Mahua Moitra on importance of dissent in the age of 'divisive' politics

MP from Krishnanagar constituency in West Bengal, Mahua Moitra | Illustration: Binay Sinha
In 2019, when she stood in the Lok Sabha and delivered one of the most memorable maiden speeches of recent times in its hallowed male-dominated portals, Mahua Moitra broke much more than the social media — she shattered the notion that dissent in the age of majoritarianism is futile.

In the past year, the feisty member of Parliament from West Bengal’s Krishnanagar constituency has raised critical concerns about the functioning of the central government, undeterred by the multiple stonewalls blocking her path. From the linking of bank accounts with Aadhaar cards in the Supreme Court (it directed her to take the matter up in Parliament and dismissed her case) to her present opposition to the cancellation of the Question Hour in Parliament, Moitra has been challenging all.

I’m looking forward to a lunch with her after she’s attended the first day of the Parliament’s monsoon session. She’s invited me to a friend’s house in Delhi’s Jor Bagh to have omelettes, as dictated by her wellness routine. Elegant in a blue Bengal cotton sari, Moitra ushers me to the dining room, talking nineteen to a dozen about the parliamentary proceedings this morning. Our hostess has popped a bottle of champagne to toast Moitra’s return to Delhi. Moitra seems oblivious to it all, her words ricocheting like bullets.

Today’s session has disappointed her. “The government doesn’t listen to us; with their brute majority they don’t need to!” she huffs. “And today, the Question Hour, which gave regional parliamentarians like me the rare opportunity to voice our view was scrapped as well!”

Democracy, she says, is being throttled in Parliament every day. “If you ask questions in court, its contempt,” Moitra says. “If you ask questions in society, its sedition. And now you can’t ask questions in Parliament either.”

Unsurprisingly, she’s equally disappointed in the average Indian that has voted the Bharatiya Janata Party, “with its divisive politics and propaganda”, into power. Her plainspeak is refreshing. “Some call it fearless, but I just speak straight from my heart,” she says. “The other day, a senior journalist asked me what it was like to be a woman in politics. I don’t think my gender comes into the equation at all. I’m simply a politician in politics.”

Enough has been written about how Moitra, an investment banker with JP Morgan in London, entered politics in 2009, initially with the Congress and then, following a chance encounter with Mamata Banerjee on a flight, with the Trinamool Congress. The party has a well-earned reputation for being rabble rousing, and political pundits say it has too regional a profile to make a dent at the national level. Moitra, expectedly, has nothing but praise for it. “In that first meeting, I realised that not only was Mamata Banerjee fighting the good fight, she was the only leader under whom I’d be free to fearlessly speak my mind.”

Naysayers predicted that Moitra would prove to be too delicate for grassroots politics. And indeed, her early years were not easy. Moitra worked hard to gain the trust of rural communities, yet couldn’t shake off the derogatory tag of "Memsahib" bestowed upon her by her opponents and the press. “But I persevered with rural politics,” she recalls. “After all, I hadn’t joined politics to represent the elite.”

After years of grassroots work, when she felt she’d earned her spurs, Moitra was offered the chance to run for the assembly elections from Karimpur in West Bengal in 2016. This time, too, naysayers called it political suicide, and they had a point. “We hadn’t won a seat there since 1977,” she discloses. To canvass as well as raise the morale of the party cadre, Moitra walked in the stifling heat to all 259 booths. “When I won against the powerful CPI (M) candidate, my image was transformed from ‘Memsahib’ to a demon slayer,” she says.

My champagne flute is refilled at this appropriate juncture. I take a forkful of the vegetable omelette and ask Moitra about her maiden speech in Parliament, which ruffled feathers and won hearts alike. “Many commented it didn’t sound like a maiden speech,” she says. “But I’d been preparing my entire life for it.”

Born into an affluent family of tea estate owners, Moitra says she always wanted to be in public service. At 30, after years of studying and working abroad, when she joined politics, people were surprised at her decision to work at the grassroots. But that’s where she continues to thrive. Even now, her phone buzzes constantly and she micromanages the pandemic relief effort in Krishnanagar.

However, public service is getting harder by the day. In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, the government has suspended Members of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme (MPLADS) for two years. “The government’s spending thousands of crores on redeveloping the Central Vista but can’t spare Rs 5 crore each to MPs for development work,” she rues.

What motivates her to be an outsider in a majoritarian regime, I ask? It’s evident that she’s been asked this question before for the answer comes pat. “I believe I’ve been born to be in this moment today,” she says, “born to question the ruling dispensation.” Also, rural politics is empowering and rewarding: “The fruits of one’s labour are that much more visible in rural India,” she says.

Lunch has gone on longer than intended and it’s time for Moitra’s next meeting. She leaves unaccompanied in a private car, and I am reminded of a certain actor whom she recently criticised for accepting government security. I muse that if it weren’t for a handful of people like her, there would be no dissenting voices in mainstream political discourse today.

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