Dr.Sasmit Patra is a Rajya Sabha member from Odisha since 2019 and also a Spokesperson of the Biju Janata Dal. He has been involved with politics since student days. On several occasions, he has raised the discussion on women's reservation bill in the Rajya Sabha.
Q. Please tell us about your background and experiences of growing up in Odisha.
A. Growing up, there was a deep passion to do something significant and add value to my work. I was always pulled towards politics. I believed, and still believe, that if you want the society to change then you can also be the advocate for such a change. One may also talk about other ways of doing it but I found that getting your hands in the mud: the system where policies are actually implemented, as the only real option. It's difficult, but then that was a passion that was always there right from childhood. So despite the hindrances, I was always associated with student politics and then, youth politics and so on.
Growing up, there was deep passion to do something significant and add value to my work. I was always pulled towards politics. I believed, and still believe, that if you want the society to change then you can also be the advocate for such a change. One may also talk about other ways of doing it but I found that getting your hands in the mud: the system where policies are actually implemented, as the only real option. It's difficult, but then that was a passion that was always there right from childhood. So despite the hindrances, I was always associated with student politics and then, youth politics and so on.
Alongside, I kept on pursuing my profession as a Professor of Business Management.
Q. What was your experience of entering politics coming from a non-political background, what were some of the challenges to enter politics?
A. One of the crucial issues about politics usually is, when you walk in, there is no red carpet. So the initial years are spent in building up your own competence in the political space.
Competence in politics can be spoken about at three different levels: your competency in building a political strategy, your growth in an organisation and, what you bring to the table. I on the other hand, did not have resources to bring to the table and did not come from a political background. However, I took my education and skills to articulate myself clearly as my strength.
Whenever I face a challenge or get stuck on something, I think like a management consultant to find a solution. So, it's very easy to be a professor of management and talk about becoming a business leader. But the real challenge was to apply that to my journey into politics.
Q. Since you mentioned the challenges to establishing one’s position in politics where there are no red carpets, do you think these challenges different for women who are aspiring to enter politics?
A. I definitely think that there are gender challenges in politics. I will share an example, which will probably give a very clear perspective. I entered Rajya Sabha in 2018 and on July 4th, took my oath. On 8th July I made my first submission which was also a special mention where I talked about the women's reservation bill.
I found it very encouraging that chairperson said that it was a good submission. It was also an ideal first submission to establish something really close to my heart. But after making my submission, I came out into the lobby and a few of the colleagues said to me ‘Arre yaar... you don't have to fight politics, you are in Rajya Sabha.’ I brought this bill to the notice of the house multiple times. And, even after publicly promoting it, some still expressed thoughts against the bill. The point I am trying to make is that such narrow mindedness exists in society and in politics.
The way in which women are looked at as inferior to men has a glass ceiling effect among other limitations to growth for women in the Indian society, Indian politics and the corporate sector too. So while there is a strong impact that women in politics create and have created on one side, there is fear and insecurity in the male mindset which denies to accept such impactful work of women.
For a man it is much easier to engage in political and the political spaces, but, for women they have to have the support of the family, she needs to fit into and get support in the social framework.
So, there are certainly some issues, which are more for a woman when it comes to stereotypes, or getting that space. Men would very easily give space to a man, but for women, there is an ego and entrenched gendered understanding of women that would come up in their minds. And that is where women's role becomes much more important in Indian politics.
Q. What motivated you to pick up the discussion on the women's reservation bill several times in the parliament?
A. The first reason is my mother, she has been the pillar of strength in my life. She used to work in Jatani initially in the earlier years and she used to get up early, travel for about one and a half hours to her school and after work, take care of her kids. Having a working mother has shown me how a woman being strong and being empowered and taking the ownership of herself, can actually build the lives of others too. She ensured good education that broadened my knowledge and that helps me to articulate myself well today. Though there are no such sayings that strong women build lives, I believe they do. She has built my life.
Second, I believe as politicians or as political parties, if we have made certain promises, we should deliver. One such promise made is to 50% of the population of India about the women's reservation bill. For the last 12 years, we've been making this promise and we have not been holding it and thus, it makes us ‘Liars’. And I don't want to be called a liar.
Thirdly, the leadership that Mr Navin Patnaik has shown. His work has been one of the key drivers. Because when your political chief is on the front foot and batting for women's reservation bill, it makes it easier to understand this. So, these factors have some way or the other inspired, convinced and encouraged me.
Q. What are your other thoughts on achieving gender equality, apart from the reservation, what needs to be done?
A. I think women's empowerment and development is directly linked to their social, political and economic empowerment.
Let me give an example. In Odisha, we have Mission Shakti programme to financially strengthen lakhs of women through self-help groups (SHG). These SHGs are given small amounts by the government as seed capital which can be used for small business for village-based products. Through this, they regenerate their incomes and develop their business.
This has created a huge social change in Odisha. Today, 65% of women in Odisha own at least some physical or financial assets, such as savings, land and jewellery.
During my election campaign, I was in the interior district of Koraput, the southernmost district. There I observed that after putting their children to sleep in the afternoon, about five or seven women were sitting together and doing something in their small notebooks. And I thought probably they might be educating themselves.
And I asked them what they were doing?
And they replied they are self-help groups and they were tallying their expenditure, income, stocks and the work needed. So the afternoon time has turned into an economically viable activity.
Q. Have you come across any incidents of hate speech, physical or sexual violence against any woman colleague in politics. And what has your reaction been to that?
A. Traditionally, people in Odisha are soft-spoken and polite. I have not come across any woman politician in my party or any other party subjected to this. The kind of politics we have is not a rabble-rousing politics. And even in the parliament last one year, especially in Rajya Sabha, I have not encountered any such incident that comes to my mind where a woman colleague has in any way been harassed or assaulted or threatened or faced any other form of violence. So, I have not personally witnessed any such incident so far in Odisha politics or even in Rajyasabha so far.
Q. What can you, as a politician, do to make the political space more welcoming for women entering politics, especially the newer generation politicians?
A. Our leadership at Biju Janata Dal has always been proactively promoting women's political empowerment from implementing 50% reservation in local bodies to gathering support for women’s reservation bill.
With such leadership in the state and my party, I have always tried to encourage women colleagues in the party to freely participate in the political space. For example, as a spokesperson, I have been encouraging to have women panelists and spokespersons to take more space.
So when I am sent an invitation to participate in panels by media persons, I try to find and suggest a woman colleague instead. However, the media often wants to go with a more prominent figure. But I try to ensure that women politicians from the party come to the debates more in numbers and frequently. Apart from that, when we have the youth groups and student groups, I encourage the woman participants to take up leadership roles. So, the focus always is on mentoring and counselling and trying to ensure that they have the space to actually grow.
Q. Further, what is needed to become an ally of women in politics? Also, what could political parties adopt to make the space more welcoming for women?
A. First, the men in politics must look at women as colleagues rather than a ‘woman’ in politics. We have terms such as ‘male politician’ and ‘woman politician’ that creates silos for men and women in politics. So instead of thinking about the gender of the politician, we need to perceive them as colleagues and then look at the value they add.
Second, when half of the voters are women then the parties should understand that a woman candidate would be at an advantage in engaging with women voters.
Sometimes what happens is that men in politics strive to show ‘mein sab jaanta hun’ [I know everything]. Now, this attitude has to change and people have to realize that they don't know everything and can't do everything. A lot of times, the men in politics do not understand the value addition that a woman politician really brings with her in terms of articulation, in terms of engagement and in terms of assertion. And women work on issues beyond those concerning just women and have a deeper understanding of challenges at ground level such as education and healthcare.
Three, try to ensure that there is a certain space for her because that space will not be given to her very easily. And therefore, when you stand up for her, you do not only gain respect from that woman who believes that there is a space for her in this party but also attract the very talented, aspiring women politicians.
For political parties or the government that encourages women to think and express freely, and contribute to the process of governance, people would be included towards working with them. One will not have to buy people in politics the way it happens sometimes. People would themselves want to be associated with such a party. Why is Navin Patnaik our Chief Minister for 20 years, you tell me. Because women of the state recognize that here is a man who thinks the right things for us. For him, because of his education and his national and global outlook, people who add value are welcomed and encouraged regardless of their gender.
Q. Tell us about a personal experience of standing up for a woman colleague. What made you stand up? If you'd like to narrate any experience.
A. To be very honest, I haven't really had any situation where I have had to stand up and fight for a woman politician where she was being wronged.
And I think the women politicians who are around me are more assertive and stronger than I am. So, they never had the need for me to stand up for them. For this, I thank God and of course the state of Odisha. The state of Odisha may seem traditional from outside, but there is a sense of respect. I'd rather go along my entire life, not having to fight for someone and being happy seeing that there is no such need.
I have been the subject of ridicule for speaking about women’s reservation, issues of transgender persons, and anti-trafficking. I feel that everything that you say, if it doesn't fit the normal space of politics and the larger narrative of politics, even as a man in politics, you will be subjected to such ridicule.
Q. You spoke about your experience of ridicule while speaking about the women’s reservation bill. Are there other challenges that would limit anyone to speak up for women’s issues?
A. My friends and colleagues say “Are yaar tum badi auraton ke barein mein baat kar rahe ho….kyu bhai…kya ho gaya tumhe? Achanak itni himayate kyu kar rahe ho?” [Why are you suddenly advocating for women, what’s wrong?]
Like in a classroom, when the teacher asks a question, even if you knew the answer, you would not raise your hand, because if it went wrong, then people would laugh at you. That's peer pressure! And that exists in the parliament too, but some people do stand up and speak, but with some nervousness stemming from questions like what will my party say? What will my colleagues say? What will my supporters say? What will my constituents say? So, in such instances, men need to exert their masculinity to speak up for the right things (if I may use the word masculine in this sense).
Q. What would you like to tell other men colleagues in politics about becoming allies of women in politics?
A. I would say please don’t look at the gender of the politician; just like you don’t look at men colleagues as ‘men’ colleagues, look at women colleagues as just colleagues in politics. You need to adopt the competency lens and look at them as capacity builders, value adders and change agents.
Q. What is the message you would like to give to aspiring young women who want to enter into politics?
A. I would like to make two suggestions for women joining politics today. First, please don’t have any baggage of your gender while joining. Do not think that you are at a natural disadvantage as such thoughts would push you to think that mistakes that you make are because of your gender and there is no scope of improvement. However, that may not be true.
Second, have strong elbows! You will have to elbow your way into the process. It is also true for men entering politics. It may be easier for those who come with a family name in politics. In my own experiences, people see me as a person who went to Rajya Sabha in his 40s, but miss out on the 25 years of struggle in the political space. I think now, there are more spaces opening up for educated, articulate young women who want to enter into politics. If we continue in this way, politics beyond 2020 would have a better picture.
[Additional inputs from Nirmalya Kanungo]
Worth Asking interview series is aimed at having conversations with women and men politicians at all levels about politics as a career choice for women.