Editor’s Note: FII is excited to announce its collaboration with independent journalist Poorvi Gupta who will, through multiple interviews, give us an insight into the lives of Indian women MPs and their journey in politics, particularly during the #pandemic.
This week’s interview is with an actor-turned-politician who quit acting and became a full-time politician after marrying one. Navneet Rana was at the top of her acting game with several films in varied South Indian movie industries and album songs to her credit. However, fate had it that she had to come to a Amravati, a district in Maharashtra for an event where she met her future husband and political supporter. After working on ground in Amravati for a few years now, the young 34-year-old politician has become very popular in every household in the constituency. After losing the 2014 Lok Sabha election, when she contested on an NCP ticket, she fought again in the 2019 parliamentary election and earned a commendable victory as an independent candidate.
In this conversation, Navneet opens up like never before on issues around her constituency, her foray into politics, transitioning from acting to politics, being a woman MP and a lot more.
How did your foray into politics happen?
Navneet Rana: Politics was never on my mind until I got married to Ravi Rana – MLA from Amravati. Initially, I started with supporting him and when I saw him working so hard for the people of Amravati, I realized it was my calling too. After a while, people started demanding that I should also join politics and work for them while being in power because without that one can’t really do substantial work.
So I contested the 2014 Lok Sabha election on NCP ticket in the thick of a Modi wave and I lost. Modi Ji had also come to Amravati and rallied for votes. At that time, I lost by 75,000 vote margin. It hit me to a point that I broke down and thought that politics wasn’t meant for me and that I should work for people without having to be in power. I remember not going out of my house for two months after I had lost the election. But then again people started asking where I was as I had still got over three lakh votes which was a good number in the Modi wave. Then after coming back, I started my work again with full force despite the fact that I didn’t have a post. I visited several villages to understand their dynamics.
You were doing well in your acting career, what made you give that up and join politics? Was it a smooth transition?
Navneet Rana: I had made up my mind that if I plan to get married, then I would listen to what my husband wants. If he wants me to work in the industry or not. My work earlier was my first love but he didn’t want me to continue acting after getting married to him so I stopped working in films. Eventually, it was my decision to quit. I don’t think there is anything wrong with it.
The transition was not smooth at all and I had to struggle because in acting, there are cameras to capture you but in politics, giving speeches means real people are watching you and analysing every move of yours. I never had great oratory skills. I used to have music launches but I never took the mic and spoke even there. While I wasn’t shy, I also didn’t have the confidence to speak in front of a crowd.
Along with that, I didn’t know Marathi well even though I was born and brought up in Mumbai. In the beginning, I would give all my speeches in Hindi but after some time my husband told me if I want to join politics then I must learn Marathi since there are so many villages under our constituency where people don’t speak any language other than Marathi. And if you want to work at the grassroots level, knowing the language of the natives is very important. It took me six months to learn the language and when I started speaking in Marathi, people made fun of me but it didn’t deter me. They used to tell me to speak in Hindi but I refrained and continued with my broken Marathi and eventually, I grasped the language.
What pushed you to contest in the Lok Sabha election again in 2019 and that too as an independent candidate?
Navneet Rana: I knew that this time again the Modi wave was strong because whenever we used to go out for discussions with people in the villages, we would hear about him all the time. We knew that no other party stood a chance. In my district, we took polling before the actual polling happened to understand which party I should contest from. The verdict I got, was to contest the election independently and that’s what I did. People liked me but some people don’t like a certain party, some people detested some other party, so I thought it was best to not associate with any. What was more intimidating was that I was contesting against was Shivsena’s Anandrao Adsul, a five-time MP.
Since you are one of the only two female independent MPs who won in the 2019 election, tell us how difficult is it to win an election independently than on a party ticket?
Navneet Rana: Sumalatha Ambareesh, who won from Mandya, had BJP support. The party hadn’t even fielded any candidate from that seat. So she won because of the support of the ruling party and the Modi wave in place.
If one has to see the real independent female candidate who won against the Modi wave then that would be me. I never thought it would happen this way but I was still very confident about my people’s faith in me. A few days before the result, I was called for an interview in a news channel and they told me that in the exit polls, I am losing. I told them, I don’t know about the rest of the country but your exit poll will fail in my constituency and that’s what happened. If one works with utmost dedication and hard work, then nothing is impossible.
How has your first year been as the first-time MP of Amravati?
Navneet Rana: In the last one year, I raised several grassroots level issues of my constituency in the parliament. These issues may not have utmost relevance to the parliament but they were very close to my people. In the last few months, I implemented the Sanjay Gandhi Niradhar Yojana and even increased the monetary benefits. Earlier, the destitute people could receive maximum benefits of Rs 600 per month and now they get Rs 1200 per month after I came to power. Other than this, I spoke about farmer issues, jobless people, and the education system. I also raised other issues concerning my district, dams and the needs of the tribal communities in my constituency.
What are some of the challenges that Amravati faces?
Navneet Rana: To this day, there are some villages in my district where people don’t have access to clean drinking water and electricity. So I raised these issues as well in the parliament. In the last one year, I tried to create awareness amongst the parliamentarians, the PMO and the home minister about the severe issues in my district.
We don’t have business leaders entering Amravati to bring in opportunities because we don’t have an airport, medical colleges. We need infrastructural development to happen in Amravati. Despite the fact that former President Pratibha Patil belongs to our district, we still don’t have the basic amenities. She could do however much was in her capacity. Now my goals are to build a medical research institution here and get the clearance for Brahmasati dam which will help solve many water problem in the area.
Currently with the coronavirus spread, how are you managing the containment of the disease in your constituency?
Navneet Rana: When at the very beginning in March, I raised the issue of coronavirus cases in the parliament, people weren’t even aware of N 95 masks. I have been wearing a mask since and at that time I was the only member who wore the mask for three days continuously till the parliament adjourned. People used to smile looking at me and ask me if I got infected by the virus! I would say that this isn’t just for me or you, everyone should get serious about the virus and within two weeks, the cases started to show up and we had to announce a lockdown.
Since I took this in all seriousness, I asked the government to provide the facility of sanitizers and masks to public servants and spread the message of social distancing at the very beginning. I found that sanitizing equipment wasn’t being provided by the government so I called my people in Aurangabad and arranged sanitizers and masks which were sent to all police stations, doctors, nurses and private hospitals as well.
Then I tried to make sure that doctors and nurses working in coronavirus wards have adequate supply of PPE kits. I have also demanded the government of Maharashtra to extend the benefits of Rs 50 lakh insurance to police officials too, just like healthcare providers have been extended this benefit. I have demanded this from both the state and central government. We have distributed ration packages to close to a lakh underprivileged people in the constituency.
There has been a rise in domestic violence against women across the world, have you seen a spurt of such cases in your constituency and how are you dealing with the rise?
Navneet Rana: I haven’t come across a rise in domestic violence cases in my district. But I actually didn’t think that domestic violence would become a little more during lockdown. Earlier families used to complain that husbands and wives aren’t giving each other much time but now more time has become an issue. It’s there, but I would still say, India doesn’t have too much of it (domestic violence).
Or is it that the cases aren’t getting reported as much?
Navneet Rana: Yes, India ha this problem that women suffer in silence and when they have suffered beyond limit, it’s only then that they go out to report abuse. So I believe, because of this, 50% cases never get reported. It is a limitation that we have, but we are Indian women and our tolerance limit is a little more than women in other parts of the world.
Do you think this hiked up tolerance limit of suffering abuse in silence is a good thing amongst Indian women?
Navneet Rana: If it is about physical violence, then no woman should tolerate it. I am very much against women’s exploitation and I always stand with women. Wherever there is domestic violence, women should always raise their voice and get their partners punished for this. Yet, women consider it their family matter and don’t like to involve the law in their closed quarters. They feel tolerance is the way to go to keep their families intact but I feel that we should not tolerate it.
How does a typical day look like in the times of coronavirus in the life of an MP? What motivation do you wake up with as mental health issues are real and it’s true for everyone including MPs?
Navneet Rana: Since both my husband and I are political figures, both of us have to go out whether it is safe or not. We don’t have the liberty to stay at home and work. We have meetings to attend to, distress calls to deal with and government officials on the frontline to work with. Every alternate day, we are at the police station, helping them with their work and coordinating relief material. I believe that I am a very optimistic person and I navigate life with that attitude. I didn’t initially see many politicians come out to help people but as representatives, it is our responsibility and so we do what we’re supposed to do.
Having young kids means that you have to give children time too but being an MP in the current times, my phone never stops buzzing. What I do then is to give my child some time which is when I don’t look at my phone and after that, I’ll sit for an hour responding to all the missed calls I received in the time I was with my son and daughter. I make sure that people of my constituency know that they can call me anytime and with all kinds of problems they are facing.
While I have never ignored any calls that I have received from the general public, coronavirus times have made my routine a tad too stressful than the normal times.
However, one good thing that has happened is that my three-year-old son used to cry continuously for a month when I would have to be in Delhi for the parliament sessions but with the lockdown now, he is very happy. My daughter also used to ask me for my time home and now both of them have got what they wanted. When at home, I put my Bluetooth device in my ears and I cook for my family while listening to people’s calls and directing them to relief.
All my family members, including my in-laws, really enjoy the food that I cook since I am a Punjabi and they are all Maharashtrian and so I cook a different cuisine.
How has the experience of being a woman MP been for you? We’re asking this in the context of women being a minority in the parliament and politics being a highly misogynistic workplace.
Navneet Rana: I have been harassed by the people of opposition during my first election candidacy as well. They cropped my face and photoshopped the pictures and spread them across social media. But in my second election, they knew that these tactics aren’t going to affect me as the first time it happened I was barely 29 and so very young to fight it out but I did what I could do for my own dignity. But this time it didn’t happen.
It is very true that women working in any field have to fight gender-specific battles. Women are always dominated by men even as an MP, male MPs in parliament behave like we don’t know anything. They feel that we aren’t connected to the ground and can’t raise pertinent issues. I don’t care about it anymore, all that matters to me are my people’s problems.
As long as you look weak, they will keep making you feel weak. After losing in 2014 and the way I fought against the person in power position, he realized that if he takes any negative step towards me, I will turn into a positive one. Until you harden up and intimidate the person who is trying to push you down, you can’t win the fight. Women get very conscious when someone talks ill about their character but after a point you have to stop caring about it. I am proud of the industry I worked for earlier, it taught me a lot.
In my family, my in-laws and my parents often asked me if I want to continue in politics with all the derogatory comments that come my way. They have always questioned me as I am their daughter-in-law and they are bound to feel bad seeing me getting insulted on social media. My mother used to cry a lot earlier seeing the filthy comments on social media but I always firmly believed that this is what women face and once one has crossed this line, it means that you will do great things in life. You have to go through a lot of pain before you achieve great heights.
All pictures have been taken from Navneet Rana’s official Facebook profile.