Changing The Face Of Politics Podcast

Episode 14: Wanjira Mathai interviews Margaret Alva

In this episode Wanjira Mathai, Vice President and Regional Director for Africa at the World Resources Institute interviews Margaret Alva, former Indian governor, minister, and parliamentarian about her life and continued legacy within politics and what it means to fight for women's rights today.






Introduction: Welcome to the National Democratic Institute’s Changing the Face of Politics Podcast Series. In these candid conversations recorded from home, politically active women from around the globe interview each other about the male dominated world of politics. They're the best examples of why we need to move faster to reach political parity between men and women before the middle of the next century, and change the face of politics. In this episode Wanjira Mathai, Vice President and Regional Director for Africa at the World Resources Institute interviews Margaret Alva, former Indian governor, minister, and parliamentarian about her life and continued legacy within politics and what it means to fight for women's rights today.

Wanjira Mathai: Hello. And welcome to this episode of the Changing Face of Politics podcast series. My name is Wanjira Mathai and I'm the Vice President and Regional Director for Africa at the World Resources Institute. My guest today is the honorable Margaret Alva. Ms. Alva is a former Indian politician and has had a long career in Indian politics, serving as a parliamentarian and minister and governor for four States. I am looking forward to this conversation because I know how demanding politics can be. And I can't imagine what it's been like to take the risks she has taken. So thank you very much. Last year, Margaret, we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Conference and Platform for Action. What do you think has changed in women's - in political leadership and decision-making in the last 25 years and also what has stubbornly stayed the same? What has changed and what has stayed the same in your opinion?

Margaret Alva: You know, it's a quarter of a century when you look at it, things have changed, they have improved. I must say that there is much more awareness. The media outreach has brought in much larger numbers, whether they're better free into mainstream participation, I would say. Just look at the numbers, for instance, in ‘95, women in parliaments were at 11%. We have gone up to 24.5%, still low, but at least a movement forward. And we have got three countries:  Cuba, Rwanda and Bolivia, we have more than 50% women in their parliaments. So there is the movement forward. I would say, given the example of India, we had for long talked about the trickle down effect that, you know, if you have a prime minister and you have these sort of women at the top automatically, you know, the benefits will go down, it does not work that way. So we have been moved from that in the nineties to the down-up program. So we brought in reservations, for instance, for women in the local bodies. And I'm so glad to say that since ‘95, we have over 2 million women in India elected to local bodies. You know, we also have 33% of them in posts and positions. So it has been definitely a social, political revolution, if I may say so, the largest perhaps in the world at the grassroots level. And these women now are becoming self-confident, moving up and you see women now at the high table, in decision-making positions. You see women, you know, in all fields in India, besides politics, but politically, awareness has grown and this theme that Mrs. Clinton gave that “women's rights are human rights” has really become a slogan, which is being used by women's groups, organizations, and so on. Women have come into decision-making positions and I would say that training, quotas, and voter participation has gone up tremendous. But you see what has not changed. The male mindset hasn't changed. The structures are still male dominated, male oriented. And like they say, you know, you have the guards one step forward, one step back. The men are trying everything possible to ensure that they still have a hold on the system, on political structures and in the position they’re in.

Wanjira Mathai: That's remarkable. And you're so right. “Women's rights are human rights” has become a rallying call somewhat for so many of us. Margaret, what motivated you to get involved in politics? Why did you get involved?

Margaret Alva: You know, I wrote my autobiography two years ago, “Courage and Commitment.” I have detailed how from a girl in a small town in India, where we went to school barefoot because of the heavy rains, we couldn’t wear anything on our feet. And from there I reaching Lutyens Delhi, which is the power center of the country, was a long journey. But, I must say that I was active in the students’ movement and I was a good speaker, I was a debater. I got really involved because I married into a political family. I met my husband when leading in the student movement. I went on into the party politics, got involved. And I must say that Indira Gandhi picked me up. She was always at the rally, and she was impressed. And she was a person who just kept picking up people who she thought had promise. So she just brought me to the upper house of parliament, which is the largest sabha in 1974. They say, if you have a family background, you get in. But you know, Wanjira, getting in is one thing, being able to sustain yourself and stay on in a man's world, in a developing country, and with so many social inhibitions, as far as women are concerned, is not easy. I got in in ‘74 and I managed four terms in the upper house - that's 24 years, six year terms, which is very, very rare. I came in at the age of 32 and stayed on, stayed on for four terms. Then I went to the lower house. That's the Lok Sabha. I was elected for a general election, that is directly by the people. I won one term and I was there for five years. So from a backbencher, I moved gradually to be a minister on the front benches. I was in parliamentary committees, I was going around the country. I never was afraid to speak up, to oppose my own party where I had to and make my presence felt. And I must say that even as I came in, I was very passionate about some things. One was women's rights. Second was trafficking children, you know, as minister changed the law to make it both girls and boys, because, you know, the boys were also having to be looked after now.

Wanjira Mathai: Yes.

Margaret Alva: And then a number of laws were amended, new laws were brought. I had a legal background, I'm a lawyer by profession. So that helped very much in looking at laws, amending them, changing them. And I must say that I also was very, very active with the environmental issues. And as a member of the opposition, we formed the group to bring in the Forest Rights Act for the tribals, for those living in the forest and so on. And well, as I finished with parliament in 2004, I became General Secretary of the party at the party headquarters. And I had the record. Mrs. Gandhi, that Sonia Gandhi gave me eight States to look after from Mizoram to Goa in the south. And five years, I was full-time in the party working as General Secretary. Then I was made Governor. So in 2009, I went for five years to, for Raj Bhavan. Simultaneously, I stayed on even after the change of government/ Mr. Modi gave me two more States to handle.

Wanjira Mathai: Margaret, a beautiful story. I mean, what a remarkable experience. I mean, I remember Margaret, my mother was a parliamentarian and she didn't have any experience in politics. She always said that her colleagues who were lawyers always had an advantage. And I can imagine for you, you were prepared in many ways. You were in the student movement, you loved speech, you loved to debate. Obviously then teeing yourself up for, for a career like this. And I imagine you actually enjoyed it.

Margaret Alva: I had this great advantage that I entered a political family, my parents in law were freedom fighters, both of them. They were the first couple in the Indian parliament, the Alvas. They were journalists, lawyers, and members of parliament. So I had this sort of grounding, if I may say so, within the family and the exposure, which few people have to begin your political career.

Wanjira Mathai: Yeah. Margaret, I have a question about Indira Gandhi. She - Prime Minister Indira Gandhi we admired her and we, the world in many ways, was talking about women in politics. And yet India was way ahead. You were way ahead in that area. How was she as, I mean, you mentioned her bringing you up. Is that how she was? Was that an important, would you say, part of your political career? 

Margaret Alva: I must say that whatever others said, she had many people who didn't agree with her. She was progressive. She brought in many changes in our economy, in our political. And you know, whenever a woman is tough, they say, ‘Oh, you know, she's, she's this and she's that’ and when a man is tough they are prepared to take it. Indira Gandhi had a vision. She had a desire to change things. And I must say, believe me, she would go around the country, she would find somebody with promise, somebody with she felt would be good, she picked them up. She brought them in. She was never afraid or insecure about bringing talented, qualified women. I've seen so many women are afraid to bring women you know, who could overshadow them. I'm saying not be submissive enough. But she was different. Even young men, she brought so many from all over the country. And the second round of leadership was developed by her, which I think leaders need to do.

Wanjira Mathai: That's amazing because today we barely develop leadership and nurture that sort of leadership and encourage people to go. I so admire that narrative. And in fact, my next question is somewhat connected to that, because so much you said about women in politics, do you think that there is a difference in the way women, like Indira Gandhi and others, lead and the way men lead and engage others?

Margaret Alva: I think there is. You know, my experience has been that women tend to be, if I may say so, more responsive to the needs of people. They have empathy, you know, and they are prepared to listen, they are approachable and they look at issues and problems with a humane touch. A woman thinks, I think more with the heart than with her head, if I may say so. I don't know whether you like it or not, but for men, it is all construction, contractors and commerce when they come into politics. It's, you know, we have found that studies, independent studies have found that since women came into local bodies in such large numbers, the development agenda has changed. We call it ‘development with the human face.’ Women are asking for things that change lives of common people at the grassroots. Drinking water, primary health centers, you know, daycare centers for children, what we call Langan bodies, the mid-day meal scheme - these are things which women have brought into the mainstream of political life, if I may say so, at the grassroots levels. And this is the base of the pyramid. So I feel that women have a different approach. Men tend to be very business-like. Their solutions are cut and dry. You know, they feel they were born to rule, so it's ‘my way or no way’ they make decisions. But women tend to be much more accommodating, much more responsive, and they know the struggle at the grassroots. What poverty is, what, you know, being deprived of basic necessities in their families is, so they, when they come into these positions are able to respond in a more humane way. And that is why people, you know, the voters at the local level, are electing women even from general constituencies, even from non-reserved constituencies, because they feel that they are much more trustworthy, less corrupt and more human.

Wanjira Mathai: That’s so remarkable. And you know, it's when I hear you talking about that, it reminds me Margaret, that I worked in the renewable energy sector. And we said, women must be involved across the renewable energy value chain, because if it matters and the money goes further. And the research showed exactly what you said, that when you put money in the hands of women, 90% of it is plowed into the community. For men, that number was 20%. So that is, you know, your point made exactly, I think you’re absolutely - they have so much skin in the game that we need to invest in.

Margaret Alva: Now I find women are networking, we were not good at this before. Now at the local level, women are cutting across religion, community, language, caste, and networking to get their jobs done. And if I may tell you, the Women's Reservation Bill, which of course has come to parliament and the men will not allow it being passed, but it was the effort of women. The sort of core numbers that we had, which Mexico had said that 33% is the minimum required to have a group that would be critical - they call it the critical mass, to get women's views, women's pressure groups functioning within elected bodies. And I must say that we have cut across party lines for the Women's Reservation Bill - demonstrations, marches, you know, sit-ins. It has come to the final stage because it has just been passed by the upper house, only the lower house has to pass it. But Mr. Modi will not bring it to the house. It can be passed in half an hour. The men are afraid that if women come in, then the structures begin to change. I always say, Wanjira, you know, we have been the scaffolding in politics. The men have stood on the scaffolding and painted the big wall the way they wanted it. Their colors, their images. Today, women are also climbing the scaffolding and that's what the men are afraid of. 

Wanjira Mathai: Beautiful metaphor. We have been the scaffolding in politics for a long time.

Margaret Alva: We are expected to campaign for them. We are expected to be polling agents. We are supposed to do door to door party work for them. And yet, when it comes to making us the candidates, ‘Oh, you know, they won't be able to manage it.’ Why not?

Wanjira Mathai: Why not? Scaffolding is pretty solid. I love it. That is wonderful. Margaret, what has surprised you most about politics?

Margaret Alva: Every day’s surprise, particularly as a woman, I suppose you're asking me, yes. Survival. You know something. We, women come into politics, take for instance, my life. They were two completely independent parallel lives. You are a homemaker, you're a wife, you're a mother, you're a daughter-in-law and you know, you have to take the responsibility for the family. And at the same time, you are a public figure. You are under scrutiny all the time. And you have to prove that you are not just equal, but that you are better to be accepted and to be recognized. And when it comes even to recognition, women are never given awesome positions as per their capacity, their qualifications and their work. It's supposed to be patronage when it comes to it. Why? I'm asking if I'm good enough to be the Defense Minister, why should only a man be the Defense Minister? In fact, studies have shown that women make better peace negotiators. They look at things from a different perspective. We have the Naga women in Nagaland, where there has been this underground movement for years. There you will see it is the Nagaland Mothers Association that works on peace, peace proposals to bring their sons out of the underground. You know, in the Punjab, you had the mothers at the height of the violence. It was mothers who sat together to get their sons back into their families and their homes. So I think that women really can influence decision making. And women, if I may say so, I’ve seen from my experience of 50 years in public life, you need courage and you need commitment. That's what I titled my biography, “Courage and Commitment.” These are two things that can carry you through. But I must say that you need an understanding family and a supportive spouse. If it wasn't for my husband who came from a political background, I would never have achieved half the things I did.

Wanjira Mathai: Wow. I was going to ask you about that, Margaret, about whether your family ever had any reservations about you in politics, but really those words, courage and commitment, and maybe even patience, but you have clearly demonstrated the staying power. Do you want to say a little bit about that? Your family support? That, that sounds great.

Margaret Alva: You know, I always made, I have - we have four children. My husband died two years ago. My husband always had commitment. When I was hesitant, he would say, ‘what are you hesitant about? My mother went to jail with a five month baby in her arms during the freedom movement. You have to give your time and your energy to the country, to the party.’ So he would push me even when I was hesitant. And he always told the children that what we were doing was part of our duty, that it was part of our tradition, that it was part of the family's history and that we had to be proud of it. So the children, you know, in vacations, I would combine work with the children's holidays. They would go with us and you know, we would sort of combine this, they saw the whole country with us in their vacations, because I worked and I took them along and my husband was there. So we enjoyed the whole experience, but it requires a lot of sacrifice. There is no time for yourself. You can't do the things you love to do, except perhaps occasionally go into the kitchen and cook. But generally it is a life of giving, self-sacrifice. You have to be prepared.

Wanjira Mathai: It’s a life of service, Margaret. And just listening to you talk about how supportive your family was must have been such a great blessing because so many feel the reservation of family.

Margaret Alva: That either unmarried women or widows, you know, come into politics. 

Wanjira Mathai: Yeah, yeah. 

Margaret Alva: I got in, you wouldn't believe it, at the age of 27. 

Wanjira Mathai: Wow. 

Margaret Alva: As a full-time political worker in the party and four children, my parents in law, you know, my father-in-law, after my mother-in-law died, the whole family actually had to be looked after by me in one form or the other. But that's the strength which women have. A man can never do.

Wanjira Mathai: That's terrific. Terrific. I love that. Thank you so much. I wanted to ask you, as we move into the new generations of politicians, how can we encourage and how can people like you who've paved the way, so many people standing on your shoulders inspired by you. How do we encourage more women to go into politics today? What works? What are some of the things we ought to be doing?

Margaret Alva: You know something, we, my generation, I'm talking from my experience. We had the icons of the freedom movement for us. Women who had come out, given up everything and who had worked with their hearts, not looking for rewards, not looking for positions, but they were committed. And my generation learned from it. Well, I know I deal with younger people, even in the party, I've been trying to bring in people, mentor women. And I must say that most of my other women colleagues are not happy when I try to bring in them. They have their own way of dealing with problems. It’s the computer and it's all the internet and everything else, which I'm very poor at. We worked with our hands. We went out and we were part of the movement, you know. But the new generation we call it Gen Z, the new generation, it is the computer age and they have different approaches, but they are our hope. We are having training programs for young people, I mentor a number, I participate in the training programs, which they have. But I must say that they are getting there, they are impatient. They want change. And I think more and more of them are now beginning to realize that they have to get into decision making and not just sit out and dream of changing things. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “be the change that you want to see.” You have to be involved. And I have great hope for the younger generation. They are bold and I think they know much more of what's happening in the world and they are connected. And we have a lot of programs for training them now, even during COVID, we had them all, virtual sort of programs. And then they call them the webinars and they ask us to come and speak, to talk. I’ve offered to mentor anybody they want. Anyway, I helped prepare some capsules for training. We give them the background, I speak and we try to help. And I think the younger people are much brighter than my generation. 

Wanjira Mathai: The honorable Margaret Alva. I love it. Thank you so much, Margaret, for that time, be the change. You have been the change. I have so enjoyed. I just can't believe we are out of time. It has been such a delightful conversation. Margaret, I want to also just say, we stand in solidarity with India at this time, thinking of you and all that's happening there. You have served with such grace and we know that. 

Margaret Alva: I just want to add that countries which had women leaders during COVID - Germany, New Zealand, Denmark and others showed a different picture altogether. In my country, I'm sorry to say, across party lines, the men have been so callous. So indifferent to the rising crisis. The Prime Minister is busy rebuilding the capital with crores and crores of rupees when we don't have hospitals and we don't have even vaccinations that the people need and the oxygen. So I really feel that we need more women in positions that can make a change. 

Wanjira Mathai: Thank you, Margaret. Delightful. I hope we'll stay in touch. I'd love to pick your brain more. 

Margaret Alva: We will be in touch. Thank you very much. 

Wanjira Mathai: It was lovely talking to you. 

Closing: Thank you for listening to this episode of the Changing the Face of Politics Podcast Series. To learn more about the series and NDI's initiative, please go to NDI's website at

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