It is not easy being one of one-tenth in an Assembly. However, on September 22, as Uttar Pradesh marked a first by setting aside the day for only its women MLAs to speak, Ragini Sonkar, one of the Samajwadi Party’s 14 women MLAs, out of a total of 47, ensured that the 403-member House won’t forget her in a hurry.
In the 17 minutes that she had the floor, the 32-year-old MLA from Machhlishahr in Jaunpur district, popularly known as “Doctor Ragini”, spoke about alleged police extortion, failing infrastructure including health, the need for Opposition in a democracy, the government’s false claims of “zero tolerance for corruption”, and to top it, exhorted her women colleagues to speak up, with a pitch-perfect rendition of the Bollywood classic ‘Kuchch toh log kahenge, logon ka kaam hai kehna (People will talk, that’s what people do)’.
It weren’t just MLAs of other parties who were pleasantly surprised. So were fellow colleagues from the SP, a party often accused of having lumpens in its ranks and running a “goonda raj” during its government in UP.
Dr Ragini’s career, on the other hand, has been all but remarkable. The daughter of a former MLA, an MBBS from Kolkata, a postgraduate in ophthalmology from the prestigious AIIMS in Delhi, the 32-year-old is a first-time legislator, who dabbles in poetry on the side, with felicity in Hindi, English and Bhojpuri languages.
Having come into politics within six months of completing her MD, she never got to practise but holds regular camps where she offers her services.
It’s not easy juggling it all, especially in politics, admits Ragini, who is married to a doctor. Her qualifications notwithstanding, she is first and foremost seen as a woman by the people and officials she deals with, she says.
Ragini says she first got interested in politics while accompanying her father, Kailash Nath Sonkar, the former MLA of the Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (SBSP), during tours of his Ajgara constituency in Varanasi in 2017.
Ragini is the eldest of Sonkar’s three daughters, with her two siblings dentists. Her father and other relatives too were not too keen that she enter politics, but her mother stood by her. Finally, Ragini took the plunge after ensuring that she completed her Doctorate in Medicine from AIIMS.
She says that the Covid health crisis further strengthened her resolve to do something for the people. The SP, which tied up with the SBSP in the 2022 polls, decided to field the Dalit leader from the SC reserved constituency of Machhlishahr, which it has won since the 2012 Assembly polls.
Ragini won by over 8,400 votes, despite working on the ground for only months. (The SBSP has since parted ways with the SP.)
Ragini says she was surprised at how easily she was able to connect with the people even back in 2017. “They welcomed me with open arms. Some women wanted me to contest even then, but politics was not on my mind at the time… After I got my MD degree in 2021, within six months, I got the offer from the SP to contest.”
Ragini is excited about the fact that recently, she could help out her constituency courtesy both her professions, when her friends in medicine, including from AIIMS, organised a medical camp in Machhlishahr. Among doctors present were ENT specialists, dentists, ophthalmologists as well as general physicians.
About her speech at the Assembly, Ragini says, “I wanted to say many things in the first session too (held in May), but I was not aware of the House rules. I observed everyone closely. So when the opportunity came to speak, everything I felt poured out.”
About her musical bent, Ragini says she regularly attends mushairas and cultural events, and wishes she had been able to pursue her interest in the field more seriously. However, her singing talent hasn’t gone to waste. “People would often question me asking what I knew about issues or could do about them, being a young woman. But when I sang about the issues, they listened. So I started using songs frequently. This is what I did in the Assembly too, to draw attention of the government towards issues of women and the public.”
While on that day the House was on its best behaviour, applauding their women colleagues, Ragini drew special mention. Her questions on corruption, and police reluctance to file cases involving crimes against women drew an appreciative nod from even the Treasury benches.
Parliamentary Affairs Minister Suresh Khanna noted: “Bahut achche tareeke se Raginiji ne poori baat ko present kiya… Vastav mein aaj jo House ko scene dekhne ko mila… purushon se zyada achche tarike se mahilayen present kar sakti hain (Raginiji put her point across very effectively… Truly, watching the scene today in the House… women can present an issue much better than men).”
SP MLA from Arya Nagar Amitabh Bajpai told The Indian Express that he hoped Ragini’s speech would pave the way for other women candidates, not just to speak up but also to be taken seriously by their parties, including in allotment of tickets. “The SP was aware that Dr Ragini spoke well and hence she was picked as the first to speak from the party at the special sitting. However, we were nervous too, about how much she would be able to counter the ruling party (that outnumbers rivals by a huge majority),” Bajpai said, adding that Ragini had put those doubts to rest.
He said there were lessons for the male counterparts too. “It is important for any legislature to be sensitive towards issues of the public, and women are naturally more sensitive towards others. We saw that in her speech. Moreover, she countered the ruling party not with aggression but with words, like with the poem, ‘Suno Draupadi shastra utha lo, ab Govind na aayenge’.”
The poem urges women to take matters in their own hands rather than wait for a saviour. Congress general secretary in-charge of UP Priyanka Gandhi Vadra used the same poem in her women-focused campaign for the 2022 Assembly polls.
A fellow doctor and rival woman MLA, Dr Surabhi, is also all praise for Ragini. A member of the Apna Dal, which is an ally of the ruling BJP, she was picked to reply to Ragini’s speech that day.
“Senior leaders said, ‘Dr Surabhi, you have to answer back’. I replied to some of her allegations, like inadequate funds for treatment of cancer patients. But, it was a healthy debate,” Surabhi, 38, a dentist, said.
Frankly, she added, it was a pleasure not to have a slanging match, which often intimidates women MLAs into silence. “I hope more women MLAs from the Opposition speak up on issues of the public, such as Indrani Devi. She also spoke well that day, though she only got about 4 minutes,” the Apna Dal leader said.