Mahua Moitra's unlikely journey to the floor of the Indian parliament

Last Updated: Sat, Jun 29, 2019 09:57 hrs
Mahua Moitra

The very nature of the mandate makes it necessary for the voice of dissent to be heard today...” said first time MP Mahua Moitra. The newly elected Member of Parliament from the Trinamool Congress (TMC) made a significant impact in her remarkable maiden speech in parliament; one that earned her plaudits. As the new class of MP’s were sworn in, Moitra stood out in her singular take down of the BJP government, its policies and style of governance while defending liberal values.

Born in 1975 in Kolkata, she along with her family moved to the United States when she was 15. At the Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, she studies economic and mathematics and went to work for JP Morgan at their offices in New York and London eventually rising to the post of Vice President.

Things changed in 2008. A desire to serve her country led to quitting her job at London and moving to India to pursue electoral politics. In 2009, she joined the Congress and worked closely with Rahul Gandhi on his Aam Admi Ka Sipahi (AAKS) project. This was a program of the Indian Youth Congress. The idea came from Gandhi himself and according to a 2008 blog post, its vision came out of the “necessity of the youth to connect with the grassroots level and popularise the historic pro-people schemes implemented by the Congress led UPA Government…”.

Things then changed course and Moitra resigned from the party. She felt the Congress party’s presence diminishing in her home state of West Bengal and that they didn’t have a clear vision. She was impressed by the strong leadership of TMC leader and now Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and in 2010 joined the party she now calls home.

Her speech in many ways was akin to some of the points Banerjee herself has made when criticising the BJP and their way of governing. Her speech went viral on social media, ironically, given she herself does not have a presence on social media. Author and journalist Chandrima Pal summed up Moitra’s speech –

In a Parliament tarnished by heckling, sexist jibes, and blatant misogyny displayed by the old boys’ club, Moitra just blew their cockiness to smithereens. And the best part is, she did it with so much grace, dignity, and fierceness, that the men, mostly her political rivals, were evidently flummoxed.

Moitra, beginning her legislative career as an MLA decided that privacy and government surveillance would be the issue that she would tackle head on. In October 2017, she filed a petition in the Supreme Court against the directive that made the linking of Aadhar and bank accounts mandatory.

Her next fight was against the Information and Broadcasting (I&B) ministry. The government wanted to set up a Social Media Communication Hub (SMCH) to create what it called “conversational logs... to help facilitate creating a 360-degree view of the people who are creating buzz across various topic.” The programme invited private agencies to run and maintain the project which would involve collecting data from social media platforms. In May last year, regarding this, Moitra filed a petition in the apex court. Speaking on this, Moitra said at the time, “It is horrendous, dictatorial and totally unacceptable. How could we, living in a free democracy, be under such blanket snooping?” The government withdrew the proposal in August.

Her years spent fighting government surveillance and for a right to privacy was echoed in her speech on the parliament floor. She spoke of the party’s treatment of minorities and stifling free speech and dissent. However, as some, including senior journalist Rajat Roy have pointed out, some introspection with regards to her party leader Banerjee, is warranted. In his op-ed for Outlook, he writes on this –

Moitra has rightly criticised the BJP government for mixing religion with the administration. But can she claim that the Mamata government is free from it or any different? The charge that the BJP government at the Centre is full of “disdain for human rights” will hold good for Mamata’s regime in West Bengal, too.

One of the incidents Roy refers to is the arrest of Priyanka Sharma, a BJP worker in Howrah after she posted a morphed photo of Mamata Banerjee on social media. After the intervention of the Supreme Court, she was released. Another is the arrest of a farmer who questioned Banerjee regarding farmer arrest at a public meeting. He, too, was later released. One can argue that these, while taking place at a state level, is not on the level that the BJP has governed over the past 5 years. But it’s a necessary point to make given the speaker and the party she represents.

Her candidature itself was striking. She rose through the ranks at the TMC, where she was promoted to General Secretary and party spokesperson. She caught the eye of Banerjee and she earned the ticket from the Karimpur constituency in 2016. In the recently concluded Lok Sabha polls, she contested against BJP candidate Kalyan Chaubey and won by more than sixty thousand votes.

Her staunch opposition to the NRC bill was on display when she was part of a delegation of Trinamool MP’s that were stopped at the Silchar airport by the Assam police. She summed up the issue as such – “In a country where Ministers cannot produce degrees to show that they graduated from college, you expect dispossessed poor people to show papers as proof they belong to this country?

Perhaps the most notable part of her speech was on the seven signs of rising fascism in India. Referring to the sign present at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, she pointed to the seven signs and drew parallels to the last 5 years of the BJP government and gave warnings for the next few years.

More columns by Varun Sukumar