These three women in the electoral race have fought for change from outside the system.
The exhilarating process of elections has begun. There is genuine and understandable apprehension about the future. But there is also hope. Because in this election, an element has been injected that has attracted more interest in it than in several pervious general elections.
That new element is the kind of individual that has now entered electoral politics. There have been instances in the past when non-politicians have either joined mainstream political parties or stood as independents and fought elections. But this time, thanks largely to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), the range of independent-minded non-political individuals in the fray is much larger.
I personally find the presence of three women to be particularly significant. There are many women who are contesting. And some, like those from the film fraternity, are drawing media attention. Nagma, Gul Panag, Kirron Kher, Smriti Irani and, of course, Rakhi Sawant, are a magnet for television cameras.
The three women I want to write about are also celebrities but in a completely different way. Their life and the struggles they have undertaken over decades have been appreciated. They have received awards. They have been extensively interviewed and written about.
Yet, their entry into the electoral race as AAP candidates marks a significant change. Whether they win or lose is not so important as the fact that people have a chance to see and hear women like them who have fought for change from outside the system.
The women I refer to are Soni Sori from Chhattisgarh, Dayamani Barla from Jharkhand and Medha Patkar from Maharashtra (although her work has been all over India).
The least known of the three is Soni Sori, a 39-year-old schoolteacher from Jabeli village in Dantewada, Bastar, in the state of Chhattisgarh. Soni shot into limelight when she was picked up by the police in 2011 allegedly for being a Maoist, was brutally tortured because she refused to sign a false confession that would have implicated others, and finally released on permanent bail by the Supreme Court earlier this year. Her account of what she went through during her time in jail, which included horrific sexual assault, is chilling. Four of the six cases against her have been dismissed. She still has two pending.
Elections cost money. Soni has only a few hundred rupees in her bank account, Rs.424 to be exact. But support for her from outside has gathered pace ever since her candidature was announced and the funds are coming in. Still, the total is nowhere near the Rs.70 lakhs per candidate permitted by the Election Commission. And given the size of her constituency of Bastar, she will certainly need that money to reach out to her constituents, even if just to inform them about her name, her party and the party symbol.
Another tribal woman, much better known, is the former journalist and human rights activist Dayamani Barla, also known as the Iron Lady of Jharkhand. Dayamani is the candidate from Khunti in Jharkhand and the “Iron Lady” tag comes from her battle against steel giant ArcelorMittal. She successfully scuttled plans by the company to build what would have been the world’s largest steel plant. Together with a captive power station, the plant would have displaced people living in 40 villages. Whether the people saved from eviction will actually vote for her in these elections remains to be seen. What is significant is that she has taken the step of moving from agitation from the outside to attempting to influence policy from the inside.
The third woman is Medha Patkar, who needs little introduction. Her decades-long fight against the Narmada dam might not have prevented the dam from being built. What it did do was bring into the conversation about development the concept of sustainability from the perspective of the environment and people.
Medha is the AAP candidate from Mumbai Northeast, a constituency with a mix of urban poor and middle class. Everyone ought to know of her given her presence in the public realm since the 1980s. Yet, a week before she filed her nomination papers, many people living in the slum settlement of Gautam Nagar, which falls within her constituency, had not heard of her or of AAP. Only those who watch television news recognised her, or at least knew of the party and its symbol.
Like the other two, Medha faces an uphill battle. She does not have the funds required to carpet-bomb her constituency with fliers, posters and banners. She does not have enough volunteers who can reach out to all the constituents. And her own time and strength is limited, given that she is also in great demand in other parts of India.
Yet, as I said earlier, it really does not matter whether these three women win or lose. Their presence is a relevant reminder that politics in a democracy is not the sole property of a handful of families and their progeny; it does not belong to crooks and criminals; or to those with a casteist or communal agenda. The very fact that people like Soni, Dayamani and Medha believe they should enter the election arena, represents a sliver of hope for the future of Indian democracy.