Nayana Motamma: why this first-time Dalit MLA switched from corporate law to politics

Motamma believes the number of lives you can touch as a politician is more than in any other profession

Updated - June 22, 2023 07:36 pm IST

Published - June 22, 2023 09:04 am IST

Motamma doesn’t fit the perfect parameters for any group. Many opposed her saying she was too educated and opinionated for a Dalit in politics

Motamma doesn’t fit the perfect parameters for any group. Many opposed her saying she was too educated and opinionated for a Dalit in politics

Nobody expected Nayana Motamma to win the assembly seat from Mudigere constituency, in the heart of Karnataka’s coffee country Chikmagalur and part of the prosperous Malnad region. It was here that Indira Gandhi won a by-election in 1978, paving the way for a national victory.

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“There’s a lot of expectation from me now that I’ve won,” says the first-time MLA who switched from corporate law to politics in 2015. “Some want me to be a flag-bearer of Dalit identity. Others want me to be a flag-bearer of the youth.” Motamma, the descendant of coffee labourers and an alumnus of the National Law School of India University and the University of Pennsylvania, will just go on being herself.

“I was just waiting to get into politics to tell you the truth,” she says. “I wanted to be relevant in my field and be financially independent first.” Motamma believes that the number of lives you can touch as a politician is more than in any other profession. “I’m just a month old and I pick up the phone to call a department and say this work has to be done and it will be done,” she adds.

It was a validating fight. Among her opposition was the genial career politician who had, in 2018, defeated her mother C. Motamma, a veteran Congress politician who fought eight elections and had stints in the Congress Working Committee; as leader of the opposition in the State legislative council; and as a minister in the S.M. Krishna government. The last was when she launched the State’s popular Streeshakthi scheme that offered micro finance to rural women.

An impossible task

Eventually, Nayana Motamma’s rival polled half the votes she did. “He was defeatable,” she says. People had made that sound like an impossible task in the run-up to the polls. She also defeated the BJP candidate by a narrow margin.

The junior Motamma, 43, became one of only 10 women elected to Karnataka’s 224 assembly seats. “If you counted every woman who has ever been elected MLA in Karnataka since 1957, it will not even add up to 224,” Tara Krishnaswamy, co-founder of Political Shakti and Citizens for Bengaluru, wrote in Deccan Herald.

Nayana Motamma

Nayana Motamma | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Since the election on May 10, Motamma has made headlines several times. The first was when the opposition circulated pictures of her private life (in a pool, dancing etc.) on social media in an attempt to undermine her. “Don’t let the frustration of defeat haunt you further,” Motamma retorted, sharing some of the same pictures in a video on Twitter and offering a lesson on dealing with those who still think it’s okay to shame women for the way they dress.

No perfect parameters

Motamma was in the news again when her public interest litigation made the High Court quash a sedition case where police officers illegally interrogated 6-year-old students. That happened when her husband — they met at law school — asked what she would do if it had been their daughter Aarya, also six then.

Motamma doesn’t fit the perfect parameters for any group. Many opposed her saying she was too educated and opinionated for a Dalit in politics. “Anyone as English speaking as I am is easily disregarded,” she says. For now her victory has silenced them. When she was campaigning in the reserved constituency in her Toyota Fortuner, people cautioned her that she needed a more modest car. “Just because you’re a Dalit you can’t live a large life,” she says. She ignored their advice.

Ambedkarites expressed their disapproval with Motamma too, mainly over the fact that she has a ‘guru’ in Chikmagalur. She argues that B.R. Ambedkar believed in individual freedom. “Stop having preconceived notions of how you expect me to be,” she says to those who want her to act in a certain way.

Motamma now wears her caste identity “with a sense of responsibility and pride”. But it was not always like that. “As a corporate lawyer, it was a difficult identity.” Back then she had to once point out to a friend who was making fun of the Jai Bhim salute that she was part of that community too. “You don’t look Dalit,” he replied.

A clear message

Many other things about Motamma’s campaign were non-traditional too, such as her speeches. She ensured she attended as many sporting events as she could in her constituency so she could speak directly to young people.

Her message was clear, aspirational. “I told them that people should aspire to go out and study and forge an identity of their own. Education is very important but we also need to go out of the town, and not get stuck in a particular place,” she says. “People in rural India believe a government job is everything. It’s not true, I find a lot of people who have degrees and sit at home waiting for a government job. I made a life out for myself, I left home and ventured out to different cities to be able to stand on my own two feet.”

For many listeners, it was likely the first time someone was instructing them to fly.

Priya Ramani is a Bengaluru-based journalist and the co-founder of India Love Project on Instagram.

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