S.Jothimani, 43, is the Lok Sabha MP from Karur and the only woman member of Parliament from the Congress party in Tamil Nadu. Jothimani started her political career as a panchayat ward councillor, and earned a high post in the Youth Congress. Over time she came to be seen as a close confidante of party president Rahul Gandhi, and in the 2019 general election she defeated M.Thambi Durai, AIADMK leader and Deputy Speaker of the Lok Sabha, by over four lakh votes.

Excerpts from an interview with The Citizen.

You contested in the 2011 assembly election and the 2014 general election, but this time you won by a huge margin. What were the key points you kept in mind while campaigning this time?

We meticulously planned our campaign, drawing two lines.

First, that the campaign would be positive. We would not go into abuse when the other side started to. We only focused on what we were going to give to the people of the constituency, based on our promises.

Second, that we would not engage in or promote any form of violence at any point of time.

So these two things were non-negotiable throughout the campaign. When the opposite side did either, we didn’t respond. We kept talking about the promises made by the Congress party in its manifesto, and what the DMK manifesto promises.

I focused on saying: if I get elected as a member of parliament, this is what I will deliver to the constituency.

We did some homework, we sent our team across Karur to have conversations with people from different groups, we collected all the input from the people, and then we prepared a constituency manifesto for Karur. It is probably the only constituency across Tamil Nadu which has its own manifesto.

We stuck with this manifesto till the end. People were very happy that someone had really put in some serious efforts even before getting elected. And I have a 23 year track record in the constituency – whether I win or lose elections, I don’t mind working with the people. I never compromise with my principles. So this election trend also was in favour of us.

We have a very strong alliance and Tamil Nadu is the only state where we announced the prime ministerial candidate. DMK president M.K.Stalin announced that Congress president Rahul Gandhi was the favoured PM candidate. And the people of Tamil Nadu completely accepted it. So that is also a factor.

I am someone who comes from a very humble background. I have completely stuck with my principle-oriented politics a lot, for over two decades. I’m known for my honesty and integrity in politics, and also as someone who’s very aggressively fighting for people’s issues. Youngsters especially took it very seriously, and they themselves got into the campaign.

The third thing is, people warned me of this, beyond the political parties – there are campaigns to contend with even outside the parliamentary constituency. People’s movements happened within the constituency – that’s the reason for the highest lead.

There was perfect teamwork in the alliance, in terms of who would deal with what. The DMK, the Congress and other political parties, we worked as a team to the end. We fought very hard.

Because one more thing is, the Deputy Speaker of the Lok Sabha used all the methods. All the illegal methods. He used central government powers, state government powers, district administration powers. Telling me at one point during a telephone conversation that he would recommend cancelling the election. We didn’t get permissions for rallies, so we went on a dharna to get them.

The way they dealt with the complete campaign, we didn’t respond to those kinds of things. We fought very hard. Every other day, it was like a war. We had to fight every day, from the district police station to local MPs, local ministers – as he himself is a big name – so people were seeing it how we were struggling. They saw how we were trying to put in an honest campaign.

What are the main issues of Karur?

Five issues are major.

One is that there is a complete state of water crisis in the constituency. People, women I’ve seen, they started crying, they’re very angry so drinking water is a very big issue, one.

Second, there’s a law on textile exports in the country. After GST there’s a lot of issues with raw materials being brought into GST, and there’s become a lot of paperwork which has really killed the spirit of the business. In Karur business has come to a standstill. This is a small town employing around 3 lakh people. Ninety percent of them are women. There have been more than one lakh women who lost their jobs. They’re the breadwinners of the family. So that issue is a big thing.

Third, except for Karur town, the five other assembly segments are completely agrarian. In this context there are ongoing strikes, specific agricultural products being cultivated that have to be value-added, grain storage is required, and other such local issues that have to do with agrarian political economy.

Fourth, a lot of students and youth, they study various courses like MCA, MBA, a lot of engineers, but there are no jobs. I have worked in employment education for quite some time, so we know there’s a skill gap between the education and the job market, but actually there’s a very serious issue of unemployment in the country and the state.

Fifth, the groundwater level. A lot of water bodies are already dead. So we have to revive them to ensure a supply of water.

These are the five major promises we identified and promised people – but apart from that there’s a constituency assembly-segment wise manifesto that we incorporated.

Do you remember the Pollachi issue? There are around 200 women who were sexually abused for a year. They went and videographed it then threatened them, again and again they used them, sent them to other people and they took money for it. This was a big issue during the elections in Tamil Nadu. So women’s safety is extremely important.

What did the police do? Instead of protecting the victims they released a victim’s name in a press conference, so that the other women would not dare come and complain. The safety of women has become a very serious issue in Tamil Nadu and in Karur as well. Now, police stations are not the right place for women to complain so we would like to provide a helpline for women’s empowerment and women’s safety.

These are the major promises that we made.

You defeated a four-time sitting MP, Thambi Durai. Why do you think he was left behind this time?

See, generally, he would use Jayalalithaa as a brand name for them. The two leaves of an iconic symbol so far. Karur constituency is like an AIADMK belt – so now there’s no Jayalalithaa we put up a very strong fight against him. Generally, it would never happen.

Me and a DMK district in-charge, Senthil Balaji, and the DMK president and district secretaries one of whom is a very senior minister, we put up a very strong fight. Saying Rahul Gandhi should become PM also helped a lot in the constituency.

I am someone who has worked with Mr Gandhi for 5-6 years, and he was the one who was determined to give me the ticket, while others were saying that I come from a humble background, am I financially sound? That I cannot fight the Deputy Speaker of the Lok Sabha, he is a big money guy, he has so much power, a four-time MP.

So many people said that I could not win this seat because I don’t have money. But you know, the Congress president was determined, gave me the ticket, and told me he strongly believed that I would win by a good margin. People also felt that I should be given a ticket this time properly, so there are various other factors that worked very well.

Secondly, I promised to my people, you all know the past 23 years of my life. Every candidate has to declare their assets to the Election Commission, and I did so. But I gave people the assurance that five years down the line, my assets will not increase, things will remain the same. I made the promise.

All these things collectively helped us to hit that big margin and I defeated him by 4,20,000 votes. Among the AIADMK candidates he fought the election with the iconic two leaves symbol, but he got only 2 lakhs 47 thousand votes.

Being a female candidate, what were the difficulties you faced while campaigning? And are you expecting more women to come forward in the next elections?

I feel more women should get the opportunity because women work much more sensitively than men. I’m not saying that men are bad, what I’m saying is women focus more on sensitive issues like education, skill, this kind of natural resource protection. These are all the issues which men are not focusing on much – men will go for big infrastructural issues. I’m saying it in general, there might be exceptions always.

When more women get into the legislature, a lot of women friendly policies can be influenced. More women are very important.

One more thing I’d like to share: in the complete campaign, women massively voted for me. Like for every 100 women going to vote, I’m pretty sure 95 women voted for me. That’s huge. It actually brought the huge leads.

When I’d go for a campaign, women even in the hot sun, even late at night, gathered around in the hundreds, the thousands just to see me and to extend their support. That is something which I’ve never seen in my career, in my constituency. So this is the highest lead, I’m the first woman MP from the Karur parliamentary constituency.

See, women voters in general relate to woman candidates better than men. The way they… it’s not vote, it’s a kind of love and affection. So that’s what our campaign was – online too, which people understood well.

The campaign difficulty is, everyday we had to face the completely unlawful, illegal abuse of power which was very difficult for us – we went for back to back elections also, and immediately after the parliamentary there was an assembly byelection.

Luckily, I must say that all the election observers here in Karur are very honest and very efficient. The Election Commission both in Delhi and Chennai actually took our fight very seriously, and they removed the Karur SP, they appointed a new SP, they removed the Karur district police completely from the polling stations, appointing neighboring districts’ police and the BSF.

Every day it’s very difficult, you know how… Not only female candidates, even any other candidate, it’s very difficult.

Four different districts come under my constituency – the only constituency in Tamil Nadu like that is mine. So then you don’t have the resources to match. You have to work very hard actually, and you have to face every other day and every other minute, the abuse of power and personal abuses as well, so that makes things difficult, but it makes us actually more determined. It makes us stronger not weaker.

So me and my team fought the battle of our lives. We never gave them an inch of advance from day one of the filing of nominations. The party missionaries and the people really stood their ground.

When someone who had lost the campaign used iron rods to beat the public, 90% of whom were women, I was so shocked, I was deeply moved that day, I was literally in tears. Not even a single woman moved from where she stood. Then we realised that if we don’t move it’s going to be a very big problem. They’re not moving. They’re getting angrier. Then they beat them again but it was like an obedient, disciplined army. Women were not moving out of that place. That was the time when me and my team realised that the margin is going to be very huge.