The Mandya Lok Sabha constituency in Karnataka was among the most-watched seats in the state in this year’s Parliament elections. Veteran actor Sumalatha, 55, widow of former Congress member of Parliament (MP) Ambareesh, entered the fray as an independent candidate backed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), after the Congress denied her a ticket. She defeated Nikhil Kumaraswamy of Janata Dal (Secular), or JD(S), son of chief minister H.D. Kumaraswamy, by a margin of over 100,000 votes, becoming the first independent woman candidate to enter the Lok Sabha from Karnataka. In an interview, Sumalatha spoke of her victory, her plans for the constituency and her movie career. Edited excerpts:
How has the journey been so far?
It has been a learning curve more than anything and have discovered things about myself that I hadn’t known. Considering all the negativity around the elections and people stooping down to such levels just upsets me more than anything. The biggest lesson I think is that negative politics does not work all the time and my election was a big message. On the other hand, I have seen the kind of emotion, love, trust and support. This was huge as I was the underdog with all odds stacked up against me. It’s a nice feeling to emerge in such a way.
Were you confident of such a victory?
I was confident of myself but if you still look at those eight JD(S) MLAs, three ministers, chief minister’s son, the ex-PM factor, the ruling party, coalition partners, their structured workers at booth levels, we were just trying to find people to work with us. We called ourselves a Lagaan team and we pulled off a six in the last ball. I did not have a party symbol as I was fighting as an independent. That itself is a huge challenge. And becoming the first woman independent MP elected from Karnataka.
Did you expect such an overwhelming victory?
We actually did and I have always said that there cannot be a mid-level margin. I knew it was either going to be big or a tight fight and not in between. They (opponents) fielded three Sumalathas and they got a total of over 20,000 votes that belonged to me. If you count that, we are talking 150,000 margin. I think that whatever they did went against them. It was like an obstacle course and we had to overcome all this. What I was sure of was the people’s reception and their response which gave me confidence.
What will you do in return for the people of Mandya?
I have to do better than what anyone has attempted so far because expectations are high. But the big challenge is to dispel misguided, misinformation on what an MP can do. I am an MP and not PM. I have to convince the centre to do the best they can, because the BJP had supported me and hope they will look upon me kindly towards Mandya. But the bigger challenge lies with coordinating with the state government because of what happened and it is not going to be an easy task. I am sure they will put barricades in my way.
As an independent, will it be easier for you to implement your plans?
I hope so. I hate the word ‘politician’ in connection with me as I do not see myself as one. So, I am not looking at what is going to happen three years down the line or five years. Right now, they have entrusted me with a job and I have to do it to the best of my ability. If I succeed, then nothing like it, but I should at least try.
You had said that your victory would change the political landscape of Mandya?
Not just Mandya, but all of Karnataka. National parties have been reduced to one seat. I am one and so is Congress and JD(S). Think a lot of people did not read the situation because politicians have typical ways of calculating their statistics but that’s where they went wrong. They actually failed to read the people’s thoughts and there was a lot of anger in the last one year among people, farmers and women’s organizations as they all felt cheated. They also did not take into account the emotional side and the Ambareesh factor. They didn’t think that by abusing Ambareesh’s wife, they were hurting many sentiments. The people of Mandya are very warm and emotional. Even money did not count as all traditional politics failed. But it was the people who went beyond caste politics, money.
Has the BJP now gained a foothold in the Vokkaliga heartland because of your victory?
I think that solely depends on whatever future steps or direction I might go. The BJP now have half a foothold in Mandya and almost 90% of their supporters voted for me.
You carried out a very clean campaign despite the mudslinging. Do you think you have paved a path for others to follow?
I certainly hope so. Don’t know why one has to always has to play those kind of politics and attack each other personally. Sometimes they sound so kiddish. Don’t know if they hear themselves. Somebody, somewhere had to put and end to this and start afresh. Maybe this is the first step.
Do you fear that the people of Mandya will be made to suffer for electing you?
Right at the time of elections, the CM had announced a package of a few thousand crores and now, we have to wait and see if he sincerely meant that. It would be a challenge to get the local government’s support even if I bring something from the centre to implement here. I am holding no grudges and willing to meet anyone half-way. All these petty issues must be put aside.
There is some renewed hope attached with you when it comes to the Cauvery river water issue as well.
I will have to take it as it comes and talk to people and manage their expectations. I won’t be able to convince everybody because once they put you on a pedestal, there are those who are trying to pull you down.
Will the people of Mandya think of you as an emissary of the centre and anything against the latter might go against you?
Sure it could be. I am sincerely hoping that the ruling party at the centre should take Mandya’s problem seriously if they want to gain the trust of Mandya for the next assembly elections, then they should do something for the district that stands out.
Will you join any party?
There have been rumours that the Congress reached out to me and this is baseless. BJP leaders have been in touch because they supported my candidature. They have been very large hearted and will welcome me if I join but have not forced me. There is no pressure to join any party as of now. Am not saying that I prefer to stay as an independent but that is how the situation is and do not see why and where it should change. Also, I would not join any party if not assured that it will not help the people of Mandya and will take the approval of the people before I do.
Do you fear that those from the film industry who supported you might be targeted?
I don’t know but some people were telling me that we better be more careful now. Now that you have won, everybody is going to be targeted. I thought that the elections are over, the intensity and the hatred and abuses would come down. But we would have to see if this comes down in coming months. I certainly hope so.
How has life changed since the poll victory?
Of course, the pace of life gets more hectic. And people who have known me earlier did not know this side of me at all. It’s fun in a way that I could surprise them. But a lot of people are so happy for me and its quite heart-warming. I personally don’t feel I have changed and have remained pretty grounded and normal. May be it has still not sunk in.
What would have Ambareesh said had he seen you today?
He would have been proud. He personally did not want me to get into politics as he knew the negative side of it. But he always used to tell others that my wife would have made a better parliamentarian than me. These are his words.
What happens to your acting career now?
Right now I don’t see that happening. I can’t even think of it with so much happening. Movies are my love and the coming year would be my 40th year in cinema. Maybe at some point if things ease up, then maybe. But right now, I don’t see the chance at all.