Supriya Sule, 44, is the sitting Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) MP for the Lok Sabha constituency of Baramati in Maharashtra. The daughter of NCP president and current agriculture minister Sharad Pawar, she has previously been a Rajya Sabha MP. A microbiology graduate (she studied water pollution at UC Berkeley, California), Sule has been at the forefront of a host of her party’s welfare initiatives and campaigns, from those targeting women and youth to those involving issues such as sustainable development, the environment, education and disability. She is seeking re-election from her constituency this year. In this interview she talks about her hopes for women, her constituency and the country.
You have been aligning with the Congress in the state and at the Centre for a long time now. This alliance that you have for the Lok Sabha 2014, is it on similar terms you had before or is anything different? No, it’s a very, very comfortable alliance. In the last 10 years we have had a very comfortable relationship. It’s very communicative relationship, and I am proud to say the NCP is the ally that really stuck it out with the Congress in good and bad times. We have always stuck with the Congress because we believe in a progressive India.
It has always been perceived to be a very troubled alliance. What have been the challenges and how have they been resolved? No, normally what happens is there could be a difference in policy, but nothing beyond that. I don’t think the NCP is one of those extreme allies. It has been a very, very fair ally and it works both ways. In every relationship, each party has to walk an extra mile sometimes, or take a step behind once in a while.
Can you tell us about some of the work you have done in the constituency that you are happy with the results? And are there things that you wanted to but couldn’t? Oh yes. There are always challenges. And development is something that has no end to it, and I am happy about it. What makes me happy are things like I have schools in every part of the constituency. There’s a teacher everywhere; there are books available everywhere. Now the kids are saying, “Can we have e-learning?” If they ask for e-learning that means the basics are taken care of.
There are PHCs (public health centres) almost everywhere and we have managed to get good road connectivity. Yes there are some roads which are not of good quality. I must admit that, some contractor must have done a bad job. We have made a lot of intervention in the ITIs. All the eight ITIs in my constituency are all connected, and we have partnerships with multinationals or global companies. We have a skill development mission, which is getting implemented for the youth. We do career vision fairs.
We have one of the best krishi vidyaan kendras in the country in Baramati, which intervenes a lot for farmers’ livelihoods. We have good sugar factories, which are doing very well, which add value. We have poultry; we have good dairy products in the constituency, which are doing well in the market, and not just the Indian market, but the global market as well. We have Nestle, which has invested in Baramati. It’s a very exciting place to be in.
What about the implementation of the Centre’s welfare initiatives? I don’t find it very difficult to do that, if only for the reason that the panchayats and the zilla parishads are all with the NCP. Of course, there will be one odd person in one odd village saying, “I didn’t get my Aadhar Card” or “I did not get my Indira Aawas Yojana home”. But at the same time 80%-90% of people have got it. So I think the central schemes are very well implemented in my constituency and I am very proud of them because it is a team effort; the MLAs help, the zilla parishad members help, the Samiti members help, the sarpanch does. I have sarpanches who do wonderful jobs. I was in a village six weeks ago, before we started the code of conduct, and I met a sarpanch who has implemented a Rs 13 crore water scheme for his village.
On the flip side, there are things that are not happening. For example, with global warming and changing lifestyles, water is an issue. And I really feel in the future, not just in my constituency, but all over the world, water is going to be one of our biggest challenges. The second challenge I feel is connecting higher secondary education and higher technical education to job creation. I think job and wealth creation is something we really need to get more manufacturing going for. That is one thing I need to work harder on.
And do you have concrete plans to work in either of these two areas? Oh yes. We have MIDCs (Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporations) everywhere. But it’s just not enough, because just the sheer population of our country, and don’t forget it’s an educated population now too, which is very hungry, very driven, highly talented. It just needs to be channelised, and opportunities need to be given to them. So I think that’s one.
And what also concerns me is automation coming in a very big way. Several trades are changing. Take the example of a sugar factory. If you go to a cooperative sugar factory, there are about 1,200 workers there. Today, thanks to automation, new factories can do away with 300-350 people. So, you have to look for alternate careers. But at the same time, as an example, look at the television media itself. It’s such a big opening for job creation. So, we need to make sure these children also have opportunities. I think that’s the big intervention we really need to study – connect market to our education.
What other priorities do you have for your constituency? The biggest priority, which I have been working on for a while now and I need to focus on more, is the issue of urban planning. Garbage is a huge issue, as is public transport. I think those are two things I really need to work on, more than I have. Also, medical waste. Today, we have so many hospitals. Are we really addressing the medical waste issue? I don’t think we are. We are looking for solutions; we have tried, we have failed in some, we have done well in some.
The last Lok Sabha elections were five years ago. What, according to you, are some of the ways in which national politics has changed, and how has that impacted local politics? I think one big change is the media’s role. I don’t think I gave so many interviews five years ago. My voters are more focused on the regional channels, so every time I have given an interview to a local channel I just get so much feedback. It’s not just big media, social media too is becoming a big channel of communication. These are changes we all have to evolve and change with.
Some days ago, you said in an interview, “Modi’s clean chit shouldn’t be questioned.” But your father very recently… I didn’t say that. I said, “Let us leave all these decision to the judiciary.” That’s all I said. Moral responsibility we all take for what we do – right or wrong. It might not have happened directly because of my mistake, but if something happens and I am at the helm of the affairs, I have to take moral responsibility.
Yes, but my question was slightly different. Also, your father recently attacked Modi’s brand of politics in his speech. Is there room in the party for different opinions on hot topics, or do you have a party line? No, we always have a party line. Of course, nobody goes out of it because then it goes into the ideology issue. But ours is a very democratic party. And everyone has a right to their opinion within the four walls of our party. I don’t think my father’s views and mine are very different. Because we have full faith in our judiciary system. So let’s wait for enquires. I don’t very lightly make allegations on people, because unless I have really substantial evidence it’s unfair. Just because you are in public life that doesn’t mean we have to take it down to a personal level.
There is a lot of talk about the Modi wave as well as an anti- incumbency wave. Are you finding this campaign a little more challenging than your other campaigns? Not really. You know, there is a phase of everything in life and I don’t go by ad campaigns.
Even in this day and age? No. Just because somebody is a beautiful actress and is in an ad for a shampoo, I’m not going to jump and buy it. It’s as simple as that. So I don’t get so easily swayed by marketing. Indian politics is now only about marketing. It’s actually about stability. It’s about leadership. And I think the Indian voter is a deep thinker. Let’s not underestimate him or her.
What might we expect to see on you national manifesto? I think our manifesto is completely on development. Inclusive growth that takes all sections along, and creating a fair and just society.
Corruption has been a very emotive issue for this election. What is your party’s stand on corruption, both internally and on the national level? No one can have a different view on corruption – there should be zero tolerance even though we might have different solutions for a fair and a transparent system. I think just allegations do not mean a person is corrupt. I don’t take all allegations seriously even if it’s against my opponent because I feel when you make allegations, it’s also up to you to prove them.
So how do you create that balance between perception and… I think we’ve introduced the RTI (Right to Information Act). It’s a great system where you can get a lot more information.
And how do you see zero tolerance for corruption working within the party? I’ll give you a little example. It’s like in our zilla pall the tendering is e-tendering now. You can’t make a change. It’s not a name, it’s only a code and number now. E-governance is a big help.
But what about within the party? How do you resolve issues of allegations? What we do is wait for a fair and transparent enquiry, and every leader in our party is completely open to discussion and coming out in the open and saying what the truth is.
What might be some of the issues which concern women in your constituency and nationally that you would like to see taken up? I think as a woman, equal rights is one big thing, and women’s security is a concern for anybody anywhere in the world.
And what might be some solutions you can work on? The only solution is good governance. The police, the person who is at the helm of affairs, must make it completely clear that they’re going to have zero tolerance for any kind of abuse, not just rape, but also domestic violence or eve-teasing. Why should any young girl go into college and be eve-teased? She is going to get education and she has every right. And I don’t believe setting time limits is any solution. If I was a doctor, and somebody has a heart attack or somebody has a child and calls me at 3 o’clock in the morning, I’m not going to say, “Oh my god! It’s 3 o’clock. I can’t go.” We have to, as part of good governance, provide security for any citizen to move around anywhere in the country whenever they want, whatever time they want.
What sort of police reforms might help? Not just police reforms, maybe even easy things like patrolling, public transport with cameras, alarm systems everywhere, where if a woman feels threatened there’s an alarm in the bus. That’s where governance comes in. Once somebody at the helm of affairs says, “No, I’m going to have zero tolerance”, people fall into line. Take the example of polio eradication. We have almost zero cases in India. Somebody really wanted to make that campaign work and it worked. It’s as simple as that.
At the local level, is sensitisation one of the things that can… Definitely, there has to be awareness. There is no doubt about that.
Because there is a political aspect and there is a social aspect. Social issues like a girl child – I hate to use the term ‘girl child’ because we never use ‘boy child’ – people prefer a male child to a female child. Dowry is a social issue. Domestic violence is a social issue. And these are issues with educated, cultured families as well. These issues don’t just change with legislation.
Do you feel more women in governance will help, and do you feel women’s reservation is the way forward? I think women’s reservation is definitely very, very important. It is the need of the hour. It’s the power of the 49%. That said, there can also be men with very pragmatic views. My father always said there’s one important difference between developing nations and developed nations. In all developed nations, men and women have equal rights. It’s not just the roads and railways, power and schools and this infrastructure that makes a developed nation.
Of course, there is the question of reservation in public office, but there is also the question of democratisation of parties so that there are more women in parties. One of your initiatives is been the Rashtravadi Yuvati Congress. How has that taken shape? What are the challenges of inducting women in politics? Oh yes, it is challenging. We started the Rashtravadi Yuvati Congress because whenever I went for a youth wing program, I never saw women in it. I was told “No, girls don’t come.” Parents were not comfortable sending them. I feel these girls must prioritise their family commitments first. They must be qualified and educated and they must get good jobs and they must do politics. You can’t do one or the other. I don’t want these girls to just drop out and start some mandal or the other, and make a quick buck and get into politics. Let it be a new generation, even if it takes two or three years to really get the whole team together. I’m willing for it to take some time. But we want good, new leadership. There is reservation but, unless good, new, educated, young women get equal opportunities from all sections of society, how will we bring in the change?
You mentioned prioritising family, but for a lot of women there might not be time left for anything after prioritising family, unless their families are willing to divide responsibility. No, you will be surprised to know, I see a lot of families today that are encouraging even their daughters-in-law to contest. For 50% reservation, everybody thought it would be a huge issue to find candidates. That’s not the case anymore. There are times when we get 15 or 18 candidates for just one panchayat, and we’re like, “We don’t even know how to choose”, because they are all equally good. So it’s not as difficult as it used to be.
So you are saying it a woman candidate is no longer simply somebody’s wife. They are no longer simply proxies? That still happens. But there is change. Women are giving speeches, they are talking about their rights. I see people, women, less tolerant to abuse than they used to be. It will take time, but things are changing.
And in your experience, do you find women who are taking up leadership positions at the grassroots level more sensitised to women’s rights? Because, many times that does not happen. Women in the police system or in the leadership are not necessarily more sensitive to women’s issues. I cannot say it’s been achieved to a 100%. We have a long way to go, but we’re getting there. I’m very hopeful and optimistic and I’m sure they just need that nudge or that one push.
There are several reports about factionalism in the young guard of the NCP. How do you and your cousin divide your roles? I think, first of all you can’t compare my brother and I, for the reason that he’s been in politics 25 years more than I have. So he has a huge head start of experience and I give experience a lot of marks. And I think we complement each other more than compete with each other. We are two different personalities. So we have different aspirations. He’s a man, I’m a woman. So there are some areas which I can’t cover as a woman and I choose not to, and there are some areas he doesn’t. For example, if a woman is struggling in the party or she has some issues, she is far more comfortable talking to me.
Every election is a new start. What might be some of the ways in which you are hoping to reassess and reinvent the party itself? I think, of course, we innovate our campaigns all the time, come up with new programs which reach every section of society. The way we started Rashtravadi Yuvati Congress, we have a big programme for retired people. We have an entire organisation within the party for them. We have a whole lot of talent and energy pool in them, so why should we let them go off it, or why should we deprive society of all the talent that they have? It could be a good teacher who has retired, a good lawyer, a good doctor who can help us make interventions within the party and policy making.
(Part of a multimedia series for India.com and DNA)