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Use your privilege to democratise political spaces for women, Naga Sravan Kilaru on men's allyship

Naga Sravan Kilaru is the General Secretary of the State Youth Wing for Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in Andhra Pradesh. He is also a National Youth Awardee, a TEDx speaker and the founder of Yuva Galam. He is well known for spearheading the Yuva Galam movement between September to December 2018. As part of this, he cycled 1800 KMs across districts of Andhra Pradesh, speaking at hundreds of colleges and interacting with thousands of students.

What were your initial thoughts about politics, and how do you see it now?

Naga Sravan Kilaru: A decade ago in 2011, I had my initial interaction with politics during Anna Hazare’s campaign. On 5th June 2011, we organised an event in Vijayawada about the campaign and other similar issues. Before that, like many other young people from a middle-class family, who have no idea and exposure to politics, I thought it's a dirty space. My impression of politics was mainly formed by the evil political fights in the movies. I thought it was not a place for people like us.

From the last decade, it has been an exciting journey for me. I was extremely angry with the system and blamed politicians for everything, but now that I have started working with them to find solutions, it has been quite a journey. So now I think the way we use the term ‘politics’ has lowered the bar of expectations from politicians and given a wrong meaning to politics. I want to reclaim the word ‘politics’ and put it out as an art of negotiation that aims to solve problems and attain the common good in people’s interests. I think that's how we all should use the word politics, or at least start looking at it in this way.

What were your learnings after working with the youth from Andhra Pradesh and Telangana?

Naga Sravan Kilaru: There are many young people who are very interested in politics and passionate about entering politics, however, there are several barriers to their participation in politics. First, some are terrified to join a political party because of the negativity associated with politics. Second, there are hardly any platforms to equip them with knowledge about entering politics or encouragement to participate in political activities at universities, colleges or even political parties. Third, not everyone can afford to make politics a full-time job without having any career certainty in it. Even elected representatives sometimes have no assurance or stability.

We are made to think that we live at the mercy of politicians and that the opposition can’t question the government. Unfortunately, most of us are taught through our education systems that it is not ‘right’ to challenge those in power, in this case, its MLAs, Sarpanches and other elected representatives. As a young member of a political party myself, I see that there are many political parties that can significantly improve their platforms for youth participation. Parties want young people in politics, and even my party is trying to get connected with the youth. We want to engage with young people, identify young people, and get them into the party. But most of the parties don’t know how to connect with young people.

When I started the cycle yatra, I wanted to understand the stance on youth policy, the issues of youth in politics and building advocacy for a young parliament. But as soon as I hit the ground, I realised that these issues are far from the problems that youth faces. Nobody really cares if the state has a youth policy or not or the contesting age for youth. Many had no access to good colleges, and some were carrying 20 litres of water for their houses, working hard to earn for their survival. While young people were struggling with this, it was not that easy for them to relate to mainstream politics. As young people, we want certainty in our careers. We want to know if working with an organisation for a year or two would take us anywhere. So there is a wide gap that I am trying to bridge through the party I work for, and we want to find a middle path for these young people to get into politics.

Knowing both sides of the world, it is clear that young people want to engage politically, and at the same time, political parties want to engage with young people. We just have to find the right balance as to how we compensate on both sides.

What are your reflections on the political aspirations of the youth, especially young women in Andhra Pradesh, through your statewide cycle yatra in 2018?

Naga Sravan Kilaru: A story that I am reminded of when I think about women in politics is that of a college near Narasannapeta Assembly constituency in Srikakulam. I gave a speech in that college and found an enthusiastic girl. I called her up and asked her about her passion and career interests. She told us that a close friend who was married at an early age faced complications in childbirth and died. It shook her up, she fought against child marriage and this incident. She received negative responses and discouragement, so she had decided to go back after her studies to contest the elections and change the way things functioned in her village.

We applauded and encouraged her, but when I was cycling from that village to the next village, the only question I had in my head was that if this girl goes back and contested elections, will she win? I was also really ashamed that this thought came into my head. When someone is genuinely trying to solve a problem and who wants to do something good for society, the first thought that comes into our head is, ‘Oh no! she is a woman; she cannot win the election.’

I am sure that stories like these are everywhere. If it’s tough for a young man to get into politics, it is twice as hard for a young woman to even talk about politics, forget getting into politics. I observed that if a girl stood up and asked a question, a group of youngsters would try to make fun of her or make her insecure about the question she is asking or the opinion she is showcasing in public. We also look at politics as an authoritative job, and authoritativeness is associated with male egoism.

What can political parties do to bring more women from the grassroots level into mainstream politics?

Naga Sravan Kilaru: Today, everyone is comfortable with the way politics is happening. So we might be debating about various issues, but we are not really discussing the stigma that engulfs politics as a career. To begin, we must normalise the successful participation of women in politics. We have to get more young women contesting in local elections, not only through reservations but also by challenging the status quo of men.

Every political party has a women wing and a youth wing. But unfortunately, only a few parties actually keep them active. The role of women's wings in most political parties is limited to condoling rape victims and their families (if they are in opposition), and matters related to men’s drinking or the rise in the prices of household groceries. These are the only political issues for which the parties appoint women leaders to talk. We don’t let women wings speak of finance or any other state policies as such.

We need to have fair governance and power-sharing with political parties and, they have to invest in their affiliated bodies, especially women and youth-affiliated bodies. If they are stable in finances, they can start a fellowship, have workshops, provide travel opportunities to observe other parties in foreign countries and learn things. We can also send them down to the grassroots levels and enable activism for women rights.

More young people need to learn how political parties function to find ways in which we can change things. I hope and pray that some influential political leaders really see the need for more women in politics and develop efficient organisational changes.

As the youth wing secretary, what would you do differently to encourage more women to lead in politics?

Naga Sravan Kilaru: In 2019, after we lost the elections, I was a part of the affiliated bodies, where we were making a new committee, had multiple discussions, and Chandrababu Naidu was very optimistic and cognizant of the situation. We discussed having 10% seats reserved for women within the political party, and Chandrababu Naidu said, let's aim high, let’s have 33% reservation for women within the party to create stronger leadership. Having our leader vocalise and normalise is very encouraging for young women who are passionate about politics to see some hope.

A general trend for young people is that while political parties look for youth, they expect young people to join them. On the other side, many young people don’t know anything about politics or the parties and they don't see enough encouragement as discussed before. So it becomes very difficult for young people to join politics.

I am trying to have fundamental targets for the next two years for the youth wing. To begin with, we’re looking forward to having at least 10 % women in our youth wing in the first year and at least 20% the next time when we fill our positions. We aim to have women leadership at least as general secretaries and vice presidents, and hopefully for the entire organisation.

Our party is also trying to create a wing where women will feel more secure apart from the woman wing and then try to bring that professional aspect of politics into women.

Could you share any incidents where a politician has stood up for his women colleague in politics?

Naga Sravan Kilaru: I think one best example for this could be Ram Mohan Naidu. Recently, he has been very vocal in representing women’s issues in parliament. From taking his paternity leave to talking about sex education and the Nirbhaya bill in the house, I think he has created new norms.

This will normalise how a South Indian politician coming from a rural constituency can speak about some of these pertinent issues related to women. He is also working on a project on menstruation, focusing on menstrual health for women in his constituency of Srikakulam. He was quite comfortable talking about all these issues only because his party acknowledged and applauded his work in this space. It also means that many of his men colleagues in the parliament are very supportive of his stands and discussions. So, that way, we can say that our parliamentarians are highly vocal about these issues.

How has your party also stood up for its women leaders against widespread abuse and trolling?

Naga Sravan Kilaru: I will share an incident of the assembly when Adireddy Bhavani, the Rajahmundry MLA, was abused and trolled. It was a shameful incident where the speaker himself laughed it out, saying, ‘Why are the women talking about liquor issues? Do you know what liquor tastes like?’ Similar statements were made by other colleagues as well, and the entire party stood up and fought. We also asked for a specific discussion on this subject to ensure that Bhavani got her time in the assembly to represent the issue and raise her concerns well. Being an MLA for the first time and facing such abuse would’ve broken her, and I think Nara Lokesh and Chandra Babu Naidu sat her down and spoke to her about the entire issue and gave her the confidence. She went on to confront the speaker in the house and told him, ‘Even you were laughing at this, and it's unacceptable. It’s not how a person having this post should behave. You should know how to behave.’

In 2019, around September-October, the abuses were at their peak, and it was then that we had lost the elections and were trying to get back into the public; some of our spokespersons were abused online. Our spokesperson and other women were trolled, the party put in efforts and resources in creating legal teams, filing cases and writ petitions in the High Court. The party created a task force to tackle and identify the accounts abusing women online and file cases against them. I feel privileged to have worked closely with these task forces, especially looking into the abuse on social media. However, it was regrettable that we weren’t able to do a lot of justice to it.

What would you like to tell the men in politics about becoming better allies of women?

Naga Sravan Kilaru: Ideally, we shouldn’t even come to a point where one has to educate others about issues of gender in politics, and I am talking about all genders here. People of all genders need representation because of the diversity and unity that we have in our country. I envision a healthy competition between every gender in politics.

For this to happen, everybody should have an equal playing field. The main reason for having reservations is that specific communities come from a disadvantaged background and can never compete with other people equally with bridging that gap. It’s sad to see that some men think of it as a sacrifice to let their seats go for women.

It is regrettable to see even some ministers or celebrated politicians refer to men in opposition as ‘men wearing bangles’ if they want to abuse them or tell them that they cannot do something. We celebrate women in politics, but in reality, it is so hard for the women to rise and ask even the basic questions in a village. Forget about political participation; women having even a political opinion seems to be quite a bold thing for society. Things need to change, and only education has the power to change things.

Honestly, I really look forward to seeing a healthy competition between women and men where we don't necessarily have to sympathise with the women in politics. I follow women politicians and some clearly have more chances of winning if they contest an election than their men counterparts. The way women leaders have dealt with the pandemic in many areas has shown us that women make successful politicians and policymakers.

So for men, you are not making a sacrifice for the country, it’s simply your privilege that you are giving up. You have the privilege to use your rights, and if men have to do something about women in politics, it purely comes out of the privilege and the dominance that we have over the system. To get more women in politics, men have to democratise the system more than anything else.

[This interview was conducted by Akhil. Additional inputs from Vatsla, Aparna, Ekta, Ishita, Prayashi, Sarah, Vani, Fayeza, 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.

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Read previous interviews in the Worth Asking Series here.


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