When Mudita Kapoor was told that she was being nominated as the Congress candidate from Varanasi South seat in the 2022 Assembly Polls, her instinctive reaction was to not take up the job.
An architect, a classical musician and a mother of two, Mudita had been juggling multiple roles in her professional and personal life, but politics was not something she actively thought about.
Until now, her political life was limited to helping her businessman turned politician husband and Congress member Gaurav Kapoor in his initiatives and volunteer work.
The couple was very active, particularly during the last two years, helping the people in Varanasi with Covid supplies, but Mudita was largely in the background. In fact, it was her husband, who has been with the Congress since 2012, who was vying for the Congress ticket from the constituency this time. So when she was offered the ticket, she did not want to do it, but only for like 10 minutes.
She turned to her few trusted advisors in life, including her husband, who told her how people waited for an opportunity like this for their entire lifetimes, and how it was an opportunity of bringing about change.
“Yes, I was hoping for the ticket, but Mudita getting it is the same. It is in the family,” Gaurav says.
She admits that leading from the front has been an “exhausting and daunting” task, but at the same time, a learning experience.
“So far, it has always been behind the scenes. This is a totally different experience…the kind of exposure and the kind of public interaction is something I've never done before.”
“I think it's the most radical thing I've undertaken in my life yet,” she says.
Mudita’s candidature is part of the Congress party’s gambit to secure women's votes by giving 40 per cent of the tickets in Uttar Pradesh to women candidates.
Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi has been campaigning for women's empowerment under the slogan “ladki hoon, lad sakti hoon” to the same effect.
But, leading from the front for Mudita hasn’t been without challenges.
Soon after her nomination was announced, she faced opposition from within her own party, following which she took to social media to appeal to her fellow party members to give her, the “daughter of Kashi” a chance to fight, and set an example for all the other women in Kashi.
Social media has been her biggest campaigning tool in these elections, she says.
A quick scroll through her Facebook page which is updated with a new post on an almost hourly basis shows her campaigning aggressively walking the streets of Varanasi wearing the Congress scarf around her neck.
Many of her rallies see her leading the march with several other women donning pink scarves and headbands and shouting the “ladki hoon, lad sakti hun” slogan.
Her social media is also documenting her familiarising trips to the voters’ houses, including women and the elderly, during which she greets them with a broad smile on her face.
She says she ends up walking 15,000 steps in a day when she is out campaigning.
With very little time between the announcement of her candidature and polling day, it has been the quickest way to reach out to the maximum number of voters, at a time when people looking into their phones at every nook and corner of the city has become one of the most common sights.
“Because I was not a political person, my public outreach was very small. I have 3.25 lakh voters in my constituency, and physically it wasn’t possible for me to reach out to all my voters, so social media of course has a huge impact,” she says.
Her Facebook page is updated almost every hour throughout the day with videos of her rallies, and speeches.
Another challenge for Mudita, who is contesting the elections for the first time ever, is that she is fighting from a constituency that is considered the traditional bastion of the Narendra Modi led Bharatiya Janata Party since 1989.
Shyamdev Roy Chaudhari of the BJP kept the seat for eight consecutive terms, following which Neelkanth Tiwari, again of the BJP, came to power in 2017, and is again fighting against Mudita in these polls.
But, Mudita says she is prepared.
Being the first-ever woman fighting from the constituency, she says she is looking at bringing the problems faced by women that have been ignored until now to the forefront.
She has been conducting door-to-door visits to the homes of women of all age groups to find out what their problems are, and has promised to address the issues if she comes to power.
Her husband, who has been accompanying her on several of these visits says that it was refreshing to see how women connected with her.
“She holds their hands, smiles at them and tries to find out what their problems are. And they feel comfortable speaking to her. No man could have done that,” he says.
Two of the major issues for women, she says, especially in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic have been inflation and education.
A lot of people, due to the pandemic, were forced to withdraw children, especially girls, from schools because they could no longer afford the luxury of education.
The rising prices of cooking oil have made running households, particularly for single women, very challenging.
“Many women are struggling to make a livelihood. They’ve lost their husbands or they're single mothers with children that they're raising single-handedly. So, one major underlying problem is affording to live a life with respect to education. That is a big challenge,” she says.
To address these issues, she says she will ensure both employment and education are made available to the women of her constituency if she comes to power.
She says she will make sure that all the provisions for women in the Congress Party manifesto become a reality on the ground.
These include provisions for girls' education, vocational training and higher packages for Anganwadi workers, availability of more gas cylinders, and the potential 40% reservation in government jobs.
"These things are going to make a huge difference in the lives of women and girls, by making them independent and self-sufficient,” she says.
She is also a champion of women’s freedom to choose what they want.
On the ongoing hijab row, she says, “Women should have the freedom to wear what they like. We must respect how a woman decides to dress. We cannot dictate a woman's outfit.”
Mudita is aware that she is only starting out as a politician, but she believes that it is her learnings as an architect and training as a classical musician that will add an unmatched value to her political career.
She had been training as a classical musician since she was a child until she moved out of the city for further education. She resumed her training in classical music in the Banaras Gharana at the age of 20-21 after she returned to her hometown.
Her music guru Pankaj Mishra describes her as a curious and serious student, both qualities, he thinks, would help her achieve success in the new journey she has decided to undertake.
“She was always very disciplined and would utilize the one hour of learning with me in the best way. She would always ask questions to understand the art better, and that is what will make her successful even in this journey,” he says.
With her architectural practice revolving around heritage conservation, she feels she can approach the idea of development in a city that is so rich in heritage in a more “sensitive” manner.
“My constituency is the most sacred and secular in terms of heritage, and the development could be done in a much more sensitive manner.”
“As an architect, I can contribute greatly to how things are done here,” she says.
Coming from a cultural family, she also has big plans for the art and crafts industry in the area.
“I'm quite enthusiastic about arts, craft, textile, and culture. If I get a chance politically, to really work at a policy level, and to work at a level where I can make things happen for artisans with design and technology intervention,” she says.
Mudita’s friend and former senior at the School of Planning and Architecture Sarika Narayan remember her as a person with a calm demeanour who has always voiced her opinion with conviction.
“She has never been a brash, loud person but she has made a difference in whatever she has wanted to.
“I hope and believe that people will see that and understand that this kind of impact is deeper than a brash one in the difficult and dirty game (of politics),” she says.