Can a 25-Year-Old MP Lift One of India's Poorest Regions?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because she overcame obscene smears for a surprise victory.
By Pallabi Munsi
Taking a swig of water while attending to the sea of people who have thronged her home since the morning, Chandrani Murmu turns around and lets out a little squeal. “You know, it still hasn’t sunk in,” she chirps. Two months ago, Murmu was hunting for a job after earning a mechanical engineering degree. She is now the youngest member of India’s Parliament.
While preparing for a competitive examination for a government job, Murmu had received a call from her uncle Harmohan Soren, a social worker familiar with local politicians. He asked whether she would be interested in joining Biju Janata Dal (BJD), a regional party that wanted to field her as a candidate. “It was April 1. I thought my uncle was playing a prank on me,” says the young Lok Sabha (lower house) parliamentarian for the tribal-dominated Keonjhar constituency, whose preferred language is a mix of Hindi and English. Within hours, she had joined the party; the next day, she received a candidature ticket. At 25 years old, she barely met the minimum age requirement.
The small square room acting as her office is adorned with her party’s green and white flags, and a poster of BJD chief Naveen Patnaik hangs above her desk. Electricity is out for the day, and a frequent splash of water on the face is the sole respite from the heat. Murmu dabs her face with the dupatta (stole) of her green and pink salwar kameez. “To be honest, I was shocked but didn’t want to let go of such a huge opportunity to work for people who actually need help,” she tells me while pacing about the room.
If anyone does well, their deed is linked to their sexuality. It is absolutely outrageous.
We met in the weeks after India’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a resounding majority nationwide, but Murmu still defeated two-term BJP member Ananta Nayak by a 5-point margin, a stunning result considering that she came from nowhere.
Her entry into politics, however, would not have been possible had Patnaik not reserved one-third of Odisha’s 21 seats for female candidates, leading local BJD leaders to target Murmu. While Murmu admits that her uncle’s connections helped her, Soren contends: “She is smart, educated, compassionate and understands the problems of the area. What else do you need in a leader?”
Soren introduces me to Basanti Soren, his mother and Murmu’s grandmother. Jumping onto the sofa and making herself comfortable in her grandmother’s lap, Murmu says, “She’s the happiest that I won. She has ordered me to work diligently and not fall into the big-city trap.” The young MP swiftly changes her demeanor depending on the audience: To her voter, she is the responsible politician, taking care of their needs; to her family, she is their darling baby girl.
After her first monthlong parliamentary session wraps up in late July, Murmu plans to take a month to study the problems of her constituency. She has, however, already planned to focus on three things: education, access to clean drinking water and providing jobs to residents “who get zero benefit even though the area is rich with deposits of iron ore.”
Zoning out a little, she mumbles to herself: “I need to curb the illegal activities of the mining mafia too. The people of the area should get to keep their jobs at the mining factories.”
Gyana Ranjan Swain, a political analyst and professor of political science at Ravenshaw University in Cuttack, disagrees that residents of Keonjhar should stay put at their mining jobs, urging more “environmentally responsible decisions” from politicians. He is also unsure what action Murmu will be able to take against mining interests, considering their stronghold on the area. In fact, Swain says, there is fear and skepticism in the area that the mining lobby ensured her victory.
Nestled amid forests and mountain ranges five hours away from the state capital, Keonjhar was a princely state before its merger with Odisha, one of India’s poorest states. Tribes such as Santhals, Gonds, Mohantas and Sahoos make up most of the demography.
Murmu hails from the Santhal community, and from political stock. She lived with her grandparents (her parents were government officials who traveled frequently), including grandfather Harihar Soren, who served in the Lok Sabha in the 1980s with the grand old Congress party. (Congress, Murmu says, no longer has tribal interests at heart.) She grew up watching parliamentary debates.
Over lunch, Murmu’s uncle Soren talks of all the problems they faced while fielding “the young one” as a candidate. “It hasn’t been easy, and I know it won’t be easy in the capital too,” he says.
Soon after her candidacy was announced, an obscene video with her face doctored into it went viral on social media. So far, four people have been arrested for the crime. Declaring that she doesn’t want to get into details of the incident, Murmu says, “Even in the 21st century, women are not given respect. If anyone does well, their deed is linked to their sexuality. It is absolutely outrageous.”
Given the challenges, her uncle and his two friends — Santosh Panda and Siburam Soren — have taken the responsibility to act as Murmu’s “team.” They are keeping track of her engagements and helping her undergo a smooth transition from the small town to the national capital.
But does that mean she is just the face, and the three men wield all the power?
Twisting his head sideways in a vehement nod, Soren quickly adds, “The three of us will just ensure smooth execution and implementation of whatever she wants. The decisions are all hers.” Murmu, who was discussing the next day’s meeting with Panda, stops and adds, “I know they will never let me down.”
Swain points out Murmu is already a national political celebrity “thanks to her tender age,” which she could use to raise Keonjhar’s profile.
Walking into a small saree shop run by a Bengali woman next door, she says, “Of course I am terrified. But now that I’ve taken the responsibility of being the voice of one of the most downtrodden localities in all of India, I will ensure my young age and inexperience are not the only markers of my identity. I will fight for my people and never back down.”
And within moments, the stern and determined look on her face morphs as she breaks into soft, childlike laughter: “I think I’m going to wear one of these sarees on my first day of work … er … Parliament, I mean.”
OZY’s 5 Questions With Chandrani Murmu
- What’s the last book you read? I’m not much of a reader, but I last read a Chetan Bhagat novel.
- What do you worry about? To confidently be able to voice my constituency’s needs in Parliament.
- What’s the one thing you can’t live without? The support of my family — gadgets and all can come and go, but we have just one family.
- Who’s your hero? My grandfather.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? To travel; I plan on traveling to Kashmir, and Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
Read more: Meet the shop worker fighting for the right to sit.
- Pallabi Munsi, OZY AuthorContact Pallabi Munsi