Dressed in a cool cotton sari Margaret Alva is a picture of understated elegance. That is part of her charisma. For her, it’s not been important to be the most well-dressed woman in Parliament, or the most glamorous. “It’s your contribution ultimately that sets you out – your preparations, your participation in debates, your contribution to the committees”.

Her Excellency Ms Margaret Alva, Governor of Uttarakhand
She certainly has made valuable contributions, spearheading major legislative amendments for women’s rights, marriage laws, equal remuneration and women’s reservation in local politics.

These days, as the benign Governor of Uttarakhand, she is non-partisan but having been the Minister for Women and Child Development in the Rajiv Gandhi cabinet and a power within the AICCI, who better to answer my queries about women and politics?

“Mahatma Gandhi was the first liberator because unknown women came out during the movement who after Independence became governors, ambassadors and ministers. Somehow after that, women began to fade out, and it was in 70s, after the International Decade for Women and UN initiatives that the focus on women in governance came about.”

“It’s a man’s world in politics. Many younger people were brought into the mainstream by Indira Gandhi directly – we owe our process of identification to her keen eye. We worked with the men and gradually made our own places. I worked for the party for 45 years, since 1969, and literally grew up in the party. It’s the Congress Party that has built me up, given me a platform and an opportunity to be what I am”.

Many would feel that coming from a political family was an advantage – Alva’s parents-in-law were both MPs – but Alva says the critical issue in politics is to survive and move up. “That requires lot of courage and accommodation. You have to learn to survive in a man’s world which means you can’t always have your way. You have to learn to take defeat and continue to work with the determination to survive”.

Survival is something that she knows; she’s lost electoral battles and she was removed from her post in the AICCI after charging that there were deals for seats within the party. The party however desisted from taking disciplinary action against her, and later appointed her to the ceremonial post of Governor of Uttarakhand.

She asserts, “I have survived all these years despite many efforts to pull me down. I was also a minority besides being a woman. I have seen both victory and defeat, but I think each step has made me stronger and as you asked, it was difficult at the beginning – being young, inexperienced but I think one has to have your feet firmly on the ground. Many get carried away by the glamour of politics. But if you are sensible, you are respected and you survive. There are no shortcuts in politics. You have to fight the battle and make your contribution”.

As Governor it’s an easier, retired, glamorous life but she seems energetic as ever; Alva holds programmes for street children and seminars on improving education and especially to bring uniform development between the plains and the hills in Uttarakhand. A seminar on reviving agriculture in the hills resulted in the Nainital Declaration which is now with the Planning Commission. “We also hope to make the old Raj Bhavan in Naintal into a heritage building. It has been an exciting two years and I’ve done more than I imagined”.

Somewhat wistfully, she admits to missing active politics. “I miss Delhi, the hustle and bustle of it; as the party’s General Secretary for five years, I used to travel to the states, I miss that. Now I’m writing my memoirs. I’ll be 70 next year, I think I have worked long enough”.

Is politics different now from the early days? “It is no longer considered a service, but a career where people want to move up like they would in the corporate world. That’s the problem”.

Alva says there’s a big difference between the two; politics is not just position, power and money, but a means of changing India. “Things won’t change if everybody wants to become a Minister and that’s the frustration in society today that has led to anti-corruption movements. The general perception is that all politicians are corrupt. The honest politician is considered a good-for-nothing”.

Now, she says, is the time for youth to introspect about getting into politics. “We need dedicated people who know the value of development and how to go about it and who are prepared to give their time and their professional training to change life in rural India”.

Sandhya Mendonca (Sandhya Mendonca writes a weekly column for the Herald Goa)