Thursday, 2 February, 2023
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How woman who vanquished Kamal Haasan in Coimbatore became BJP star campaigner in Himachal

By getting Vanathi Srinivasan, national president of BJP Mahila Morcha & known face in Tamil Nadu, to campaign in a northern state, the BJP is trying to gain foothold in the south.

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New Delhi: Ahead of the upcoming assembly election in Himachal Pradesh, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seems to have a new star campaigner in the state — Vanathi Srinivasan, the national president of the BJP Mahila Morcha and Coimbatore South MLA.

Drafting Srinivasan, a female politician from Tamil Nadu, to campaign in a northern state is being seen as one of the BJP’s many strategic moves to gain a strong foothold in Tamil Nadu where it faces stiff resistance due to ideological differences.

A lawyer-turned-politician, who has been associated with the party for over three decades, Srinivasan is one of the most recognised faces among the BJP leaders in the state.

Srinivasan has marked many firsts in her life — she is the first graduate in her family, the first to enter politics, and the first political leader from Tamil Nadu to head the Mahila Morcha nationally. She defeated popular actor Kamal Haasan in the last Tamil Nadu Assembly election.

She was among the four women — others being Smriti Irani, Rashim Dhar Sood and Indu Goswami — and the only leader from Tamil Nadu to be part of the BJP’s 40-member star campaigners’ list for Himachal Pradesh. As part of her campaign trail, Srinivasan visited Hamirpur, Kangra, Bilaspur and Shimla over the past couple of days.

Now back in Chennai, Srinivasan is gearing up for Gujarat election campaigning.

“We are currently meeting the district presidents of Mahila Morcha in Gujarat. After 14th, our mahila Morcha will go to Gujarat in full strength to campaign for the upcoming polls. Being the president, I would like to be there with them”, she said.

When she was appointed as the President of the Mahila Morcha in 2020, Srinivasan lay awake all night, nervous about her lack of fluency in Hindi. The leader, though, has been learning the language and even managed to interact with people in Himachal Pradesh, albeit with some assistance from local BJP karyakartas (workers).

“When I first learnt about my appointment, I was surprised. You see, one can become general secretary or national office bearer without knowing Hindi, but to become a Morcha president where one has to tour all the states, it is important to know Hindi. I couldn’t sleep the whole night when I got the news, not because of the work ahead of me, but because I didn’t know Hindi properly,” she told ThePrint.

R.C. Paul Kanagaraj, Tamil Nadu BJP vice-president and an advocate, said that her being a lawyer has had a role to play in her rise, as lawyers are “efficient” in whatever they do.

“She is absolutely worthy of the responsibility given to her. She is honoured wherever she goes. Though there are many women leaders in the state, she has proved her worth as a state office bearer and thus has been identified by the party high command and given responsibility for national role, as well as campaigning. She commands respect and whatever she has to say, she says boldly in front of everyone,” he said.


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Breaking language barriers

About campaigning in Himachal, Srinivasan said: “Our languages may be different, but the issues that concern women across states are common. So it was not all that difficult to understand what the female voters wanted to convey.

When she tweets in Hindi, she said some people from her home state get offended, but she has learnt to not pay heed to such criticism.

“Our goal was to promote all the women-friendly schemes that have been launched and promised by the BJP government in the state, whether it is free travel or ration for women or healthcare facilities, and to see how basic needs of women in the states can be fulfilled,” She told ThePrint.

Srinivasan said that during the meeting of senior party leaders, she was given the responsibility of campaigning in two constituencies — Shimla Grameen and Shimla Urban. She was also asked to coordinate with the BJP Mahila Morcha karyakartas coming to Himachal from the states of Uttarakhand, Punjab, Haryana and Chandigarh and the Union territory of Jammu and Kashmir for door-to-door poll campaigning.

This was her first stint as a star campaigner in any northern state. She was not on the campaigner list for any of the five states which went to polls earlier this year.

“We did the Maha Jan Sampark Abhiyan, and my team and I have been assisting local mahila karyakartas in campaigning. I also went to Solan and Bilaspur for coordination meetings for the teams of Mahila Morcha,” said Srinivasan.

When asked how she feels about being one of the first women Tamil Nadu BJP leaders to campaign in the election of a Northern state, she laughed. “Let us not see it like that, I was there as a Mahila Morcha president,” she said.

Emerging face from Tamil Nadu 

One of the BJP’s four MLAs in Tamil Nadu, Srinivasan defeated Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM) founder and actor Kamal Haasan by a margin of 1,728 votes from Coimbatore South constituency during the state assembly election in 2021.

Srinivasan was facing a huge challenge since the BJP had failed to win this constituency in the past 10 years, but the former Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) member managed to win the three-way-fight, beating both Haasan and Tamil Nadu Congress Committee working president Mayura S. Jayakumar.

Early life and career

Born in 1970 in Uliyampalayam village near Thondamuthur block in Coimbatore, Srinivasan got introduced to the ABVP through a Vivekananda Study Circle at the age of 17.

In 1993, she joined the BJP full time. Before being elevated to the post of state vice-president of the BJP Tamil Nadu in June 2020, she was appointed state secretary for the party in 2013 and continued in that capacity until 2014 when she was appointed the general secretary of the state BJP. Earlier this year, she was also included in the party’s Central Election Committee.

“I am not only a first generation politician, but a first generation graduate as well. Neither of my parents studied beyond 8th standard, and I had no political connection, except being influenced by the RSS’ (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) ideology at a young age,” she told ThePrint.


Also read: In Tamil Nadu, how Dalit-led party VCK is using Manusmriti to target RSS


Support from women leaders

She is said to have been mentored by Pon Radhakrishnan, a veteran BJP leader and former Union Minister from Tamil Nadu who has been on the sidelines since new leaders such as K. Annamalai, Tamilisai Soundararajan and L. Murugan emerged.

“There have been many leaders who have taught me various things. When Pon Radhakrishnan was the BJP president in Tamil Nadu, he encouraged me a lot. I was hesitant to enter full-time politics but he motivated me to join and gave me opportunities,” she said.

Srinivasan also gives credit to women leaders for her growth.

“Smriti Irani ji was National President when I was the state president and she has been encouraging me since 2009. When I decided to contest elections, Sushma Swaraj ji said it was a good decision and told party leaders that women candidates should be encouraged. Nirmala Sitharaman ji also motivated me,” she said.

Srinivasan’s campaigning efforts like ‘Ask Vanathi’ and ‘Coffee with Vanathi’ earned her praise, especially among the youth of Tamil Nadu.

Earlier in April 2021, talking to thePrint, Srinivasan had said “We have put a narrative to the Tamil Nadu people that only we are treating all religions alike. Why is the DMK dividing people on communal lines? Why is Mr Stalin giving wishes only for Islamic or Christian festivals and not for Hindu ones and Hindu people?”

This is not the first time the BJP has relied on Srinivasan for an important responsibility. In 2017 during the peak of political crisis in the state following the prolonged illness and death of All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) chief J. Jayalalithaa, she was used by the party to open channels with the AIADMK leader and former Tamil Nadu CM Edappadi K. Palaniswami.

“Even as a state vice-president and secretary, I was given responsibility for big programmes in the state such as the PM’s rally, Amit Shah Ji’s rally. Even when BJP fought the election alone, I was among those senior leaders who didn’t lose the deposit. From 2014 onwards, I took up various initiatives in my constituency, like starting an NGO to promote the PM’s schemes. I was seen as a person who could connect with people from the grassroot, since I am also from the same background.”

‘Absolutely worthy of the responsibility’

Tamil Nadu BJP leader and former general secretary H. Raja, who knows Srinivasan from his time in the RSS, said: “I have known her since 1985. I was a Vyavastha Pramukh during a state executive meeting of the ABVP when I met her. One should be given an opportunity according to the time devoted by the karyakarta. If she has been chosen and given such responsibilities by the party, it means others are not as capable.”

He added that everybody in the party will naturally have some mentor of their choice, so he doesn’t see any role of a mentor in her success.

Political analyst and senior journalist Maalan V. Narayanan says Srinivasan has made her space within the party, and is quite popular among the masses too.

“She has been associated with the BJP’s ideology since student days, so she has been working in the field from that age. She was known among the cadres of the RSS and BJP. But once she was given responsibility as state office bearer, she started appearing in television debates where she would put her point across very clearly and in a lucid manner. That earned her appreciation as a leader who thinks and speaks clearly,” he said.

She is also popular in her constituency for taking up many initiatives for the welfare of women, students and Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME), Narayanan said.

“As a chairperson of the Mahila Morcha, too, she has travelled across the country and built good rapport with people across states,” said Narayanan. “Even though she is not fluent in Hindi, she is still able to converse in the language…. The BJP is keenly observing her performance in the field and I won’t be surprised if in five years, she is given some ministerial berth. It can happen in the BJP because who had thought before 2014 that Nirmala Sitharaman would be given such important portfolios.”

Strategic move 

Political commentator and professor and head of the department of politics and public administration, University of Madras, Ramu Manivannan said choosing her as the national president of the Mahila Morcha by the BJP is a strategic move, as BJP wants to break into Tamil Nadu, and female voters are in great numbers in the state.

“She is among the few in the state who is a recognised face from the BJP. The party itself is an emerging party in Tamil Nadu. She has locus standi vis a vis on a national level as well. If she is going to campaign in other states, it is a good credential for her. I have seen her travelling to different parts of the country and she is quite active. In Coimbatore, she planned a protest against the Tamil Nadu government on electricity tariff hike,” he said.

“She is trying to acquire a space in Tamil Nadu politics on her own terms. But if you ask if she has contributed significantly as a state leader of the BJP, I am not aware. It is easy to go to Himachal and campaign, but not that easy to work in the state among your own people,” he added.

Manivannan pointed out that Srinivasan was chosen as national leader of the Mahila Morcha despite having lost elections in the past. “But we have seen in the BJP that even if people have lost elections, they can go on and become an important part of the party. She is one of the few leaders in Tamil Nadu who maintains her decorum very well in public,” Manivannan said.

(Edited by Geethalakshmi Ramanathan)


Also read: Tamil Nadu isn’t so ‘South’ now. Stalin wants to paint BJP ‘northern’ with anti-Hindi bogey


 

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