April 27, 2001


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The Rediff Interview/Lalitha Kumaramangalam

'BJP will take 3-5 years to mature as a national party'
Fortythree-year-old Lalitha Kumaramangalam, daughter of late Mohan Kumaramangalam and sister of Rangarajan Kumaramangalm is the new suave face of the BJP in Tamil Nadu. And the only woman candidate fielded by the BJP in the state.

It was rumoured earlier that she would be the party's candidate from the Trichy Lok Sabha constituency, which fell vacant due to the sudden demise of Rangarajan Kumaramangalam. But she was given the Tirupur assembly constituency instead.

An economics graduate from St Stephens College, Delhi and an MBA from Madras University, she has been running Prakriti, an NGO, for the last decade. She spoke to Shobha Warrier about her decision to join the BJP and plans for a future in politics.

It was rumoured that you would be contesting from the Trichy constituency but then you became the BJP's candidate from Tirupur for the assembly election. Were you disappointed?

No, not at all. That is because I had not personally requested for the Trichy seat. Because it was my brother's stronghold, I think public opinion was in favour of somebody from the family getting the seat. But I feel that I am still new to politics to be given a seat at all. I would rather have waited for another 2-3 years to prove my credibility, apart from just being somebody's sister or daughter.

Three years' hence, there will be no choice, as parties will have to give a certain amount of seats to women. I thought then, I would be in a better bargaining position. In fact, in some ways, I am relieved because a parliamentary seat is something that one aspires for but sometimes, one feels one's aspiration shouldn't be too high.

It is better to start at a low level and learn the job. Only then, will you approach your job in a more disciplined manner. Politics shouldn't be just being a MLA or a MP. To start at the MLA level is perhaps better. The truth is, I didn't want to stand for the assembly election either but I think the party was very keen that they field some women candidates, and as luck would have it, mine was the only name that finally got through all stages. Currently, I am the only woman candidate from the BJP in the assembly election.

Were you uninterested in politics when you were young, even though you are from a very politically active family?

I was but I was never really in active politics. You don't need to have more than one person from the family in politics, especially when that one person is doing well! Since I have been running an NGO for more than 10 years -- which in some ways -- is politics too, though actually that is what a politician should ideally be doing. I mean, service to the society.

Why did you decide to join the BJP? Was it because your brother Kumaramangalam was in that party?

The main reason is that the BJP has a grassroot base.

But not in the southern parts of India...

Perhaps not. But then, why shouldn't people like me join and improve the grass root base? I feel that the Congress has lost touch with the grass roots. The second thing is, being a woman in politics, the BJP is much more, I wouldn't say kinder in terms of patronage, but definitely kinder in terms of decency.

People in politics are expected to make compromises and I have found those situations are much less in the BJP when compared to many other parties.

Your grandfather was in the Justice party, your father was with the communists and your brother was in the Congress first...

Yes, you are right. My grandfather was first in the Justice party and then in the Congress, my father was first with the Communist party and then in the Congress and my brother was first in the Congress and then in the BJP. But I have joined the BJP directly.

Did you think of joining any other party before the BJP?

I was not very keen on joining any regional party and if you look at it from that point, there are only two parties available: the BJP and the Congress. The Congress is too fractured and out of touch with reality. Given the present situation, the BJP is the best party for somebody like me. I think, for most people who want to do some work, the BJP is the party as this is the only party that is in touch with the common man as well as the intelligentsia.

The BJP is described at least by the foreign press as a right wing Hindu nationalist party, and in India, it is touted to be a communal party.

The BJP is looked at as a communal party because we are conscious of the fact that we do bank on the Hindu vote. But then, what we must not forget is that in this country, the Hindus form the majority. I don't come from a family where we think religion or caste is very important.

I also found that there is place in the BJP for people like me who are not really bothered about caste or religion or the language that you speak but who look at you more as an Indian or perhaps to begin with, a Tamilian. My brother also was very much like me, perhaps a little more outspoken. He was more experienced and had more credibility. He was never ever pulled up or pressurized by anybody within the BJP. I think sometimes these impressions are misleading.

A party is made up of different types of people, it has to be. So, there is also place for people who don't talk only about religion, caste, etc. Currently, we have a prime minister who is not a Hindu nationalist or whatever are the words being used. Sometimes, the press does give you labels, which stick. But they don't always need to be true.

Lalitha Kumaramangalam As a person who is with the BJP, how long do you think it will take for the party to come out of these labels?

I think it will take another 3-5 years for us to really mature as a national party and come to terms with what we actually represent. See, we are still new to governance. And, governance is not an easy thing especially when you are determined to set standards in governance.

You said you don't really believe in religion or caste. Did you at any point of time feel uncomfortable in the BJP?

Basically I am a Hindu and I believe in God and follow some of our customs. But I am not superstitious. I am not ritualistic at all. I may go to the temple. I may probably say, you please take your footwear off if you are entering my puja room.

I am fortunate that within the party, nobody has asked me to take a stand between Hindu and non-Hindu. So, I have never felt uncomfortable.

How was your experience campaigning in Tirupur, a place described as a stronghold of the communists because of the number of trade unions in the textile units?

I think it was a stronghold of communists but now, there is a large MDMK presence there. Hindu Munnani, VHP and BJP have grown in the last three years or so. So, lots of parties are strong there. Do you know several of the trade unions were initiated by my father, my aunt and her husband? So, our family is known there.

Is it not going to be a tough fight for you as you are an outsider there?

It is going to be a tough fight. Some people say that it will be easy for me but I am not taking it lightly.

I don't feel like an outsider there as it is a place where my family is known for generations. Opposite parties say that I am an outsider but I will say just because I am not a resident of Tirupur does not make me an outsider. This was said about my brother also when he stood at Trichy. Last year when he died, you should have seen the way Trichy took it to heart. You are an outsider only if you feel you don't belong. And, I don't feel that way.

I have taken a house there now as an NGO, I feel I can do a lot.

You said the MDMK has a strong presence there. Now that Vaiko has come out of the NDA, how is it going to affect you?

Vaiko has said that he would not put up an MDMK candidate against me, or against any BJP candidate.

But Vaiko's exit has affected the image of the NDA, has it not?

There is no problem at the cadre level at all between the MDMK and the BJP.

Photographs: Sanjay Ghosh, Design: Dominic Xavier

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