Jyothsna Tirunagari is the President of the Telangana Telugu Mahila, women's wing of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP). She serves as a National Spokesperson of TDP. She is also the President of Samskara Foundation, a nonprofit in Hyderabad, India, that seeks to train, motivate and assist people in improving the quality of life through holistic education and healthcare.
Can you take us through your family background and your upbringing as a girl child?
Jyothsna Tirunagari: My father was a principal in a government college, and I lost my mother when I was two, which made me an independent girl from childhood. Since my childhood, I have been a bookworm and loved to have conversations with people. Communicating my thoughts to people is that critical skill that has made me what I am.
I got married to a doctor and have kids. I did my PhD in Management, MBA in finance with a specialisation in banking and insurance. Started my corporate career with Ernst & Young and Deloitte. During my stint at Deloitte, my husband and I used to volunteer on the weekends. In 2010, I decided to shift into academia. I was always ahead in my studies, and it was a good idea to join as an Assistant Professor. And since I had good contacts in the corporate sector, I also became a part of the placement cell. I left the corporate world only because I wanted to pursue my passion and wasn’t doing what my heart asked me to do.
What made you move from academia to politics, and why did you choose TDP as your party?
Jyothsna Tirunagari: About ten years ago, in 2012, I was working on medical and educational support to people through my nonprofit Samskara. Through the initiatives, I wanted to transform lives, and we were trying to be a bridge between the government and the people for holistic development.
By 2015-16, I realised that people were not getting what they deserved, and the NGO system was not working: the decision making was concentrated in the hands of few. And one has to enter the decision-making and policy-making arenas for people to start listening and for governments and the authorities to listen and act on things. I was also part of the Telangana movement as a Telanganite, which has been a part of my identity for so long.
I eventually entered politics, contesting as a Corporator in Hyderabad Corporation elections as an independent candidate. Later, I became a founding member of the Telangana Jana Samiti (TJS) of Professor Kodandaram. I didn’t like the environment at TJS, quit the party. Then, worked as a political analyst and in December 2019, I joined the Telangana Desam Party (TDP). When I spoke to Chandra Babu Naidu (CBN) before joining the party, I told him that I wanted to learn and become a leader. Today, TDP has given me much more than what I asked for, and I am now in the process of becoming a leader. Being a party member made me more approachable and connected to people.
I see politics as service, one will face certain hardships when you serve society, but at the end of the day, you get to see those beautiful smiles out there, from the people who honour you, love you, and say that ‘YOU ARE THERE FOR US’
How has your experience as a first-generation woman politician been?
Jyothsna Tirunagari: Coming from a non-political background, I faced several difficulties in my initial days of joining politics. However, by the time I joined TDP, I was an independent political analyst and had already made a mark in the political space. TDP valued my experience and gave me a key responsibility by making me the President of Telangana Telugu Mahila. After six months, I was given additional responsibility as the National spokesperson of the party. So, I feel that the party recognises my capability and the efforts that I have put in.
In my case, I should say that I am fortunate that I climbed the ladder very quickly, and not everyone would be as lucky as me. I had already created a space for myself in politics earlier before joining TDP. I am known for working on people-centric issues. They call me the voice of Telangana, so definitely, these things enhance my political career.
Do you feel that your work is recognised the same way as the work done by your men colleagues as a woman politician?
Jyothsna Tirunagari: No, to be very precise and honest, we aren’t treated equally. The media never treats us equally. If you look good and your rapport with the people is excellent, only then you get recognised and not simply because of your merit. Moreover, women always have financial constraints. They also have restrictions on networking, whereas the men can probably sit together and chat for hours with the media representatives and network.
As a woman, I might not have as much time in my hands as the men have. Even if I manage to network and socialise, my character assassination may happen. If you wish to speak to people more, then it is considered that you’re giving them a leeway to take advantage of you. It may sound ridiculous, but yes, even the strongest of women politicians have been facing this issue, and none of us is an exception to this.
My character was also targeted when I raised my voice for the people. Despite making repeated complaints to the authorities, no action has been taken even till now. In my personal experience, I believe that nothing will happen unless you are influential.
What gave you the strength to overcome the challenges?
Jyothsna Tirunagari: When I decided to contest the local body election for the first time, many influential local political leaders came to my house. I was often advised to stay where I was and not try to get into politics. I told myself that politics is for everybody, and I won't stop. My strength, willpower, determination, and family support kept me going.
I am fortunate to have constant support from family, which plays a vital role for women to overcome these challenges. Surviving politics is not easy; day in and day out, I feel frustrated, and sometimes I think that for what am I facing all this nonsense? But then I tell myself that I deserve so much more and come out of it.
I know that I have to be in the field because I have it in me to fight for others, and I can do everything. I get all sorts of feelings being a human, but then I think of the good things. I think of the small smiles that I get whenever I go out; people say, 'Akka (meaning sister in Telugu), you know you're one of those strong women out there.' Younger kids tell me that I am doing an excellent job. They want to learn from me or follow me. These are my proud accomplishments, and these are the things that keep me going. I hope to be a role model for more people and inspire them to join politics to serve people.
What are some of the initiatives that the Telangana Telugu Mahila Parishad is undertaking?
Jyothsna Tirunagari: One of my key goals in politics is to get as many women into politics as possible, turn them into solid leaders and promote women's leadership. My party has always been supportive, and we conduct many programmes on Women's Leadership and women's issues.
We were the only party which led the movement on the forefront to get a functional Women's Commission for the state of Telangana. Likewise, we have been at the forefront of all women's issues in the state, starting from education to their political engagement. We conduct classes on political leadership regularly, and during the pandemic, we continued through zoom regularly. If there is any issue in Telangana that requires women to fight then, TDP's Telangana Telugu Mahila has and will always lead it. We don't like to be quiet on such issues.
Through our online presence, we constantly post about our activities and spread awareness on women's issues. Other events included roundtables where we advocate for women's rights in Telangana.
How do you see politics as a career choice for women?
Jyothsna Tirunagari: To start with, it is not only about politics. We don't have a single example of any field where women are overrepresented in leadership, except for the domestic workers in the unorganised sector. Women are vulnerable everywhere, and it's not an easy thing for a woman to sustain herself in politics because there are multiple constraints. These constraints weaken the woman when it comes to absolute participation in the field where she is working.
For example, whenever you mention a woman politician, the discourse immediately shifts to her character over merit. Our challenges are not the same as that of our men colleagues. Character assassination of a woman is the easiest thing to do. So it has been happening with women across different sectors for years. Suppose if the opposition parties want to put some dirt on me, they will think that it is easier for them to break my confidence, strength and growth by running a smear campaign against me and destroying my reputation.
Among other careers, public life is not imagined for women because of the roles they are expected to be in; mother, daughter, wife, etc. Anything that a woman does apart from these roles is considered to be added or outside my expected role.
We have thousands of party workers on the ground. Still, you will not see many women party workers getting the chance to contest elections. So, I don't want only a 33% reservation but a 50% reservation for women. The moment you have an equal reservation, stronger women politicians shall emerge in the coming years.
How would you like to support the young women who aspire to enter politics?
Jyothsna Tirunagari: So, I have created an entire project to tackle this issue, focusing not only on the women from the state of Telangana but also on the women across the country by continuously organising classes where they can explore new opportunities for themselves. A prototype sort of thing in Telangana where I am trying to convince my high command to give 50% seats to the women. Women should also make sure that they can make a considerable mark in their areas, and a good number of them emerge as winners.
I undoubtedly require the full support of youngsters in this field, which is why I am happy to be in this interview. There are also a couple of organisations to promote women in politics and women’s leadership where I contribute as a constant mentor.
What is the one thing that you would like to change for women in politics?
Jyothsna Tirunagari: I wish that the commercial aspect of politics can be removed. Women always face the high level of competition because of the financial impediments that surround them. Because of that, they are left behind. I also want to change the mindset of the people if given a chance. I want to state that politics is a women's arena as well. In fact, it's an arena for all human beings, where everybody can be a part of it and excel it.
What would you like to tell men politicians to become better allies of women in politics?
Jyothsna Tirunagari: The only thing that I would like to emphasise here is to accept Women’s Leadership. Just like how men accept the role of women as wives, home managers, mothers, family members and daughter-in-law, accept them as leaders in politics. Whenever you think about the political arena, do not demean women or reject their leadership. Once they are acknowledged as leaders, they would start getting more opportunities.
Let’s say that you have a talented friend whom you accept and recognise as a leader. In the future, if there is an opportunity in an organisation, you would refer to them. This referral usually does not happen in politics. And here, men have to pitch in and support those on the periphery. Just like all the other women politicians, I am also trying right now. In TDP, our National President Nara Chandrababu Naidu and General Secretary Nara Lokesh encourage women politicians in the party and accept Women’s Leadership. The workshop that I mentioned earlier was one of their ideas.
[All the photographs are taken from Jyothsna Tirunagari's Facebook page]
[This interview was conducted by Vatsla. Additional inputs from Apala, Anagha, Sarah, Tapasya, Simran, Natasha and Treesha]
This interview is a part of the Worth Asking Series 2021. The series aims to bring conversations with women in politics about politics as a career choice and with men politicians about their role as allies.