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The Rediff Election Interview/Lalitha Kumaramangalam

May 12, 2004

Lalitha Kumaramangalam, the Bharatiya Janata Party's national secretary and its candidate from Pondicherry, is the first woman to contest a Lok Sabha election from the constituency. She has a formidable task ahead: the seat is a Congress bastion with a strong Pattali Makkal Katchi presence. She takes on the PMK's M Ramadass.

What helps her along is her maiden name --áher father Mohan Kumaramangalam, steel and mines minister in Indira Gandhi's Cabinet till his death in an aircrash in 1973, was elected from here on a Congress ticket in 1971 ľ plus, she hopes, support from the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, and superstar Rajnikanth's appeal to his fans to defeat the PMK.

Lalitha is the sister of Rangarajan Kumaramangalam, former power minister and BJP MP from Tiruchirappalli in neighbouring Tamil Nadu.

The BJP has never been a factor in Pondicherry. As part of the electoral tie-up with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in 1999 it did not contest the seat; it did not contest in 1998, either. It can't be blamed for the decision: in 1996 it had got just 4.4 percent of the vote, a slight increase from 1991 when it got 2 per cent.

Special Contributing Correspondent Shobha Warrier caught up with Lalitha on the campaign trail.

Do you feel like an outsider in Pondicherry? Of course, your father Mohan Kumaramangalam had contested from Pondicherry and won long ago.

My father represented Pondicherry when I was a child, but later my husband had a factory here.

He set up the factory in 1982 when my elder daughter was born and it was named after her. I sold the factory in 2000 after my husband passed away. I couldn't manage it. In fact, today, I was campaigning there, and old memories revisited me. So there is no reason for me to feel like an outsider here because I have been visiting Pondicherry ever since I was a child.

My mother, who was a Bengali, used to visit the Aurobindo Ashram quite often.

Also, when I was made the national secretary of my party, I was also in charge of Pondicherry.

Were you happy when you were given this seat? Or would you have preferred another place?

I was happy because a woman has been given an important seat. There was no reason why I shouldn't be happy. And, you have to work hard in any seat. I am expected to work hard here.

On the whole, I was relieved I was given Pondicherry because it is more urban. There are rural pockets, but still, people are more educated here. Therefore, Atalji's [Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee] and the NDA's name are very well known to the people of Pondicherry.

Another advantage I think I have is, Pondicherry has women voters in the majority and women respond well to a woman candidate. I am convinced this is a good place for me. Actually women's issues have not been taken up at all here till now.

In the last election, you contested from the textile town of Tirupur. Did you feel uncomfortable communicating withárural voters?

No, I didn't feel uncomfortable but it was a comparatively newer place for me, unlike Pondicherry.

Pondicherry till now has supported the Congress. The PMK is also quite strong here. It is said DMK chief M Karunanidhi gave the seat to the PMK because there are a lot of Vanniyars here.

If that is a decisive factor, why didn't the PMK win not even one seat in the last assembly election? They lost all the 10 seats. I see a palpable dissatisfaction with the PMK.

Professor Ramadoss says you are an outsider. How do you react to that?

That's a political campaign and it's very strange the PMK has come up with something like that, because they are part of an alliance whose leaders have openly stated that they want Sonia Gandhi to become prime minister. Now I have never said anything against Sonia because I don't think this campaign should be run on personal issues. I would prefer to answer or talk to Professor Ramadoss if he talked about economic issues. What we need to do for this state or what we need to do for our constituents.

It is because they have nothing else to say against us that they fall back on these silly personal allegations. The fact is I am not an outsider, because I have been coming and going here for many years now. Moreover, I think this issue is totally irrelevant. If they can say Sonia Gandhi will be prime minister of India, then I feel it is hypocrisy if they call me, an Indian, an outsider.

Photograph: Sreeram Selvaraj | Image: Rahil Shaikh

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