Sunita Choudhary: From her rickshaw to a seat of real power

Andrew Buncombe meets India's vice-presidential hopeful who's now a driving force for women's rights

Besieged by thronging traffic at Delhi's Connaught Place, Sunita Choudhary does not hesitate. Her left hand releases the clutch, her right revs the throttle and her rickshaw zips past the honking cars. She makes it look easy.

For the past six years or so, Ms Choudhary has been steering a lonely route as the only woman rickshaw driver believed to be working in the North of India. During this time, she has endured beatings from police, harassment from male drivers and no shortage of surprised looks from the customers she stops to pick up.

Now, the 35-year-old wants to use her experience to benefit the people at the bottom of the pile by securing one of the country's highest offices. This week, Ms Choudhary, who as a teenager ran away from home to escape the strictures of village life and an abusive husband she had been forced to marry as a child, filed nomination papers for the vice-presidential election. Her campaign vow is to help the people she has met at ground level, on her journeys across the crowded city.

"It's love that brings people closer. I don't judge people, I try and speak to everyone," Ms Choudhary, who is originally from the state of Uttar Pradesh, says. "The politicians drive around in cars or else stop off at VIP guesthouses and think they are the upper class. I don't believe that; I believe in talking and communicating with the common person."

Ms Choudhary says she has helped dozens of Delhi's less-fortunate citizens over the years, especially poor women who have fallen through society's often-gaping cracks. She says that when she encounters a road accident she ferries the injured to hospital in her rickshaw for no charge. She has helped people secure government payments, file papers with courts and located places for them to live.

From her own raw experience she knows the difficulties to be confronted in a country that was recently said to be the worst for women among the G20 nations and the fourth most dangerous in the world for women after Pakistan, Afghanistan and Somalia. Violence, sexual assault and discrimination are commonplace, despite the fact that many women – Indira Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, Kumari Mayawati, Mamata Banerjee and Sheila Dikshit among them – have reached the country's highest political offices. "Men expect dominance in society and do not respect women enough," Ms Choudhary, who did not finish school, says. "But they must recognise women and realise they need respect in society."

Among those she has helped are Kusum Lata Sharma and her eight-year-old daughter, Ekta. Abandoned several years ago by her husband, who refuses to help support her, she and her daughter now sleep beneath a tatty piece of tarpaulin in a part of the city set aside by the authorities for organised protests.

"When I first met Sunita, I was reminded of Sunita Williams, [the Indian American female astronaut] because I had heard that name," Ms Sharma says. "Of course she should be a leader. Anybody who has shown such great strength should be a leader."

Ms Choudhary's own story is one of struggle against hardship. As a 12-year-old girl growing up in a village near the city of Meerut, she was married off by her parents to a husband who was violent and alcoholic. Pregnant and desperate, she fled to Delhi where her child died at the age of two months.

Ms Choudhary says that when she ran away, her parents filed a report with the police. She worked in a variety of jobs before hitting upon the idea of becoming a rickshaw driver after coming upon the scene of an accident and helping an injured man to hospital. If she had her own vehicle, she reasoned, she could do more good.

It was years before her parents discovered what she was doing, after someone told them about a media report about her that they had seen.

"I grew up in a conservative family where women were not allowed outside the house. My parents did not want me to do this," says Ms Choudhary, who lives alone in the city's Malviya Nagar neighbourhood. "Now my parents are happy, but not everyone in my village is happy."

This is not the first time that Ms Choudhary, who for years had to rent a rickshaw before being able to buy her own, has run for political office. In 2009 she campaigned to become a member of the country's parliament, travelling around on her rickshaw and distributing leaflets as a candidate for the United Women's Front, an all-women's party that had been formed two years earlier to try and raise the profile of women.

This summer she also filed papers to try to be elected president, though she failed to secure sufficient signatures for her name to go forward. Voting took place yesterday for the largely ceremonial post, with Pranab Mukherjee, India's former Finance Minister, expected to win. Results will be announced on Sunday.

If her campaign for vice-president is to proceed, she will require the backing of at least 40 members of the upper and lower houses of parliament, which make up the electoral college. While India's outgoing President Pratibha Patil is a woman, the country has never had a female vice-president.

"They will do the scrutinising of the nominations after the closing date on [Saturday]. All those nominations that do not have 20 proposers and 20 seconders will be rejected," K Ajay Kumar, a senior official with the Election Commission, says.

So far, Ms Choudhary has managed to secure the backing of just one parliamentarian, Jai Narain Prasad Nishad, an 81-year-old member of the Janata Dal party, who represents the city of Muzaffarpur in Bihar, in the lower house of the parliament. "She is hard working," Mr Nishad says of Ms Choudhary. "She has many qualities."

Ms Choudhary says she is not concerned by the fact she has little chance of success and believes that the extra publicity, albeit modest, generated by her campaign will benefit her efforts to help others.

"Ordinary people ought to be able to choose their president and vice-president," she says. "This is not a political contest so different people should be able to challenge. This election is being carried out by MPs so they are likely to choose an eminent citizen. But I think an ordinary person can also be an eminent citizen."

Best places to be a woman: G20 ranked

1. Canada

2. Germany

3. UK

4. Australia

5. France

6. US

7. Japan

8. Italy

9. Argentina

10. South Korea

11. Brazil

12. Turkey

13. Russia

14. China

15. Mexico

16. South Africa

17. Indonesia

18. Saudi Arabia

19. India

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