Ramya Haridas, the first-time MP from Alathur in Kerala, is not the kind of MP you usually see in Delhi. She is possibly what a citizen expects of a politician. She grew up in the ranks of the Congress, worked for the benefit of the people in her area and got noticed through a talent hunt, a part of Rahul Gandhi’s attempts to reform the party. Agrarian crisis remains her foremost concern. Her first speech in Parliament was to advocate for ensuring minimum support price for farmers, construction of a procurement centre and a cold storage facility in her constituency. Ashlin Mathew caught up with her.
What drew you to politics?
My parents have been involved in politics for as long as I remember, and they have always insisted on Gandhian values. I became a member of Kerala Students Union (KSU) when I was in Class eight and before that in Class five, I was a part of Gandhi Darshan. I have always been inspired by Gandhian principles. Even while I was a member of KSU, I was involved in a number of activities related to Gandhi.
My mother is the State Mahila Congress secretary and father is a party worker and a daily wage labourer. My younger brother has just finished his graduation and is hoping to clear the state PSC exams.
I have been a member of the Ekta Parishad founded by PV Rajagopal and I was a part of their protests for land rights. I was a part of their Janadesh rally in 2007 which was a padayatra from Gwalior to Delhi to demand land rights and forest rights.
In time, I became the KSU district secretary. Then, I became the Youth Congress district secretary and, after that, the Youth Congress Assembly constituency secretary. In 2010, when Rahul Gandhi had insisted on elections to nominate people to positions, I contested in internal elections for the first time. I became the Parliament constituency general secretary. Then in 2011, there was a talent hunt, an initiative of Rahul Gandhi. I was one of the four persons from Kerala who were selected. After that, I was sent to Japan as part of a youth exchange programme.
Throughout this time, I was working with the Adivasis in Nilambur in Malappuram district. At that time, Aryadan Shoukath was the municipality chairman. So, I worked with him on a number of projects related to education of Adivasi children. That experience was one of the reasons I was sent for the youth exchange programme. Also, my biodata was with the Congress national secretaries as a result of the Talent hunt.
Then again through the same process, I became the National co-ordinator and then AICC itself nominated me as Congress candidate from Alathur Lok Sabha constituency. I had not expected it. I came to know on March 16 that I would be the candidate.
I was the Kunnamangalam block panchayat block president from 2015 and after the elections in Kerala, I resigned from that position as I was confident of winning. This allowed me to help choose the next block president too.
How were you confident of your win?
I was chosen extremely late as a candidate. My first road show was on March 18. When I went out campaigning, ‘Lies do not work in the long run, truth can’t be suppressed’Ramya Haridas, the first-time MP from Alathur in Kerala, is not the kind of MP you usually see in Delhi. She is possibly what a citizen expects of a politician. She grew up in the ranks of the Congress, worked for the benefit of the people in her area and got noticed through a talent hunt, a part of Rahul Gandhi’s attempts to reform the party. Agrarian crisis remains her foremost concern. Her first speech in Parliament was to advocate for ensuring minimum support price for farmers, construction of a procurement centre and a cold storage facility in her constituency. Ashlin Mathew caught up with herthe love and support that I got, gave me confidence that I would win.
My biggest supporters were the residents of Alathur constituency. Their word-of mouth publicity helped me because I believe I must have gone to almost all points in the constituency. The committee would set around 70-72 points to go to in a day and we would end up going to more than 80-85 places. When I was travelling and would see several women in an area, I would stop there, whether it was on the list or not. None of these were people who had been brought to stand there. They came of their own accord. This helped with the publicity campaign.
There were several people who supported me during my campaign especially on social media. And they were not only from my district, but also from other places.
People of Alathur see me as a family member. Even now, if I were to walk by any house, I will not be allowed to leave without have a cup of tea.
How were you able to manage the funds?
I never had any funding crisis. In the beginning of the campaigning, I faced a bit of trouble but then everyone came forward to help me. The previous president of Ekta Parishad, JS Adoor, began a fund-raising campaign for me and several people contributed. I must have spent about Rs 60 lakh. The party took care of printing several flexes. I didn’t have many posters. I only had two kinds of posters. One just had the symbol and the other one had my picture with the symbol. My associates knew that I didn’t have much money. So, the promotional activities were organised keeping that in mind.
Nearly all my meals were organised by people in their homes. Even during the election campaign, several dresses that I wore were all contributed by several people during the course of my campaigning.
There was a grandmother who waited to see me till midnight, to contribute some money from her pension fund to my campaign.
There were several personal attacks by the Left. How did you navigate those?
When LDF convener A Vijayaraghavan had made a sexist remark, I didn’t initially believe it. We always think that people in respectable positions will not resort to making such statements. It was a friend of mine who had initially mentioned it to me. That was the first instance and I thought ‘let it be’. The person must have made it in the spur of the moment. But, then he did it again. That’s when it hurt and we complained against Vijayaraghavan. I have a family and such comments hurt.
I would sing folk songs at my rallies. A lecturer ridiculed my singing. This made me wonder if I should stop singing. But, none of this affected the residents of Alathur. Wherever I would go, they would encourage me and tell me to not pay heed to any of these comments. They began to ask me to sing even if I would not. They began to give me a list of songs. If I knew any of them, I would sing them.
You are the second Dalit candidate from Kerala. Why did it take so long?
I haven’t thought so much about this. Maybe later, I will be able to understand the reason. I can’t speak about it yet. I do know that we have to work harder to bring more people to the forefront. A lot needs to be done.
I was an unexpected candidate. So, I haven’t really had a chance to reflect. Ever since my name was announced, it life has been a whirlwind of activities. I was chosen as the candidate and I had to fulfil my duty sincerely. The party must have had faith in me and I had put in all my efforts to ensure they were not let down.
I have been accepted by all. No one has derided me for being a ‘reservation candidate’. I don’t think they have it in their heads.
What are the problems of Alathur?
The residents of Alathur are ordinary, everyday people. Most of them are farmers, daily-wage labourers, salespeople, etc. For them, a representative is someone who will listen to all their problems, whether it is a panchayat issue or the problems of their home. They do not see me as only an MP, but as someone who could help them resolve their issues and problems.
The residents of Alathur do expect me to be involved in all their issues. Alathur farmers face several issues and I will be raising them in Parliament. In my constituency, there are several vegetable farmers and they hardly ever get the minimum support price. They have requested for a cold storage facility too. I have met the minister about these issues. I am hoping something positive will come from it.
During the floods, several roads and bridges were destroyed in several areas in the constituency and these have to be rebuilt on a priority basis. The Centre has to do it.
The Thrissur Medical College falls within the Alathur constituency limits. A lot needs to be done to develop the area and the college. I am looking to develop and improve the facilities in several SC/ST colonies in the constituency. Some people have homes but they do not have drinking water. Some people may have homes but the area around it will need to be sanitised. It will require all-around efforts.
There are several railway stations in the region but they need to be improved and developed because they fall on important business and pilgrimage routes. Being on the border of Tamil Nadu, several farmers go to Palani and Pollachi. Those routes need to be developed.
One of my biggest hopes is to develop a Guruvayoor-Ernakulam express highway and I hope a national highway connects Vadakkencherry-Mannuthy as it is a major business centre.
BJP seems to be gaining a foothold in Kerala and seems to be polarising the society…
I think it will be different in Kerala. People in Kerala will think before they decide. Even during these polls, the people showed that they trusted the decisions taken by the Congress. It must not be forgotten. The Congress always stands for the unity and equality of all religions.
The Congress will stand with the believers. The Congress also did not spend huge amounts of money this election. This election has seen an unprecedented amount of money being spent and even in Kerala, one could see the BJP having more posters, vans and other visible forms of advertisements than its rivals. People will see through it.
Even with the issue on women entering Sabarimala temple, people know that the BJP was only using it to divide the society.Now, they are in power. If they want, they can bring a Bill to stop it. But, they won’t. They are only interested in Sabarimala for political gains. They do not care about the people.
People in Kerala are clever enough to see who stands for what.
The Congress is going through a crisis. What do you think is the way forward?
There is no confusion within the Congress. I agree with the decision that Rahul Gandhi has taken. I know his vision and understand it.
He said that he would work hard with the party. To fight the BJP, there is no better person. Rahul Gandhi does not have to be party president to fight the BJP. He doesn’t have to be the party president to motivate all of us, to motivate the Congress workers. I’m one of those people who have benefited immensely from Rahul Gandhi’s candidature in Kerala.
The Congress is gearing up to revive itself in the way that Rahul Gandhi wants. He has a vision and only his vision will help us win. There are many young people who will be found and it will be their turn. Once we have won a position, we should do all that we can. And then, the opportunity must be given to others so as to allow them to bring in changes according to their vision.
Of course, many people have to change their mindset. Some people have changed but a lot more needs to be done. Everyone needs to be given a chance. In the next elections, the Congress will revive itself.