot of women want to join politics. We should do justice to them. In Panchayati Raj, there is 33 per cent reservation for women. Many block panchayat chairpersons, district panchayat chairpersons and panchayat presidents are women….
SARANGI: When we talk about women empowerment, why should we always think only of reservation? There are many ways in which women can be empowered… We have to create a favourable environment where women can grow up and get the right kind of education. Reservation is not the only answer. But women form 50 per cent of the population and we need to help them. When debates and discussions on this issue are held, the party will take a stand. This government supports women empowerment.
SHALINI NAIR: What is your opinion on the demand to provide proportional representation for SC/STs and OBCs in the women’s Bill?
JOTHIMANI: I personally agree with them. Within the Panchayati Raj reservation, there is SC/ST reservation. For me, it would have been very difficult without reservation. It is very difficult for SC/ST women.
RAVISH TIWARI: When bureaucrats enter politics, does it not create a suspicion among people that they would have been partial during their tenure?
SARANGI: Not at all. We are guided by the Government Servants’ Conduct Rules and the Constitution when in service. As a bureaucrat, I thought of the job at hand and the people for whom I had to work. I also thought of the government, for whom I was working, and not the party. But once I decided to quit and join a party, that was my personal decision. So these are two different things. I don’t see it as a disservice.
RAVISH TIWARI: Following the Congress’s defeat in the general elections, what is your assessment of the party and Rahul Gandhi?
JOTHIMANI: As an insider, I don’t think there is a crisis. I am from Tamil Nadu… I have seen J Jayalalithaa (former Tamil Nadu CM, AIADMK chief) lose. At one point in time every Tamilian hated her. But situations in politics keep changing. It is important to stick to principles and ideology. As far as Rahulji is concerned, he is a man who always stands his ground. He never changed his ideology. He is not hungry for power. I’ve worked with him for almost seven years now. Many people wonder what he did in the last 10 years — he built people like me. He built the Congress.
For the last 30 years, we provided good governance but we didn’t take care of the party. Our party organisation slowly receded in many states. There were no local leaders in many states for 30 years… Now you can see that in every state there are four or five people like me who understand the state better.
AMRITH LAL: The ethos of the politics in Tamil Nadu is drawn from the Dravidian movement. How does the Congress plan to grow in the state without aligning with the DMK or AIADMK?
JOTHIMANI: If you look at Kerala, for instance, the KPCC (Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee) is not an extension of the AICC (All India Congress Committee). The KPCC is a completely different unit. So when we work in a particular state, we have to be the voice of people of that particular state… It was the K-plan (former Tamil Nadu CM K Kamraj’s plan) which was a disaster for us. It was the biggest mistake the Congress made, when Kamaraj and our stalwarts stepped down.
It (the revival of the party) has taken a lot of time in Tamil Nadu and even in Karnataka. So there is a gap in leadership… For many years, we had been an extension of the AICC, which people like me are opposed to… We personally feel that the Congress should have a state-specific agenda. I feel there is a chance for the Congress to regain whatever it lost. It’s our mistake, not the mistake of the people of Tamil Nadu. We never talked about the Central schemes. For example, if you ask about MGNREGA, they (the people of Tamil Nadu) will either say Karunanidhi or Jayalalithaa introduced it. Only a handful may say Sonia Gandhi brought it.
Then there is the identity issue. If you ask me who I am, I will say I am a Tamil. That’s how I feel and that is my root. Tamil is my language and culture. That’s where I am from. Then I see myself as an Indian. I feel my Indian identity includes my Tamil identity. But the moment I say I am a Tamil, it is also a kind of Indian identity. So the Congress failed to understand the sentiments of the people. And that is why we are losing in many states. But being part of a new generation of young leaders, we are very clear about the original ideology of India and the Congress. The idea of India is no different from that of the Congress.
LIZ MATHEW: Aparajita, what are your views on Rahul Gandhi?
SARANGI: He is not sure of himself. He lacks confidence. He should lead from the front, which he doesn’t. He’s an escapist. Prime Minister Modi is a role model not only for me but for all BJP supporters. There is no comparison between the leader of the BJP and the leader of the Congress. Rahul Gandhi is no longer the party president now. But why did he leave and not lead from the front? He should have owned up the defeat, sat with young leaders like Jothimani who have the potential and energy. When I see him in Parliament, he appears to be someone who is always afraid of being attacked. I think he lacks confidence and doesn’t come prepared to the Lok Sabha. He never participates in any discussion. MPs must come to Parliament after a good deal of reading.
LIZ MATHEW: Jothimani, what is your opinion of PM Modi?
JOTHIMANI: I see him as someone who is scared to face direct questions… I feel he is despotic, doesn’t want to listen to anyone, and controls and centralises everything. We have never had a prime minister like him. I have been closely watching him since 2002.
He has a strategy and the party is winning elections, but the Congress also won elections for 50 years. That did not make the Congress arrogant. He is someone who follows people (on Twitter) who are abusing and giving rape threats. He brings down the office of the prime minister… None of the development issues figured in the 2019 campaign; it was completely polarised.
COOMI KAPOOR: Aparajita, do you agree that development didn’t figure in the BJP’s 2019 election campaign?
SARANGI: When I was a bureaucrat, I was working under the direction of Prime Minister Modi. I know his working style much better than many of the people who are outside the government. The kind of transformation brought to MGNREGA is enough of an indication of his administrative abilities. The scheme was in a sad state when he took over in May 2014. And not only MGNREGA, we have grown in different sectors — be it digital technology, ensuring transparency and accountability, or completing pending projects. And where is the dictatorship? The Prime Minister takes everybody’s opinion into account. And why should he be seen as someone who doesn’t talk to the press? He is such a wonderful communicator. The UPA-II regime had a prime minister who was silent. Do we need that kind of a PM?
He has been emphasising on transparency… When PM Modi came to power in May 2014, the way funds were allocated changed. He took into consideration the performance of the states. Whichever state performs well, gets more money… And the mandate says it all. The BJP got 303 seats.