Communal, misogynistic, patriarchal: The triple problematic politics of Madhavi Latha

Emerging seemingly out of nowhere onto Hyderabad’s political landscape, BJP’s wild card Madhavi Latha has shown a history of sexist, Islamophobic remarks that have gone unchecked in mainstream media.
Hyderabad BJP candidate Madhavi Latha
Hyderabad BJP candidate Madhavi Latha
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The most prominent face of BJP’s campaign in Telangana is Madhavi Latha, a first time candidate fielded in Hyderabad against AIMIM’s Asaduddin Owaisi. As we were waiting for her rally in Hyderabad’s Adarsh Nagar, tea vendors – both from the Muslim and Hindu communities – remarked that they had only heard of her recently through the media. BJP members in the area sheepishly admitted that till a few months ago she was not even a member of the BJP.

She shot to national fame recently when she was seen on camera purportedly shooting an imaginary arrow at a mosque while campaigning in the Muslim-dominated Old City area of Hyderabad. Prime Minister Narendra Modi also gave her a shout-out on social media just before the incident.

Even before her candidacy was announced, for months Madhavi Latha appeared on small-time YouTube channels, dressed in a ‘madi cheera’ (the way Brahmin women drape a saree), with vermilion and sometimes ash smeared prominently on her forehead. She would sermonise about how women should live their lives and how Hindus must safeguard their dharma, while making deeply misogynistic, Islamophobic remarks that almost always went unchallenged.

Madhavi Latha grew up in the Santosh Nagar locality of Yakutpura constituency. She has a Masters degree in political science. Apart from running a couple of non-profits, Madhavi Latha is also the Managing Director of Virinchi Hospitals, founded by her husband Vishwanath. The hospital’s Covid treatment licence was revoked for overcharging patients during the pandemic.

In one interview from about a year ago, when Madhavi Latha was yet to adopt the attire and demeanour that’s now seen as quintessential to her said that Hindu women always dressed in a ‘sexy’ way, like the actors from the Tamil film Ponniyin Selvan. She suggested that Muslim women are required to wear a burqa or other such modest clothing because Muslim men eat beef and therefore cannot control their sexual urges. She has also suggested that minor girls being sexually assaulted is a result of using mobile phones and also the way they dress and behave, asking the classic victim-blaming question: “Whose fault is it if you walk on the street barefoot and a thorn pricks you? Yours or the government’s?”

A TRP raker

Mainstream national media has taken an interest in Madhavi Latha as she is challenging one of the most prominent Muslim politicians in India, AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi, in his home turf of Hyderabad. In interviews with national media, Madhavi Latha seems more careful with her words, but still reveals enough to let her politics be known.

For instance, on the show ‘Aap Ki Adalat' on India TV, for which PM Modi appreciated her, Madhavi Latha told journalist Rajat Sharma that Owaisi was contesting the election on issues such as beef bans and the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya and asked if his “plan was to establish ‘Osmanistan’”. “He is turning out to be worse than Jinnah,” she said. 

In a Times Now interview from a month ago, Group Editor-in-chief Navika Kumar described Madhavi Latha as brave and fearless. On being asked why she is considered anti-Muslim, Madhavi Latha responded by saying that she has done a lot of work among Pasmanda women. This is a claim she has repeated in many interviews – that she has done extensive charity work among poor Pasmanda Muslim women and children in Old City, and that she has campaigned in support of the triple talaq ban in these areas.

When Arnab Goswami questioned her about the ‘arrow’ controversy, she denied that she was pointing at the mosque. He asked whether she has the support of Muslim voters, to which she replied that Owaisi has done injustice to Muslims in his constituency, especially Pasmanda (oppressed caste) Muslims. 

When asked why the Editors-in-Chief of national channels are lining up to interview a first-time candidate who was relatively low-profile until recently, one journalist told TNM it’s because she makes for perfect ‘prime-time and brings in good ratings’. The journalist who works in a senior position in a national channel said that since PM Modi tweeted in support of Madhavi Latha and Amit Shah campaigned for her, she has been pushed by BJP media coordinators in Delhi as a candidate to be interviewed. “She speaks good English and Hindi, does not shy away from being dramatic on air and most importantly a visibly Hindu woman taking on Owaisi. This is good TV,” another journalist said.

Benevolent Hindu image 

TNM tracked her for many hours and started interviewing her at one of her rallies. After the first couple of questions when we asked her if she could criticise Owaisi without her campaign turning communal, she cut the interview short.

One strain is common in all Madhavi Latha interviews – her effort to bolster the image of a benevolent Hindu woman who is trying to ‘rescue’ Muslim women.

In part, this is because winning in Hyderabad by completely alienating all the Muslim voters is difficult. So Madhavi Latha seems to be trying to consolidate the Hindu voters and win over a section of the Muslim voters, especially the women. 

This has been a major aspect of her personality that Madhavi Latha projects, ever since she started appearing in her present image on interviews – that of a ‘mother’ figure who can’t help being moved by women and children in need. Telugu interviewers often address her as a personification of a Hindu goddess, Adi Parashakti. She in turn addresses them as ‘naanna’, ‘thalli’ – terms of endearment older women use for young people. The fledgling politician has been trying to perform a balancing act – between trying to be a saviour of Pasmanda Muslims and appearing as an orthodox, Islamophobic Hindutva fanatic.

A source close to her told TNM that just after she learnt that her name will be announced as a BJP candidate, she started putting together a team for public relations, most of them had worked with her hospital in Hyderabad. Their strategies and suggestions did not garner her the kind of attention she desired. She was advised to work with a team of Muslim women from the area and she started identifying women leaders in old Hyderabad. Over a dozen women were finalised and after spending time with them, she asked them to work with her on her political campaign, the source said. At the time, she had assured them that she intended to help Muslim women with their everyday issues. But since her campaign turned communal, less than three of them are still with her.

We managed to speak to one of the women who had spent time with Madhavi Latha till the first few weeks of her campaign. She is a resident of Yakutpura and her family had been Congress supporters many years ago. She told us that at the beginning Madhavi Latha had spoken to them deeply about Islam, without passing any disdainful comments. “She only spoke of issues like education and jobs for our children. She used to tell us that women from all religions should work together. She would even quote phrases from the Quran,” the woman told us. “We thought maybe she can help the people in the constituency, so we agreed to work with her and speak about her in our circles. A few of us work as teachers and a couple of us run self-help groups too. So we could reach other women voters,” she added.

But after Madhavi Latha started targeting Owaisi and his religion, they started withdrawing from the campaign. The woman told us that even though Madhavi Latha’s team assured them that her comments were only about Owaisi and not the entire community, they could not work with someone so polarising.

A transformation for the cameras

Madhavi Latha’s present persona seems very new. Just a year ago, she appeared in an interview on the women’s channel Vanitha TV, wearing a regular saree and with her hair loose. In other past media appearances too, she is seen dressed differently and even speaking in the Telangana dialect.

But now, since the lead up to the announcement of her candidacy, she is associated with the Brahmin saree and dialect. She is commended for her talents in music and dance, for homeschooling her three children — two of whom got admission in the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology – and for managing Virinchi Hospitals while also handling social work.

Interviewers often comment on her ‘vaakchaturyam’ – her sharp, clever tongue. She presents herself, and is often presented by the hosts, as a motivational speaker and counsellor. She has often been invited to preside over Women’s Day events and interviewed as a ‘woman achiever’ too on the occasion. Her recent social media persona is a cross between Garikapati Narasimha Rao, who sermonises about Brahminical values and scriptures, and the extremist BJP MLA from Hyderabad, T Raja Singh.

Hyderabad BJP candidate Madhavi Latha
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Speaking to Navika about her anti-Muslim image, Madhavi Latha said, “Go look through my old videos, I’ve never spoke against Muslims,” while alleging that Owaisi had made certain insulting remarks about Hindu goddesses. While these claims went unchallenged in the interview, here are some of her anti-Muslim remarks from past interviews. 

In her interview with Vanitha TV, she claimed that gender inequality began in the subcontinent only as a result of ‘invasions’ by the Mughals, Persians, French, and British. “In the Ponniyin Selvan films, the women’s costumes are so sexy. They really used to dress that sensually and men never had any bad intentions towards them. Islam needs women to cover up their entire body because they didn’t believe their men had self-control, because of their food habits. We [Hindus] don’t eat beef, do we? Even the non-vegetarian food we eat is sattvic. Only our kings may have had different habits, as their lives were short and they had extra hormonal gushes. That’s why they had multiple wives. Everyone else ate sattvic food, that’s why monogamy was the norm,” she said.

Since making her political entry, she has been holding ‘yagams’ and other Hindu rituals in various parts of Old City. In one of her recent interviews, she said, “People say I’m fearless. If I was afraid, would I do a 45-day yagnam in Seetharambagh of Old City? … Tensions may occur, but I don’t care.”

In another interview, she claimed that love jihad was an issue in the Old City. Love jihad is a bogey spread by right-wing groups. “[Muslim men] promise freedoms to women which don’t exist in their religion. The Quran doesn’t even allow love marriages. If they marry a non-Muslim, she will always be considered a slave as per their religion… Women have so much freedom in Hindu households, they don’t realise that Muslims are allowed to be polygamous… We raise our girls with freedom, like a goddess, but they remove her bindi, make her look like a widow, give her a burqa and practically imprison her. When Modi wanted to save [Muslim women] from triple talaq, how can Hindu women fall into this trap?” she asked. 

Hail Patriarchy 

Being a Brahmin woman herself, she has also upheld Brahminism in some of her interviews. Remarking on the controversy around the Nayanthara film Annapoorani, which portrayed a Brahmin woman eating and cooking meat, and going out with a Muslim man, Madhavi Latha said, “If you want to destroy Hindu dharma, you need to get hold of Brahmins. Unless they pollute the most vegetarian person closest to god, they can’t make a big impact. Not just any Brahmin family, but they show the family of a priest. It’s a huge sin.”

She also asked, “And why women? Are they saying women are easily corrupt? Women are so soft. Can someone born in such a traditional family ever eat meat? … Does she have no faith in her devotion for her parents? Does she have no faith in Hinduism? Not just boycotts, we should burn down such movies so they don’t dare to make them again.”

“They show that the Brahmin girl is polluted by eating the meat. But they show a Muslim woman who doesn’t eat it. People who eat beef and all kinds of meat are not shown eating meat,” she said in a mocking tone.

Hyderabad BJP candidate Madhavi Latha
Annapoorani, ‘love jihad’, and being farhan

“People who make such movies should be banned from the country. Do we make such movies on them?” she asked, skipping any mention of recent Hindutva propaganda films with anti-Muslim rhetoric such as The Kerala Story, The Kashmir Files, and Razakar

She has also said that people who convert to Christianity do so only because “they get paid very well” and that tribal communities perform animal sacrifices out of “ignorance” and will not go back there if they are “educated” about Hindutva and peace.

Madhavi Latha is full of other contradictions too. In one interview, she said that women must always tie their hair up so they do not lose ‘shakti’ from it, although she herself wasn’t tying her hair up regularly until a year ago.

While she is seen as someone who is capable of giving advice on parenting, marriage, and women’s issues, she has also made some deeply misogynistic statements. When asked whose fault it was when people are ‘attracted’ to girls as young as 13 or 14, Madhavi said, “Whose fault is it if you walk outside without slippers and get pricked by a thorn? You can’t blame the government for the bad roads. Is it easier to fix everyone else or our own girls? We must ensure they’re on the right path, because we cannot stop nature. Women should not do things that could attract men,” she said. She has also said that “women can have any dynamic job but should not dress or act provocatively.” She has also attributed girls menstruating at younger ages to the use of mobile phones, films, and other “artificial triggers” that cause an early “hormonal gush.” She has also said that watching cartoons such as Doraemon and Shin-chan is corrupting children.

She even blamed mobile phone use for an incident of child sexual assault that the interviewer described.

When asked why divorces were on the rise lately, she said the women’s parents were at fault for even thinking of contingency plans in case the marriage ends badly. “Why are we preparing for that possibility? Having such a negative perception means the journey also will be negative,” she said.

She has also said that all women are bound to or will want to get pregnant at some point, and therefore they must keep the mind ‘sattvic’ and the body soft and healthy. “Women should think sattvic, they shouldn’t pollute their body with rage, revenge, etc.” she said. She even suggested that women must take a break from work to raise their children. When asked about families that may need the income from both spouses, she said, “Double income is not needed, there is no need to send children to expensive schools. My father managed to raise us without spending lakhs.”

When the Hyderabad police cancelled permission for rabble rouser Raja Singh to lead the Shobha Yatra on Ram Navami, Madhavi Latha had spoken to the media aggressively in his favour. Later, she took part in the yatra that has now become a forum for BJP leaders to make communal remarks. This is the first time she took centre stage in the Shobha Yatra. BJP leaders in Hyderabad TNM spoke to accuse her of using the occasion only for the elections. “She claims she was in the RSS for years. We don’t question that. But she is not our leader. What work has she done for the party or Hindus so far? She is just using this platform to get attention and you (the media) are highlighting her. There are many others who have worked to build the party for many years and they are being ignored at her expense,” a BJP worker said.

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