She worked as vice-president at investment bank JP Morgan in New York and London before joining politics in India, and emerging as a star politician after showing her mettle to stand up to the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party lawmakers in Parliament with a spirited address that vivisected Prime Minister Modi’s claims about “good days” and BJP’s hyper-nationalism.
Mahua Moitra, a first-time member of Parliament from Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, who quit her high-profile job in London in 2008 to join politics, made a powerful case for dissent in the Lok Sabha and warned the BJP government headed by Modi of “danger signs of early fascism.”
Moitra’s ten-minute speech went viral, as the 44-year-old first-time parliamentarian took on the government single handedly and point-by-point in a manner hardly witnessed in recent years in Lok Sabha, where ruling party members arguably betray a “majoritarian mindset” thanks to a decimated Opposition.
Moitra, who studied economics and mathematics from Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, said at the outset of her feisty speech on June 25 that she accepted the people’s mandate in favor of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, but then attacked Modi and his government unsparingly.
She said while she acknowledges that people across the country demonstrated unequivocally that they wanted the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi back in power for a second term, she added that “the very nature of the overwhelming-ness of this mandate makes it necessary for the voices of dissent to be heard.”
The ruling Bhartiya Janata Party boasts of 350 parliamentarians in the 543-member lower House of the Parliament that critics say has given the ruling party a majoritarian mindset.
It was the first time since Modi came to power for the second time that an Opposition lawmaker could rise up to make a strong case for dissenting voices in the House.
According to news reports, in the first two days of the 17th Lok Sabha, the newly-elected BJP MPs decided to show-off their brute majority by heckling the opposition, especially the Muslim MPs. A large section of BJP MPs interrupted oath-taking of several MPs from opposition parties with loud chants of “Jai Shri Ram.”
The Wire wrote on June 19 that while light banter between political parties has long existed in Parliament, the manner with which BJP legislators jeered the opposition MPs on June 18 as they came forward to take their oath was nothing short of intimidation.
After Moitra’s maiden speech in English, peppered with Hindi and Urdu poetry, ruling party lawmakers, long used to getting their way in the house without much forceful Opposition, were taken aback as she introduced what the media in India described as the “call-out culture” that the Parliament never had in recent years.
In her address, Moitra held the ruling party flatly accountable for the “danger signs of early fascism” in India under the ruling party. Noting that she had seen a list of the early warning signs of fascism on a poster in the Holocaust Memorial Museum in the U.S., Moitra listed seven danger signs in her ten-minute speech to drive home her point that India’s constitution was under threat and the country was being “torn apart” by the ruling party’s “lust to divide.”
And because of this majority, Moitra asserted, dissent was important as there are no “natural checks and balances in the Lok Sabha” due to the Opposition’s shrunken strength and the ruling party’s unprecedented numbers.
This was not the first time that Moitra became the widely-talked about legislator. On earlier occasions too she drew media attention for her courage to challenge the Modi government on other issues where not many politicians have dared to confront the government openly.
The Only Politician to Throw Challenge to Modi
The Huffingtonpost.in noted that Moitra “is the only politician who has gone to court” to stop the Modi government from snooping on social media feeds of people or breaking into their computers.
Moitra has three petitions pending at the Supreme Court against the Modi government’s social media and surveillance efforts. The first one against UIDAI’s (Unique Identification Authority of India ) attempts to gauge popular sentiment on Aadhaar Card by monitoring social media accounts, the second against the Ministry of Home Affairs notification empowering 10 government agencies to pre-emptively intercept, monitor or decrypt any computer to prevent any cognizable offense. She has filed a third petition seeking an interim stay on the government’s efforts of surveillance of computers in West Bengal.
HuffPost said in the report that during the course of the conversation with the paper, Moitra repeatedly asserted that she has filed the Public Interest Litigation in her “personal capacity.”
She said despite more and more people using smartphones and the internet, “it is hard to explain an abstract concept like data privacy to an electorate more receptive to rousing speeches on religion, jobs or government schemes.”
In her Lok Sabha address, Moitra said there is a powerful and continuing nationalism that is searing into the national fabric. “It is superficial, it is xenophobic, and it is narrow. It’s the lust to divide and not the desire to unite,” adding that the government and religion are now intertwined. “Do I even need to speak about this? Need I remind you that we have redefined what it means to be a citizen?” she asked, adding that laws had been amended to target Muslims.” Moitra went on with her address despite repeated attempts by members of the treasury bench to shout her down.
Unfazed, Moitra called on the speaker to rein in the “professional hecklers.” Every time the NDA lawmakers shouted their protest, she erupted, “Sir, there is no room for professional hecklers in the corridors of this great hall, I urge you to put the House in order.”
News reports said while the speech received thousands of views on Twitter and YouTube and was commented on Facebook, Moitra was targeted by trolls saying she had copied her speech from American commentator Martin Longman’s 2017 article, titled “The 12 Early Signs of Fascism” and accused her of plagiarism.
Ironically, Longman himself refuted the plagiarism charge against Moitra, saying on Twitter, “I’m internet famous in India because a politician is being falsely accused of plagiarizing me. It’s kind of funny, but right-wing as***les seem to be similar in every country.”
Rightblog.in, India’s leading rightwing blog, alleged that although the first-time MP from the TMC hogged the limelight after her maiden speech in the lower house of the parliament, her speech was based on the “long-standing opposition agenda of fear-mongering that fascism has arrived in India.”
Moitra in her address criticized the government for its “unimaginable subjugation and control of mass media”, saying that India’s TV channels spend “the majority of airtime broadcasting propaganda for the ruling party.”
She attacked the government for what she said was an “obsession with national security”, saying an “atmosphere of fear” pervaded the country, with new enemies being created every day.
She said a complete disdain for intellectuals and the arts and the “repression of all dissent” was the most dangerous sign of all and it was “pushing India back to the Dark Ages.”
Breath of Fresh Air in Parliament
The Hindu newspaper wrote in an article praising Moitra’s maiden speech as did several other media outlets. “In a Lok Sabha where educated, erudite leaders, who are also powerful orators — not rabble rousers donning various religious hues — have dwindled, Moitra’s presence comes like a breath of fresh air. The House sorely misses the oratory of an Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Piloo Mody, Somnath Chatterjee and the like,” it noted.
Her emotional speech resonated well with people in the U.S., even those who did not know her.
Raj Sharma, a Massachusetts-based private wealth investor wrote on Moitra’s Facebook wall that it was a passionate speech by India’s new MP from Kolkata Mahua Moitra. Noting that she is a graduate of Mount Holyoke and worked in investment banking in the U.S. before returning to India to join politics, Sharma said regardless of whether one agrees with her, she deserves to be heard (because) that’s what a democracy is all about. “I do not know Mahua but was certainly impressed by her message,” Sharma told this correspondent.
Bitten by Politics Bug Early in Life
Moitra was admittedly bitten by the politics bug early in her life. In an interview with NewsX on Facebook, Moitra recalled that when she was a freshman at Mount Holyoke, she wrote a letter to her parents saying that she would work in the U.S. for some time but made it clear that she would eventually go back to India at some point to be in public life.
She said it was “not a very structured desire” at the age of 18 as to what exactly she wanted to do and which brand of politics she would like to join but she certainly knew she wanted to do something in public life.
“I am a pretty strong-willed person and after working for 11 years in the corporate world in the U.S., and by the time I turned 30, I decided it is time now I want to do what I wanted to do in order to be in public life,” she told the interviewer, adding that she heard from her mother that even as a child she talked about wanting to do something in public life.
“At that age you have some ideas, some figures in your head and you think you want to be like them. You want to do this kind of work, and you want to change policy. So, I think these are the ideas that drive you rather than a set path,” Moitra said.
When the interviewer drew her attention to the fact that thanks to her iconic Lok Sabha address, she was the talk of the town in social media, Moitra claimed she is not on the social media.
“Therefore, a lot of these attention on social media have missed me!” she said. That bit of revelation may be surprising, given that it is Moitra who has challenged the government’s monitoring of peoples’ social media accounts.
Initial Years in Politics
She argued that for her joining politics was not a career but more of a vocation, the inspiration for which comes from within. As if to pursue her passion for public life in preference to the high-flying corporate world she once reportedly told her ex-husband, identified by WikiBio as Lars Brorson, who is of Danish origin, that she does not want to go for her 20-year college reunion as a VP or something of JP Morgan.
According to a report in thecitizen.in, after returning to India in 2008 to join politics Moitra worked with Rahul Gandhi, former president of the Congress Party for a while and was placed in charge of the Youth Congress in West Bengal, but eventually she resigned, realizing that the party was not really going anywhere.
It is at that point that West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, with her penchant for bringing in young people, got her into the party in 2010, and six years later she was given a West Bengal Assembly ticket from Kolkata and she won the seat. She was elevated to general secretary of the TMC and its spokesperson. Moitra was fielded for the Lok Sabha elections this year and emerged a winner, a first time MP from the Krishnanagar parliamentary constituency in West Bengal. Moitra recalls that her parents were very upset when she quit her job in London literally overnight and came back to Kolkata, the place where she grew up.
The Alumnae Association of Mount Holyoke College shared Moitra’s debut parliamentary address on its Facebook page as did the college’s news and media page with a news article titled “Mahua Moitra ‘98 speech decries fascism.”
Reached over phone for comments on Moitra’s days at the college, the author of the news article, Christian Feuerstein, director of News and Media Relations, could not give any personal recollection about her as she studied almost 20 years ago.
The Alumnae Association members paid glowing tributes to her on its Facebook page after reading the news about her speech in Indian Parliament. “Absolutely outstanding!” noted alumna Susan Anderson. “Congratulations Mahua for making a difference in the world and being inspiring!” said another, Helena Tavares Kennedy. “Bravo!!,” exclaimed Diana Duane Coyne. None of them could be reached at press time for further comments.
A Stylish Woman and a Charismatic Personality
A little known fact about Moitra was brought to light by Verve magazine in a report in September 2014 in which it noted that for a full-time politician with the Trinamool Congress, “Mahua is one stylish woman.” The magazine added a note in its September 2014 issue that Verve and Louis Vuitton revisit the charming city of Kolkata to catch up with eight charming women, and discover their love for fashion, diamonds, high heels, eye-catching arm candy and much more.
“A charismatic personality, Mahua is never seen without her crisp cotton saris and a Louis Vuitton slinging on her arm. As she enters the suite in a beautiful Rahul Mishra creation from his latest Fall/Winter collection, Mahua doesn’t fail to impress from the start to the end,” it said after shooting her in Taj Bengal.
“I need to wear my clothes rather than the other way around. Nothing should be too overwhelming.
“When I’m working, I wear only saris in natural and handloom fabrics from Bengal and Jharkhand regions. For an evening out I prefer dresses. I wear a lot of Indian designers like Rahul Mishra, Anamika Khanna, Dev R Nil and international labels like Moschino and Burberry to name a few,” she told the magazine.
“My first Louis Vuitton, a monogram Alma, was a gift from my husband in London. What I love about Kolkata women is that they are happy in their own skin and don’t try too hard to fit in. From a young college student in chappals and a ganji to a bureaucrat in a starched cotton sari, each woman is aware that the clothes do not define who she is. My favorite piece in my wardrobe is my mother’s blue wedding sari,” Moitra said at that time.