'Politics Made Me Take a Lot of Pride in My Identity': New Karnataka MLA Nayana Motamma

Nayana Motamma has worked as a corporate lawyer at Luthra and Luthra Law Offices, and is an alumna of the National Law School of India University and the University of Pennsylvania.

During the recent Karnataka state assembly elections, the Indian National Congress (INC) claimed victory by winning 135 seats in the 224-member strong House, with the incumbent government led by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) conceding defeat on May 13.

Fighting on an INC ticket, Nayana Motamma was elected as a member of the legislative assembly from the Mudigere constituency in the Chikmagalur district. Mudigere is a constituency reserved for Scheduled Caste candidates. It is the same constituency that elected her mother, the former minister of women and child welfare of Karnataka, C. Motamma, thrice, in 1978, 1989 and 1999.

Nayana has worked as a corporate lawyer at Luthra and Luthra Law Offices, and is an alumna of the National Law School of India University and the University of Pennsylvania.

She spoke with The Leaflet on her and her party’s win, the role of women and non-party civil society organisations in the electoral victory, and her experiences with law and politics.

Q: Can you share how, according to you, the win for you and the INC happened in Karnataka? What were the major reasons for the victory?

A: A couple of years of work on the ground, and connectivity with the women and the youth were key to winning the constituency. Even though Mudigere is a reserved constituency, I did not concentrate on any one particular community. I worked with all communities, since everybody is going to be a constituent.

About the state and our party’s win, the people in Karnataka were very tired of the BJP government and its unfulfilled promises. People were particularly tired of its corruption. There was also huge fatigue towards the BJP due to rising prices of essential and everyday items.

The INC has worked for the overall benefit of the people in the past, and people felt strongly that it was time to return us to power so that we can serve them again.

Q: How did the caste issue pertaining to the votes of the Scheduled Tribes and Castes and the lingayats play a role in the state assembly elections? 

A: Caste is a very regional issue. Be it the upper castes, the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes, the Kurubas, or the minority population— they all have voted for the INC this time. Hence, depending on the region, it cannot be said that only a particular segment or a particular caste voted for us.

Lingayats voted for the INC in North Karnataka and the Vokkaligas in the Mysore region. Overall, throughout Karnataka, we have done well even in the seats reserved for Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe candidates.

Q: Why do you think people across all castes in Karnataka voted for the INC over the BJP?

A: The BJP came to power because of Operation Lotus. Immediately after the BJP took power in Karnataka, we were hit by the COVID pandemic. We need to see how the government handled the pandemic in Karnataka. Also, the BJP calls itself a double-engine government (to appeal to voters to choose the BJP in state elections as it would lead to better coordination with the BJP-run Union government, leading to better development of the state).

With so much going for it, did it work well for the people in terms of wealth creation?

Overall, people want better living conditions. They want wealth creation for themselves, and they want to do better in life. People felt that it was not going to happen during the reign of the BJP-led government, both at the Union and the state levels.

Also, resentment towards the BJP was on the rise because of the 40 percent commission BJP officials were allegedly demanding for government projects. Many associations and lobbies openly made such allegations. All of these things, coupled with the failure to meet promises, including in terms of job creation and price control, caused disillusionment with the BJP among the people in Karnataka.

During (current INC Chief Minister) Siddaramaiah’s previous government in Karnataka (in 2013–18), we had the Anna Bhagya scheme, to ease provision of basic necessities like rice, which worked well for constituencies like the one I represent, where poverty is a chronic problem. The fact that the BJP-led government cut down the quantity of free rice that was being provided to people— anything between 4–6 kg; in some places 4 kg of rice and 2 kg of ragi; and 6 kg of rice in some other areas— was a huge setback for economically backward people.

During the COVID pandemic, for two years, when life was very difficult, access to basic necessities like rice became even more important than before. However, the BJP-led government was oblivious to the plight of the economically backward sections. Compare this with the earlier Siddaramaiah government, during which, along with rice, dal and oil were also provided free of cost to those in need by the government.

In rural areas, the provision of such basic things— ensuring that the penerious do not have to spend hard-earned cash on buying rice or other basic supplies— matters a lot, irrespective of caste.

The rise in the price of LPG meant for household consumption, from ₹450 to ₹1200, is a huge jump. How many people can really afford such a price rise? In rural setups in particular, where the BJP government had sold the idea of cooking gas as an ‘affordable’ alternative, women now have to pay more than twice the original price, and there is a sense of betrayal.

These things hit irrespective of caste lines. It is not that caste does not matter, but above all, it is about being able to survive and live a better life, which the BJP was unable to provide. People felt assured that Congress has worked for the welfare of the people before, and it will do so again.

Q: Media reports point out that women have been big contributors to the INC’s victory in Karnataka. Do you think this is true? Do you think the hijab ban created a negative bias among women against the BJP? 

A: I interacted a lot with women in my constituency, and people used to say openly that they will not bring the BJP back this time in Karnataka.

I come from a background where my mother has worked with self-help groups, wherein she initiated the Stree Shakti Sangha 23 years ago as the state’s women and child welfare minister. The setup of self-help groups still works, and that setup is still relevant today; they are as relevant, if not more, as they were 23 years ago.

People want to have better living conditions, especially better economic conditions. Once economic conditions are better, you have a better social condition. People involved with the self-help groups get together and they talk about their everyday lives, including the money that they need to save and the loan they are seeking a waiver on.

People went through tough two years during the COVID pandemic, when they were not earning their daily wages. Now, they want a government that can make things easier for them.

The scheme to provide free bus passes for women while travelling on government buses changes women’s perspective. They can travel farther and more frequently now, giving them more freedom of movement as well as the economic and social opportunities to grow.

The fact that we are giving ₹2,000 per month to only women (under the Gruha Lakshmi Yojana) and providing 10 kg rice for every member of a below-poverty-line (BPL) household matters a lot for the economically backward— that is why women became the biggest backers of the INC.

In respect of the hijab ban, I do not think it had any bearing on the elections.

Q: It has also been written that non-party civil society organisations have played a key role in the INC’s victory. This is considered to be unprecedented. How do you think this played out?

A: I saw that in our constituency, Dalit organisations and farmer’s associations, including the Raitha Sangha (a Karnataka-based farmers’ movement), galvanised support for us.

Civil society organisations want the common man to have a comfortable life. Not making life difficult for a common man is the basic theme for everybody.

Firstly, for Dalit organisations, it is about upholding constitutional values. Who will uphold these values? Who is not a threat to the Constitution, and to what the Constitution provides for us? The organisations strongly feel that the BJP is a threat to their values. Secondly, the farmer’s associations felt that the BJP did not work in favour of farmers.

Thus, each of the civil society organisations have their own positive agenda which is beneficial for their own particular interest groups, making them come together to support the INC.

Q: Could you share your experience of being a Dalit lawyer in India and of being a student at the University of Pennsylvania in the US? Did you experience any caste-related issues in the US in comparison to your experience working here?

A: I was a corporate lawyer and worked in the corporate legal group of the ICICI Bank before venturing into politics. I never felt attacked based on my caste while I was at the University of Pennsylvania or at my workplace.

However, the subtleties of caste are always there— you will feel it with your colleagues or hear some jibes about it, which is something many of us who come from this background as Dalits live with.

Politics has been a great channel for me to own my identity and to be able to wear it on my sleeve. Politics made me take a lot of pride in my identity.

Q: You have worked with the Luthra and Luthra Law Offices, a leading corporate law firm in India, before joining politics. Could you share your experience of working with or your interactions with Rajiv Luthra, the founder and managing partner of Luthra and Luthra, who recently passed away? 

A: Mr Luthra is somebody I knew really, really well, and I remember him extremely fondly. He was one of the most generous people I have had the honour of knowing.

For instance, once, when I was in London for a holiday and Mr Luthra was there for work, I remember that he ordered a drink and he shared the drink with the people who were serving us, the waiters in the room, which spoke about what a big man he was— those are my learnings and takeaways from him. When I was at Luthra & Luthra, he took care of us very well.

I never worked directly with Mr Luthra, since he was a managing partner and I was working with the capital market team. Because we all had different streams to work on, I did not have any direct work with him.

Q: How has your experience studying and practising law translated into the political field? How do you think the two merge? Does law help in politics, particularly in relation to campaigning?

A: I had a lot of clarity about wanting to get into politics eventually, and because of this, I decided to study and practise law. Although I worked as a corporate lawyer, I definitely knew I wanted to be a politician.

As a lawyer, I had to serve my clients well and maintain a rapport with them, to ensure that they keep coming back to the law firm, and to give them the best advice. Also, I had to ensure safeguarding the interests of the clients. Similarly, in politics, one needs to safeguard the interests of one’s constituents and to look after their well-being, and that professionalism is something that I bring to politics from my legal background.

However, just because I am a lawyer, people expect me to know all fields of the law, which is an unfair expectation. As a lawyer, you can only practise a particular stream.

Hopefully, I will get into legislation and policy-making. As I mature in the political field, I hope to contribute better to law-making processes.

Q: Can you share your future plans or ideas about it with us?

A: Politics is something where you need to stay in the game. You need to be a winner at all points in time, which is the only way you get counted. It is important to keep winning elections and to do effective work. In politics, you need to be with the people, address their issues, be there for development, and to uphold things that matter a lot to your constituents.

Moving forward, I will be focussing on, firstly, the overall development of the constituency and the people within the constituency; secondly, to keep winning elections. According to me, this is the only way to learn more and get better in the field of politics.

Sarah Thanawala is a staff writer at The Leaflet.

This article was originally published on The Leaflet.