“Ram Rajya will begin in Odisha,” says Henarani Singh, a BJD worker in Odisha’s Jagatsinghpur district. “I have first hand seen the outcome of electing a woman politician. With seven women MPs, the BJD’s focus on women’s empowerment and dedicated leadership will get a major boost from 2019.”
Henarani is talking about Odisha Chief Minister and BJD supremo Naveen Patnaik’s promise to allocate a third of the tickets for the state’s 21 Lok Sabha seats to women. Currently the BJD has three women MPs —Sakuntala Laguri (Keonjhar), Pratyusha Rajeshwari Singh (Kandhamal) and Rita Tarai (Jajpur).
Henarani, 47, is the BJD secretary of Tarapur gram panchayat, around 70 km from Bhubaneswar. She grudgingly admits that the three MPs have neither been given any important role in the party nor brought any significant changes in their constituencies. Click here for more Election news
“Yes, I know,” she replies testily as her younger brother Niranjan points out that
“(Narendra) Modi has women ministers handling defence and external affairs, while 20 years of Naveen rule have not seen a top woman minister”.
Niranjan goes on, “After Pulwama, people in Odisha may vote for the BJP in the Lok Sabha polls even while they support Naveen in the Assembly.” Henarani tells him to “keep quiet”. “It is my interview.”
Retaking control of the conversation, Henarani gives the example of a woman BJD leader. “Our local MLA, Dr Rajashree Mallick (Tirtol seat), is an inspiration. When she broke her legs, she used to still attend meetings to monitor how schemes were being run… Women make more dedicated politicians.”
Henarani adds that she herself supervises the running of around 60-80 women Self Help Groups (SHGs) in Raghunathpur block. She also “advises” local SHGs on procurement of loans and timely repayment.
“I am a very busy person,” she says, adding that with elections round the corner, she also mobilises local women to attend BJD rallies. “I do not mobilise men”, Henarani confesses. “There are male BJD workers (for that). Also, Odisha is still patriarchal.”
Giving her own example, Henarani says, “When I got married around 30 years ago, women had no say in Odisha. My husband, who had then just started an acting and music career in local theatre productions, used to earn almost nothing, but he was the authority in our house… The BJD’s pro-women schemes, like Mission Shakti and MAMATA, gave me an excuse to step out. I convinced my husband that I would only avail government benefits.”
The Mission Shakti scheme has been supporting around six lakh SHGs in the state. MAMATA is the state’s conditional cash transfer scheme for pregnant and lactating women.
“I began participating in a local SHG. Today, I lead so many of them that you can ask directions to my house as far as 5 km away. Because of the BJD, I am known and respected today,” Henarani says, throwing a triumphant look at Niranjan, who watches her with amusement.
Henarani says that the BJD government’s decision to reserve 50 per cent seats for women in panchayati raj institutions also went a long way towards getting women respect from families. “Now our husbands know we are worth more than cooks and cleaners.”
However, she herself is not keen for a ticket now, she says, preferring to wait till son Biswaranjan, 21, and Gayatri, 29, get jobs and marry. “As a party worker, I am still master of my own time. Once you get elected, voters become masters,” she says.
As Henarani is talking, someone comes to deliver a gas cylinder, and she pauses the conversation to guide him to the kitchen in her three-room house. Henarani alleges local women have to pay Rs 600 bribe to local officials to avail benefits of Ujjwala, a Central scheme. “The BJP is a cheater party. They promised one thing and delivered another… If I have to pay a bribe to get a subsidy, then how do I gain?”
Her thoughts turn to Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s recent Odisha rally, where he promised free education for girls, monetary assistance during marriage, higher pension for widows and a financial corporation to assist women entrepreneurs.
“Rahul gave a decent proposal,” Henarani assesses. “We women also know that unlike the BJP, the Congress kept its promise on farm loan waivers in three states (Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan).”