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India

In India, A Domestic Servant Rises To National Politics

Married at the age of five and speaking neither English nor Hindi, 68-year-old Pramila Bisoi has seen the hardships of life up close.

Pramila Bisoi, 68 years old
Pramila Bisoi, 68 years old
Sweta Dash and Abinash Dash Choudhury

ODISHA — On a hot summer afternoon in March, a surprise awaited 68-year-old Pramila Bisoi from Cheramaria village in Odisha's Ganjam district. After a brief telephone conversation in the morning, a vehicle arrived at her modest house. "I thought I was going to receive some award," says Bisoi. Little did she know that there were other plans. She was declared Biju Janata Dal's official candidate from the Aska Lok Sabha constituency for India's upcoming national elections.

It happens rarely, but the electoral democracy of India in such occasions demonstrates the true spirit of inclusiveness. Transcending the elite and masculine nexus of electoral politics even while it is embedded in the broader matrix of party-politics, the news of Bisoi's candidature was a milestone in Odisha's history.

Historically, the Aska constituency has been of immense importance to the ruling party, BJD. Aska was where Naveen Patnaik's long, illustrious political career began in 1997 when he first entered as a novice. And since then, the BJD has held the fort for 22 years, with Patnaik holding the Hinjili assembly constituency which falls within it. In that light, Bisoi's candidature is more than symbolic.

Bisoi, fondly known in the area as mausi (aunty), belongs to a humble farmers' family, owning less than an acre of land. Her eldest son runs a small tea stall and the youngest one works in a garage. Two of her daughters are married, and Bisoi confides that they have no stable source of income and depend largely on their production of wheat and ragi. Their annual income is between Rs 10,000 and Rs 12,000 ($150-$300).

She has no high school education and speaks only Odia. Married at the tender age of five, Bisoi has seen the hardships of life up close. Yet, she has never been one to give up hope. She began working as an anganwadisahayika, cooking meals at a meager salary. As an active part of a self-help group (SHG) for over 18 years now, she has been a true leader for people from nearby villages.

Bisoi has been a representative for Mission Shakti, the women's SHG movement of Odisha. She advocates for women's participation in civil society and has been involved in ensuring their employment. With her guidance, women from Chermaria have encouraged children to join schools and ensured regular meal provisions for them. They have also undertaken works on sanitation, health, and nutrition in nearby villages.

How can this uneducated woman represent us?

Life in Chermaria used to be very different: vegetation was sparse and agricultural income was abysmally low. Situated on rocky barren land between a river and a dense jungle, the village suffered floods and droughts. The families often did not have enough water for irrigation, agriculture and household chores. Bisoi knew that their world cannot change without the involvement of the women who were hidden behind the long veils and confined to the four walls of their houses.

"Nothing will change if we do not work for it, and who but women know how to turn things around?" she says. She admits that there was quite a lot of reluctance at her attempts at mobilization initially, but she lured them in with the promise of her ever-so-enchanting songs and stories.

The women knew carrying large quantities of water from the river was never going to be enough, and called for community meetings to plan a sustainable model for agriculture and water conservation. Seeing their unwavering determination, not only the men of the village but also the forest ranger and divisional forest officer assured their full support. Together, they worked tirelessly for months for their seemingly impossible mission. Today, Chermaria has not just large agricultural lands and jungles, but also safe drinking water and direct piped water supply."Without a provision for income here in our villages, the sons of our lands have to migrate to far-off places like Surat and Mumbai. The pain of their mothers, wives, and sisters remains," says Bisoi.

Still, the upwardly mobile middle-class has never warmed to Bisoi. Kharabela Swain, who joined the BJP recently, asked: "How can this uneducated woman represent us at the Centre? She cannot speak English or even Hindi."

For most in Odisha, Bisoi's inability to speak English and Hindi is already a hindrance to being a responsible legislator, if she wins. The media attention that she has received is mostly patronizing. A local media person asked her condescendingly if she had ever seen an airplane up close. Very slyly, he also asked if she could survive the fancy lifestyle in Delhi, a sharp contrast to her modest ways in the village.

In her village, however, things are different. One of her supports declared: "If Narendra Modi can talk to international leaders without knowing their language with translators, why can't Bisoi explain our problems in Odia?"

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