“Be the lion that is leading the rest”

Mahua Moitra ’98 studied economics and math at Mount Holyoke, and is making her mark as one of India’s most dynamic politicians.

By Christian Feuerstein

Mahua Moitra ’98 started her post-Mount Holyoke College career at the investment bank J.P. Morgan, but she knew her inner fire was destined for something else. In 2008, she quit her job in London to enter the Indian political arena, becoming the national spokesperson for the All India Trinamool Congress party and then a member of parliament in the 17th Lok Sabha. 

Her maiden speech to Parliament quickly went viral, as Moitra pointed out seven danger signs of early fascism showed that India was heading down a “dangerous path.” Her persistence while MPs tried to shout her down quickly made her a social media sensation. 

Moitra was recently in the United States to speak at the India Conference at Harvard and generously consented to an interview. “I always say, apart from my blood family, I have my Mount Holyoke family,” she said. “In perhaps every city that I visit, the first point of call is always a Mount Holyoke alum.” 

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed. 

Why did you choose Mount Holyoke College? 

Mount Holyoke’s always had a great reputation in India. There were a lot of people in the 1960s and 1970s that went to Mount Holyoke from Calcutta, which is where I was from. It always had a reputation as an institute of higher learning, and also as something that had a very, I would say, nurturing, nourishing atmosphere.

Of course, I got in with a full scholarship. I don’t think I would’ve been able to go to college in the U.S. otherwise. I will always, always be so grateful for Mount Holyoke for giving me that opportunity. I don’t think I’d be who I am today, and be able to do what I could do in my life if it wasn’t for that very first break.

What would you tell Mount Holyoke students about leadership and passion? 

I think the most important thing is you have to follow what you want to do. If you don’t do what your heart tells you to do, you’ll always be mediocre at it. For example, I was a good banker and if you follow the rules and keep working, you are an analyst and you become an associate. You become vice president. You run a group. And that’s fine if that’s what you want to do. But I just knew that the fire I had in me was much more than if I were VP running a group at J.P. Morgan, because it wasn’t what defined me.

So it’s very important for young people to find out very quickly as to what it is that they want to do. I think internships are very good in helping you recognize what you’re not going to do. If you think you want to be a banker, sophomore year do an internship at a bank. And then if it’s something you want to do, you do. If it’s not, do something else. Because remember, when you’re honest and you’re passionate, somebody has to look into your eyes and see the fire. Only then can they follow you.

There’s a saying in India that if you have a pack of wolves and you’re led by a lion, then the wolves fight like a lion. But if you have a pack of lions and they’re led by a wolf, then everyone dies a wolf’s death. It’s very important to be the lion that is leading the rest, and you can only do that if you feel it from within. I would tell everyone at Mount Holyoke that this is an incredible, wonderful space that you’re very privileged to be a part of. So when you graduate from Mount Holyoke, do not be self-indulgent. Don’t think that you have the right or that you have the freedom. Because remember, freedom can be a long rope. We can choose to hang ourself with it or we can go and draw water from a well with it. Our education gives us a long rope. So we must make sure that we use it.

Your maiden speech to the Indian Parliament was about what you see as a rising tide of fascism in India. Do you see fascism rising worldwide? 

When I think about the world over in the past five years, we’ve seen a rising trend towards ultra-nationalism. Whether you call it fascism or whether you call it something more polite, basically it is a very narrow sense of self and a narrow sense of country. 

I think what’s happening everywhere is that we are being increasingly taught to define ourselves by the way we look, by the religion we practice, by the language we speak, by the geography that we live in. And this is something that is against the very ethos of the spirit of Mount Holyoke, the spirit of India or even the United States, as the way the Founding Fathers imagined it to be. If you look at what it says below the Statue of Liberty, that’s what America is supposed to be about.

No matter how scary it is, we must stand up and we must let people know that this is what’s happening. But wake up. At least see it for what is happening. It’s extremely important that we are aware of higher thoughts that govern the nations, as it were. Because if we keep thinking the economy is everything, then you have to remember that during the Weimar Republic, German industrial productivity increased fivefold. But is that all that we’re supposed to look at in a country? 

There is a greater authority, and that is a moral authority. And no government over time has succeeded, no government has gone down in history as one that is worth remembering if it has lacked moral authority. That’s something that we all need to remember. It is our duty. We need to remind ourselves that, as human beings, this is the highest authority that we are answerable to.

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