Even in her original avatar as a man, Apsara Reddy never fought shy of her sexual identity. As Ajay Reddy and the features editor of a Chennai-based English daily she would use the women’s washroom. “She had no compunction in disclosing that she was a woman trapped in a man’s body and was yearning to break free. And she informed everyone openly before going to Bangkok for her sex change operation,” recalls a colleague. On returning as Apsara Reddy, she switched to politics and joined the Tamil Nadu BJP before migrating to the AIADMK. The Congress though gave her the much-needed political recognition when Rahul Gandhi appointed her as the all-India general secretary of the Mahila Congress—the first time a transgender has held a national position of a major political party.
Apsara, 35, however, refuses to agree that Rahul’s gesture was merely symbolic and aimed at giving the space for transgenders in his party. “I think he rewarded me more for my capabilities and his quest for women empowerment. There is no tokenism here,” she says. It also had a lot to do with the inclusive nature of the Congress, she adds. But Apsara’s first real break as a politician came in the AIADMK when former chief minister Jayalalitha admitted her in the party during a public meeting in October 2015. “Though her minions had given me strict instructions on how to stay two feet away from her, cover my mouth while talking to her and also touch her feet, I did not follow any of them. We actually had a casual chat and Amma welcomed me warmly and she was very unlike the distant, stern leader that she had been portrayed as,” Apsara says.
She addressed public meetings, campaigning for the AIADMK for the 2016 assembly elections and surprised the leaders with her speeches in fluent Tamil. After Jayalalitha’s death she was briefly with the Sasikala faction, appearing on TV channels in support of Chinnamma, jailed in February 2017. “I was beholden to Sasikala since it was through her I met Jayalalitha and joined the AIADMK. Even when I campaigned in RK Nagar byelection in December, 2017 I campaigned only by uttering her name. When EPS also turned against Sasikala and TTV was keen only to promote himself, I kept away from the AIADMK or any of its factions,” Apsara explains.
But does celebrities parachuting into party posts without doing any grassroots work cause heartburn to other workers? “Barring a few insecure functionaries, the majority have welcomed me warmly. I would rather take their positivity,” she says. Even S. Jothimani, a former state youth Congress president, finds nothing wrong in such lateral entry of well-known personalities. “The party benefits by their experience and talent whatever field they are from. And Apsara has been an active journalist and has written on women issues,” Jothimani says.
Khushboo, who too was suddenly appointed as the spokesperson shortly after joining the Congress, welcomed Apsara’s entry. “She is intelligent and fierce and the Congress needs such persons in Tamil Nadu,” she says. But Apsara’s identity as a “lifestyle and page-three” journalist could hamper her connect with grassroots workers of the party. “It is one thing to party in five-star hotels but to rub shoulders with the hoi polloi calls for a different mindset,” says a former colleague of hers.
Senior Congress functionary, Karate R. Thiagarajan, is not very pleased at the sudden incursions of such celebrities with little political background. “They do not even adhere to the basic rules of the party and insult senior functionaries. Khushboo made such a fuss when asked to renew her membership. She stated she was answerable only to Rahul Gandhi. Similarly, Apsara even now is openly praising Sasikala and denigrating Rajnikanth. Does she even know the reach of Rajnikanth?” he questions.
A confident Apsara is ready for the challenge, though. “Those who question my commitment would praise me one day. I’ve battled my entire life against the perceptions against transgenders. This is one more perception battle that I will overcome,” she adds.
- Apsara Reddy says her apointment as a Mahila Congress general secretary is not symbolic
- “I’ve battled against perceptions against transgenders. This is one more perception battle (in politics).”
By G.C. Shekhar in Chennai