M Komalavalli was only six years old when she first canvassed for votes for the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.
It was the early 1990s and her father, a local treasurer for the DMK, would go door-to-door to drum up support for the party. Prime minister Rajiv Gandhi had just been assassinated and the DMK government in the state had been dismissed a few months before.
“Many relatives feared for my safety,” Komalavalli recalled. She also remembers attending a rally where Poonguzhali, a fiery DMK member, addressed a crowd in north Chennai’s Thiruvottiyur. Poonguzhali would later become Komalavalli’s mentor as she rose through the party.
With a start like that, it isn’t entirely surprising that 38 years later, Komalavalli still finds herself in the thick of Tamil Nadu’s upcoming Assembly election. As the organiser of the DMK’s women’s wing in northeast Chennai, her schedule is packed.
Her work starts as early as 6 am with a stream of meetings with party functionaries, block secretaries, and area secretaries, where her objective is to garner as much support as possible from women voters. It’s often midnight when she calls it a day.
“I sometimes switch my mobile phone off for two solid days,” she laughed, “just to get some rest.”
Komalavalli lives in a joint family with her husband, two children, and five others in Thiruvottiyur. A law graduate from the Dr Ambedkar Global Law Institute in Tirupati, she said her family has always been supportive of her political work, often helping her put up notices for the election.
Yet Komalavalli isn’t entirely happy with how the election is unfolding.
At the heart of political conversations in Tamil Nadu is how parties are scrambling to woo women voters using all the tools at their disposal, from manifestos to speeches. The incumbent All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which has allied with the Bharatiya Janata Party this election season, Rs 1,500 per month to a woman in every household if it returns to power, along with promises of maternity leave, free washing machines, maternity benefits, free gas cylinders, free solar stoves, and “Amma patrol teams” for increased security.
The DMK, which is in alliance with the Indian National Congress, : its manifesto includes promises of Rs 1,000 per month to a woman in every household, maternity leave, free bus passes, police units to investigate crimes against women, and reduced costs of gas cylinders.
It isn’t just the Dravidian parties. Actor Kamal Hassan’s Makkal Needhi Maiam – which leads one of Tamil Nadu’s multiple “third fronts” – in December, promising salaries for household work and employment initiatives to allow women to “break glass ceilings”.
But none of these women-focused promises are reflected in women’s representation in candidate lists. None of the major parties have even 13 percent women candidates. As per the nominations filed, the AIADMK is fielding 171 candidates of which 14 are women, barely eight percent. The DMK’s tally is worse: 12 out of 173 candidates are women, merely six percent. Only Seeman’s Naam Tamilar Katchi has fielded 234 candidates of which 50 percent are women – a promise that he fulfilled during the elections in 2016 and 2019 too.
More recently, R Sudha, the president of the Tamil Maanila Congress, wrote to party’s chief, Sonia Gandhi, flagging the low representation of women while giving tickets for the assembly election. The Congress has given only one of the 25 tickets allotted to it by the DMK to a woman. The BJP, which is contesting 20 seats, has fielded three.
According to election data from 1967, less than five percent, on average, of Tamil Nadu’s MLAs have been women. Yet there are across the state’s 198 constituencies.
It’s something that Komalavalli finds disappointing.
Komalavalli is the organiser of the DMK’s women’s wing in northeast Chennai.
“Men and women are equal in the books of politics but that is not the reality,” she said. “Parties promise women development, but what about their basic rights?”
Komalavalli herself has suffered political setbacks. She said she was denied an opportunity to contest in local body elections. In her eyes, this election has let down women and her own party is a disappointment in this regard.
It’s a peculiarity for a state that has seen two women chief ministers. The first, Janaki Ramachandran, was the wife of MG Ramachandran. After the latter’s death, she fought to become chief minister and won, but her term lasted only 24 days. The second was J Jayalalithaa, who was elected as chief minister six times until her death in 2016.
“She was a gutsy lady, no doubt about that,” said Komalavalli about the former AIADMK chief. “If only she had provided a real sense of importance to women rather than for the development of her own movement. If she had, women in the state would have been in a different situation right now.”
‘Kamal Hassan is truly concerned about women’
Growing up in Chennai, Padma Priya Srinivasan’s life couldn’t have been more different from Komalavalli’s. She attended some of Chennai’s most affluent schools, far away from the world of politics and elections.
But this April, Padma Priya, 25, will contest her first election from the city’s Maduravoyal constituency as a candidate of the Makkal Needhi Maiam.
The MNM is fielding 154 candidates in Tamil Nadu, of whom 12 are women. Padma Priya is the one of the youngest. A former zoology teacher, her claim to fame is a video on the Environment Impact Assessment draft notification in 2020 which she posted on her YouTube channel, Chennai Thamizhachi. The viral video, which has over 54,000 views so far, detailed how the draft notification would lead to India losing its natural resources.
But with virality came the trolls and the harassment of both her and her family. She subsequently joined the MNM, in September last year, and is now the state secretary of the party’s environmental wing.
Padma Priya feels the YouTube episode brought her mental strength which will stand her in good stead this election. Calling the MNM a “safe haven”, she said, “Abusers feel that women with voices can be silenced through sexually abusive comments and character assassination. But they’re wrong.”
“Our leader, Kamal Hassan, is truly concerned about women,” she said. “Instead of freebies, we believe in investing in the capacity of people to help build their own standard of living.”
“Freebies” is how critics and sections of the corporate media refer to Tamil Nadu’s culture of welfare schemes, an important part of the social justice system. It started with the by chief minister K Kamaraj in 1956 and has culminated in parties scrambling over each other to provide a slew of schemes to the electorate, especially those that live in poverty.
But Padma Priya described the “freebie culture” as a publicity stunt. “No doubt we introduced the measures for homemakers first,” she said, “but we have ethics, unlike other parties.”
She continued, “How long do these mixies, washing machines and grinders last?” With her environmental background, she said, she worries that the poor quality of these so-called “freebies” would contribute to electronic waste. The MNM’s approach, on the other hand, is to support “self-dependence”, guiding voters towards bettering their standards of living.
Padma Priya will contest the election for the first time from Chennai's Maduravoyal.
On the low representation of women candidates, she said, “The equal representation by parties like the NTK will build up the pressure. It raises questions on other parties, which will only intensify going forward.”
What about the absence of women in the MNM’s candidate list? Padma Priya cited “injustice” to men to pick candidates based on their gender, especially in a party as young as hers. She also pointed out that Kamal Hassan aside her party has a number of prominent senior leaders who are women, like actor Sripriya and its state secretary Kameela Nasser.
“My party believes in quality first while equality is secondary,” she said. “There are many hardworking men who have toiled right from the start...It is only fair to pick the right candidate rather than go by the male-female ratio. We also need to consider the number of applicants in this case. How many eligible women are willing to come out of their homes to contest?”
For every 100 male applicants, she said, there are usually only 10 female applicants. “Shortlisting an equal number of candidates from this wide margin of difference is also injustice to the male counterparts in a way, right?”
What unifies most women political workers in Tamil Nadu is their healthy respect for Jayalalithaa, an opinion that’s separate from her politics and allegations of corruption.
“There was a reason she was called the ‘iron lady’,” Padma Priya said. “She made her way up to her stature from scratch in a male-dominated political atmosphere. No wonder she’s still being spoken about.”
A four-time woman MLA
Six hundred km from Chennai, P Geetha Jeevan, 50, has a lot on her plate in the three weeks leading up to polling. Geetha represents the Thoothukudi constituency for the DMK and on April 6, she’ll be seeking reelection.
Geetha has long ties to politics. Her father, N Periasamy, was the . While her father gave her the chance to enter politics, she said her own personal interest and drive made sure she stayed there.
Geetha joined the DMK in 1996 and became the chairperson of the Thoothukudi district panchayat in 2001. She was animal husbandry minister in M Karunanidhi’s government in 2006-08 and social welfare minister in 2006-11. Her brother, Jegan, is also a general body member of the DMK.
Geetha won the 2016 assembly election by a margin of around 20,908 votes, defeating ST Chellapandian, then the sitting MLA from the AIADMK. Her current campaign focuses on issues like uplifting downtrodden regions by bettering their rainwater harvesting and drainage systems, and championing the labour workforce in Thoothukudi.
On why there aren’t more women in politics, Geetha pointed out that even families of independent women do not offer them enough support.
“Even if a woman does make it to the party, party men around her suppress her chances of getting a better post, or contesting in an election,” she said. “There are men who fear that their own chances will be washed away if a woman gets an opportunity and proves herself,” though she refused to give examples of what she meant. Though her campaign isn’t specifically focusing on women, she said, women voters find her more “approachable” as against a male MLA.
Geetha is seeking reelection from Thoothukudi.
Geetha emphasised that the DMK has worked hard to bring betterment to its women voters.
“Right from the eras of Periyar and Anna, the DMK has successfully introduced schemes such as property rights for women in 1989, 30 percent reservation in government jobs, only female teachers in primary schools, inducting women into the police force in 1973...These have raised the economic status of women,” she said.
How many of these poll promises translate from paper to reality, though?
The current AIADMK government had announced a slew of schemes when it came to power, such as free mobile phones for ration card holders. This remains unfulfilled. The government’s marriage assistance scheme, which was Jayalalithaa’s pet project, also saw no progress in 2019-20 though it has since been resumed with the election; the AIADMK has claimed that under the scheme since 2011.
In 2016, the AIADMK had also appealed to women voters by promising to close TASMAC shops, referring to the sale of liquor in the state which takes place only through the government’s Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation Limited, or TASMAC. It even proposed phased prohibition, neither of which has happened. The party’s promise of “Amma banking cards” – to form banks like Mahila Banks – also never saw the light of day.
But Geetha is firm in her belief that the DMK will do better. Her advice to women who want to enter politics is to “pay no heed to petty discouragement” and “to have mental strength”, while acknowledging her own fortune for receiving her father’s support.
“Right from local body elections onward, once women responsibly take charge of an office for five years, the goal should be to strive beyond a five-year panchayat stint,” she said. “With dedicated fieldwork and public service, they’re unstoppable.”
This story is part of the NL Sena project which over 300 of our readers contributed to. It was made possible thanks to Vedant Kanade, Madhukar R, Shreyansh Jain, Navas, Ayan Dutta, Mathivanan, Padmani, Arjun Goutham, Sudarshana Mukhopadhyay, Ravi Pandey, Rajesh Shenoy, Sahit Koganti, Sarthak, Uma Rajagopalan, Somok Gupta Roy, Sam Sadguru, Tulasi Pemmasani, Praveen Surendra, Kamesh Goud, Ankur Mishra, Sharique Damda, Himanshu Singh, Akshaydeep Singh, Saurabh Bhatia, Chitrak Gupta, Mayukh Roy, Suhesh Lodh, Sumit Dhiman, Farzana Hasan, BK, Sandeep Sharma, Yuvraj Arora, Ranjith PS, Inderdeep Singh, Joseph M Raj, Gregory Cooper, Sayani Dasgupta, Soumit Ghosh, Daman, Raunak Dutta, Mhetre, Puneet Dravid, Md Rafat S Siddiqui, Shayan Sarkar, Aliasgar Khokhawala, Rinku Goel, Vijesh Chandera, Rohit Duggal, Qaim Alvi, Shubham Bangar, Sainath Naidu, Prabhat Lakra, Daksh, Bibhas Adhikari, Anima Dey, Sujith Nambudiri, Rahul Chauhan, Murali K, Aikya Chatterjee, Harshal Geet, Aditya Deuskar, Anindita Brahma, Abdeali Jivaji, Kamran Hambali, Pranav Prabhakaran, Ankur Mehrotra, Ston, Phani Sista, Kartik Rao, Sourav Banerjee, Ravinder Dasila, Rohit Jain, Gaurav Kumar, Anishkumar Madhavan, Abhijeet Kumar, Akash Chandra, Ridhima Walia, Priyanshu, Deepanker Mishra, Rishi R Mehta, Vaishali Miranda, Mithun Singh, Roger, Sandeep Roy, Bindhulakshmi, Jashan Ghuman, Subhadeep Banerjee, Suhas Gurav, Nahas, Apoorv, Reid Alexander Dsouza, Abhishek Chakraborty, Varun Arora, Oindrilla Mukherjee, Shageer, Arnab Chatterjee, Sahil Ali, Roushan Jha, Shamik Das, Srinivas Iyer, Simranjeet Singh Kahlon, Imran Shariff, Souvik Deb, Tamnjum, Rajeev Kumar, Nabil Shaikh, Sushmit Roy, and other NL Sena members.
Contribute now and help to keep news free and independent.