Congress' Mumbai North Central candidate Priya Dutt says 'it's not about winning polls, it's about saving the country'
Priya Dutt wears the legacy of her parents — actor-politician father Sunil Dutt and mother, the actor Nargis — lightly, although there is a steely determination to take their work forward
'The 2014 election saw a great campaign by the BJP. They completely changed the narrative.'
'I realised that's how they created the hype and propaganda — by putting out lies'
'There are enough alternatives to Narendra Modi — our country has enough good, intelligent people.'
The Congress candidate from Mumbai North Central Priya Dutt isn't one to shy away from her admissions: "I am not a very political person, I can't be manipulative," she says, laughing. Contesting for the fourth time in Mumbai, Dutt admits that she was politically naive when she started out in 2005, standing from the Mumbai North West seat after the death of her father.
“Now I have matured in many ways. I realise I don't have to be aggressive to get work done. (Although) people look at your niceness as a weakness," she says. In a sunny room with black and white photographs of her family all over the walls, her dogs wandering in and out, Dutt exudes a girl-next-door charm. She wears the legacy of her parents — actor-politician father Sunil Dutt and mother, the actor Nargis — lightly, although there is a steely determination to take their work forward.
And so it was, that after her defeat in the 2014 elections to the BJP's Poonam Mahajan, her involvement with the Nargis Dutt Foundation (NGF) deepened. Dutt felt it was a good time to take a break from politics, little knowing she would eventually end up contesting once again. In an interview, Dutt said even though she had no thoughts of contesting this election, it was the desire to change the current situation and counter the prevailing ideology that changed her mind.
Edited excerpts of the interview follow:
So what's the story behind your decision to contest?
I wanted to work outside my constituency. I had just lost the elections (in 2014) and although I was involved with the Mumbai Congress when I was needed, basically I am not that way a political person. That’s always been my negative point [laughs].
I am a hands-on person and passionate about working with people. And even during my tenure as MP, I used that platform to reach out to people. Now I had to get back. I worked more with the NGF — I had neglected it and didn't give it enough time, and it wasn't right for me to work with an NGO [while being an MP] as it was a bit of a conflict of interest situation.
At the same time, I was disappointed in so many ways at the way the country was going. The lack of development, too much hype over everything, and nothing much on ground. The divisive politics… people started coming out of the woodwork trying to be nationalistic or talking up their kind of nationalism. Lynchings, cow vigilantism became big issues, although the BJP’s mandate was completely different.
What is the reason for a beef ban? Why would you want to touch a subject like this? It was not needed. We always lived in this country respecting each other's faith and religion. We never encroached upon that, so let people be as they are — we were doing well together without a mass hysteria being created over things.
They, the BJP, rocked the boat really badly and were not able to then control it. Communities were polarised, atrocities against Dalits increased in the past five years, farmers were committing suicide in large numbers. Of course, these issues bothered me a lot and I kept telling myself I am doing the best I can in my work, reaching out to people. When you really go deep down, people don't want all this. It's all politically-motivated, the common person doesn't want all this… they are caught up in daily life struggles. The way farmers too have suffered… For the first time, the farmers' issues found an echo in urban areas. It was so in-your-face.
They have been insensitive to the plight of the poorest of the poor, the common man. Wearing that badge of nationalism, their interpretation of nationalism — why should we have to prove our patriotism and nationalism? These are very disturbing issues.
When I decided to contest, it was at a time when everything broke down into "What can we do?" I met Rahul Gandhi to tell him I am not contesting. He was very nice, never forced me. There was a lot of pressure from my co-workers and members of civil society, who were upset that I wasn't standing.
When I met Rahulji, he accepted that I may want to do other things, but said, "Today we all are fighting, not for ourselves but for the country." That really got me thinking — people like us, who believe in the unity of the country, in secularism, our Constitution, especially in our democracy — we all need to get out and do something. And I got this opportunity to stand and fight, and I was going to take it.
For me, it's not about winning the election and power, it is about this fight to save the country.
What are the issues in your constituency?
The biggest issue is housing — the slum pockets are very dense — and we were working to resolve the land issues. The use of Central government land needs a policy. If we want to clean up Mumbai, we need housing for slum dwellers — not in vertical towers. The younger generation is getting educated, they want a better life and we need to keep pace with their aspirations.
Another focus has been the environment. I read that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has received some award for the environment, but that is so contradictory to what he is doing on the ground. Look at Aarey Colony, the city;s green lung which is going to lose trees for the Metro car shed. We need to decide how much we are going to compromise. We'll be sitting ducks if we destroy every bit of green space. Look at the coastal road project: Finally, they were going ahead without environmental clearance. They were bulldozing everything.
The biggest issue I have is that they are working like an autocratic regime, listening to nobody. This is really crazy. Decisions are taken without talking to civil society. People have a right to give their opinion. All stakeholders need to be involved in any major decision.
What are your thoughts when you look back on the 2014 elections and your loss?
That was a great campaign by the BJP in 2014. They completely changed the narrative. The Congress was still stuck in the old paradigm, it was too late for us to change. The BJP was way ahead of us with social media use. They created a completely different campaign — like the US presidential campaign — and we were caught off guard, I think. We didn’t pitch one person forward and we were a step behind.
The propaganda they did on corruption for each candidate… I remember I was also under attack, with people asking, "Where was she? She didn’t come here." This, even though I had spent all my MP funds, worked very hard and was available all the time. Then I realised that's how they created the hype and propaganda — by putting out lies. People were blinded by all this and they only wanted Modi. It was an amazing campaign and there is a lot to learn from that.
We have learnt to be strong on social media. I didn't know what trolls were — I had little troll dolls which I used to keep. Suddenly I heard about trolling and it was something new! There is even a troll army [laughs].
This time, I am savvier and it's important to be on top of the game because there are so many lies being spread. We have to counter that as the last time we couldn't counter it — it was lies, lies, lies and there was no one who could defend it.
Recently, there was a tweet about me from the BJP: That I had used only 50 percent of my MP funds and the sitting MP had used a lot of funds to build over 1,498 toilets. I thought about it, and if I hadn't replied to that, people would think that was true. I dug out the details and put that whole paper online and said, "Please get your facts straight." If she [Mahajan] built so many toilets, it's one toilet a day — which is a miracle and you've spent more than all your money on toilets? That's unrealistic.
Do you think there is no alternative to Modi?
There are enough alternatives to Modi — our country has enough good, intelligent people. People say, "Pitch Rahul as prime minister", but we, as a party, wouldn't do that or project anyone as a prime minister. In the past, we had Dr Manmohan Singh and PV Narasimha Rao — who have been excellent. We haven't projected a personality. Rahul is our leader and he is leading and directing and he is doing a fabulous job. Look at our manifesto: He has had consultations with people, experts, civil society and it is a real people's manifesto.
What are your strengths and weaknesses?
I am a hands-on person; I love knowing what I am going to do. Even with my funds, I usually got feedback from the people of the area and what they needed and our workers did the due diligence. My constituency has 60 percent slums — what do you think people will need? Give them what they really need. In Bandra (West), we did a lot of great work: The restoration of the Carter Road promenade, Bandra fort, footpaths, open spaces, and for slums, we focused on basic amenities.
My weakness is that I am not very political. I can't do manipulative things, like some people, and use their funds according to voting patterns. In some parts of our constituency, there is no work done at all.
I have grown over the past three elections, and now I understand politics better. Earlier, it was too much heart, I used to get hassled and couldn't understand why people did certain things. Now I have matured in many ways. People sometimes look at your niceness as your weakness. Yes, you do have to be aggressive at times, (but) you can be stern and aggressive in a different kind of way. I have got a lot of work done my way.
What about the eternal 33 percent reservation for women?
It's not getting done because so many political parties don't support the 33 percent reservation. This time the BJP, for the first time since 1984, had a full majority. What is the reason they didn't pass it? When they talk of women, women's protection, half the population etc all the time — they could have passed it easily. The Congress backed it fully, but our coalition partners didn't support it.
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