'I had to submit my resignation from the BJP after just two weeks because they were very regressive.'
'There was no space for a free thinking individual.'
Apsara Reddy made waves when she was appointed general secretary of the All India Mahila Congress.
The former journalist -- she has a degree in journalism from Australia's Monash University, a master's degree in developmental economics from City University, London, and has worked with the BBC and The Hindu -- is the first transgender to hold office in Congress history.
In conversation with Divya Nair/Rediff.com, Apsara reveals why she was forced to quit the Bhartiya Janata Party within two weeks of joining it and why she feels Rahul Gandhi is a better leader for India than Narendra Damodardas Modi.
You have been a journalist. How does it feel to be on the other side of the spectrum -- being the interviewee?
As a journalist I was interested in reporting on public welfare, on human interest stories. I have covered the tsunami (in 2004) and written about the Iraq war and child rape victims.
I have done a lot of investigative reporting on refugees.
I always believed in doing stories that changed people's lives for the better.
Politics is a progression of that interest. Being in politics, I feel, will help me partake in think-tanks and make policy level changes. I see politics as a platform to ensure good change.
You previously worked with the BJP and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. Why did you quit the BJP so soon?
Although my family is deeply rooted in the Congress, I did not choose to enter politics.
I pursued journalism and was working with some of the top companies like the BBC, The Hindu. I did my own talk show (Natpudan Apsara, aired on Thanthi TV).
A few years ago, the BJP had invited me to give an award on Women's Day.
Subsequently, I met Amit (Anilchandra) Shah.
There was a certain discussion I had in Tamil Nadu after which I joined the party (BJP). But I had to submit my resignation after just two weeks because they were very regressive.
There was no space for a free thinking individual.
Then, Madam Jayalalithaa invited me to be the official national spokesperson for the (AIADMK) party.
I served in the AIADMK till I got the opportunity to enter the Congress via Sushmita Devji (president, All India Mahila Congress) who spotted and encouraged me.
The roadmap she had for the women in the party was encouraging, as was the way in which she saw me as a mainstream political player rather than a representative of a fringe community.
She later introduced me to Rahul Gandhi who told me, 'Gender or sexuality is never the issue. It's talent and skillsets that we are after.' He was extremely supportive, encouraging and warm. Hence, I chose the Congress.
How have you prepared for the election? What have your learnings been?
These elections are very decisive for India. It is going to the wipe the tears and take away the trials faced by the poor people, farmers, women, children and Dalits.
The elections are also very crucial to put our country back on track in terms of the narrative, economy, unemployment and women's empowerment.
India has been derailed under Mr Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. The BJP has to go.
While they have been busy tom-toming their yojana, the country is very clearly devising the pradhan mantri hatao yojana.
There is going to a 100 per cent vote for Rahul Gandhiji as the prime minister.
I campaiged across states -- Kerala, Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu. The mood has been overwhelming. People want a fairer, more progressive, government.
People are tired of Modi's lies -- whether it is about the execution of child rape perpetrators, jobs, infrastructure, healthcare...
People are done experimenting with prime ministers like Modi.
He was suddenly transferred from Gujarat to Delhi; before that, he did not have much national exposure. Like, he said in so many of his interviews, he is so keen on dressing up, projecting a certain image and travelling the world.
There is very little service attached to his political career.
Rahul Gandhi, on the other hand, has been on the national stage for a very long time. He has been a grassroots level worker. He has worked with luminaries who have done welfare work. He understands the Indian people and been in their shoes for far longer than Mr Modi.
What are the issues you plan to address if your party comes into power?
One of the primary umbrella issues I am focusing on is unemployment.
There is 7.4% unemployment in India, the highest in 45 years.
Modi had promised 2 crore jobs, which means he should have created 10 crore jobs in five years.
But, in 2018 alone, 1.5 crore people across have lost jobs which include 8.8 million women who have lost their livelihood.
The crimes against women and children have gone up four times.
In states where BJP legistators are involved, the litigation is still not duly completed. There is a lot of bungling in terms of evidence gathering.
There are lot of questions that are unanswered on defense deals.
There are promises of Rs 15 lakh which hasn't been delivered.
Modi has spent Rs 64 billion travelling the world. We want a prime minister who actually focuses on India.
If you look at the budget allocated to Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao, only 5 paise is spent per girl child; 56 per cent is allocated on publicising Modi. This is gross injustice.
The transgender individuals in our country have been legislated against for far too long without consultation, inclusion or equality.
My inclusion has set in motion a certain mindset across the world that political parties must allow transgender men and women, and LGBT individuals, to partake in policy-making and be part of governance.
Rahul Gandhi set that trend.
Do you have specific plans for the transgender community?
My aim is also to mainstream all disadvantaged communities.
Specifically about the Transgender Bill, I would like to say that the BJP has presented an anti-transgender Human Rights Bill which will be completely withdrawn.
We will introduce a new bill which will talk about employment for transgender individuals in the armed forces and government jobs that will allow self-identification of an individual.
This means you won't have to stand in front of a screening committee to prove if you are good enough to be a man or a woman.
It is grossly unjust to have to go to a committee to prove your sexuality.
There will be a 100 per cent inclusive approach in all spheres of governance and more participation.
How do you plan to provide employment and/or empower transgenders?
We are consulting several representatives of the LGBT communities to discuss allowances or reservations, opportunities in employment, education and housing, to employ and mainstream the LQBTQ community, to avoid sexual violence, discrimination, to not face unjust terms when it comes to accessing employment.
As far as the present transgender bill is concerned, I want to ask the BJP: How can any government prevent the familial arrangements of an individual?
Many transgenders who are thrown out of their homes are taken in by senior transgenders who care and provide for them. To legislate against them is violating basic human rights.
The BJP government claims they have enabled decriminalisation of Section 377. Don't you think it is a positive first step towards a healthier, more accepting society?
The Congress was the first party which wanted to decriminalise Section 377. It was our leaders who supported this human rights uprising.
The BJP was completely mute; they never uttered a word or put their weight behind ensuring the dignity and rights of a community that has been suffering in the closet for so many years.
We wanted equal rights and, finally, the courts had to give us this judgment.
The judgment clearly mentions that the BJP government needs to train and sensitise its employees to be inclusive, none of which is happening.
Both the BJP and Modiji are too busy fighting petty Hindu-Muslim narratives and driving a wedge between Indians.
You have met Rahul Gandhi. What is he like?
I have met Rahul Gandhiji a couple of times. He is extremely warm, intelligent and inclusive.
When I met for the first time, he never exhibited any kind of sympathy, discomfort or body language that was disrespectful.
He was extremely welcoming. I think it was a brave move of him to include me in the party. Every time I am on a public platform, he wishes me warmly.
He is extremely aware of how women are treated in the party and shows that top leaders should respect women, including myself.
He is always smiling; there is no displeasure on his face despite the heat and all the trappings of a leader who has come on stage.
When you meet him, he is grounded and greets everyone warmly.
The eye contact he makes, even if it is for 10, 20 seconds, he is in the moment; he'll give you that attention.
He's the kind of man who makes each person feel special.
The grounding and making of a person is moulded by his/her life's experiences.
Rahulji's experiences have been vastly of profound grief. His family has sacrificed so many of its members for the country.
He understands suffering, loss, loneliness and what it is to value family, women and to conduct politics in a dignified manner that will take the country forward and not indulge in petty narratives.
Do you feel politics is tricky? We often see leaders switch parties ahead of elections.
Politics are conducted differently by different people.
Some shift parties too often, some remain in the party for far too long.
I believe I am in the Congress for the long run.
How have people accepted you as a leader?
People all across India have been warm, respectful and shown an immense amount of love when they invite me home, when share their aspirations and problems with me.
It has been a learning for me that, despite being a transgender woman, a new identity in their lives, people have opened up so warmly.
Do you think the tag 'transgender' has come in the way of you leading a normal life or achieving success?
I am a transgender woman and there is no shame in being open and honest about it.
I don't like to run away from the reality of who I really am.
It's not a disadvantage, it signifies courage, liberty, a certain amount of strength and resolve about who you want to truly be and to follow a safe and sensible approach towards becoming that person.
I have followed that approach and reached where I have. I am not ashamed; in fact, I am very proud of it.
In the BJP government, we have ministers like Sushma Swaraj, Nirmala Sitharaman, Smriti Irani...
By merely having a raksha mantri (Nirmala Sitharaman) and a few other women leaders, you are not proving anything.
Smriti Irani wants to hang up her boots the day Modiji leaves politics. It reflects their minuscule, blinkered vision. That is not women's empowerment.
I think Smriti Irani saying that itself is very wrong. Is she here to serve the nation or to serve Mr Modi?
As an empowered woman, you should have a larger vision for yourself.
The women in the party (BJP) do not really understand empowerment and women's aspirations.