Manoj Kumar cuts a relatively new figure in Victorian politics, but he seems to have the gift for knowing what the mood is.
If you have ever been to the Forest Hill railway station, chances are you would have seen Manoj Kumar handing out leaflets and talking to passers-by. As Labor candidate from Forest Hill, Kumar is at the station every two days campaigning for the coming Victoria state elections in November.
“That’s my style of campaigning. I say ‘good morning’ to everyone irrespective of whether they take the leaflet or not, some do take the leaflets happily,” smiles Kumar. He spends two hours at the station and then leave for work. After 5 pm, he attends different meetings based on what his campaign officer assigns him.
As the date for elections nears, Kumar’s campaigning is more aggressive. He visits shopping centres, knocks doors and makes phone calls, apart from meeting the many Members of Parliament who have come to support the party’s campaign.
Kumar is one of the few visible Indian faces in Victorian elections this year. In 2013, he unsuccessfully contested for the first time for the federal election from Menzies against former Defence Minister Kevin Andrews. “Menzies was different, it was never won by any party other than Liberal. Labor did win the seat before but am sure we can repeat the win,” he reflects.
Nonetheless, the loss gave him a new determination to keep on giving his best. Kumar joined the Labor Party in 2009 and since then has involved graciously and tenaciously gaining his party’s trust.
Last year, Kumar’s name was cleared by the Labor party’s Public Office Selection Committee and he was the only candidate to claim nomination for Forest Hill, there was no pre-selection. Getting a ticket is not easy, believes Kumar. “However, I could have got a better ticket. This time too I got a marginal ticket. But they wanted a hardworking candidate and put me there.”
The question, therefore, that Kumar meets on a regular basis is how optimistic he is about winning in Forest Hill. But he has a counter question to that: “How optimistic are you for your life?” adding, “This seat was won by Labor in 2002, 2006 and 2010. In this seat, around 20 per cent electorate comprise different migrant groups and Labor has a good reach. If Labor is able to reach even 4 per cent despite it being a marginal seat, then we are good.”
Kumar is very clear that development of skills among the youth is very important as the population of Australia continues to grow. “If the youth are not empowered, where is the future? This is an important issue both for Labor and Liberal. We might have different ways of working but ultimately our mission is to serve the public. And youth development is very important to me, which is why the public should vote for me.”
A firm believer in education, Kumar believes that the Indian community is among the highly educated communities in Australia. “So if we don’t invest in education – set up more public schools among other things – our children will not benefit. And we could have that same level of pride. Investment in school is investment for future,” he avers.
He is all for education, skills and jobs. “Everybody needs them and I am fighting the election on those bases,” he says, adding, “I am getting good response.”
Born in Bihar, Kumar was brought up in Kolkata and has always been politically-inclined right from his student days in Maharashtra where he studied electrical engineering. “Politics has been in my blood for a long time. My uncle was in the Communist Party. In school I always wanted to be the class monitor and in college I was involved in college unions. I always led. I fight for equality and fairness. I don’t compromise on that even if it means personal loss. A lot of people keep quiet and wait for benefits but I believe that unless you raise your voice against what is wrong, there will be no acknowledgement of that wrong doing. That is the purpose of politics, to point out what is wrong and stand against it.”
Kumar worked in various companies in India and the Middle East before migrating to Australia in 2005. In ordinary conversations too, he stresses on the importance of education. As International Business Manager with Ecotech, he says his political awakening came from his association with trade and the Victorian government paving the way for his joining politics.
“It was when I was in the trade advisory committee of Victoria government for India that I realised I can do something for the community. People don’t have information and I can push that information forward. I know the politicians here help a lot but if they don’t understand us how will they help us, they are not Gods. For instance in hospitals, senior Indian patients have a preference for a certain type of food, but how will their needs be addressed if we from the community are not represented in politics? It is important for educated people to be in politics, it is a good place to contribute to your community and the community at large. That is when I decided to join Labor as the party thinks along these lines.”
A great deal of Kumar’s drive comes from these hopeful possibilities that he talks about. He is optimistic that Premier Daniel Andrew’s record work of making Tafe funding free will benefit young people, that a lot of work such as North East link, metro tunnel, larger deployment of police force etc., will favour a good result. “This election will be competitive but that is the beauty of democracy. It is fun when there is a challenge. I am trying my best.”
Kumar has the support of his wife, his brother and his entire family, friends and volunteers. As Chair of Subcontinent Friends of Labor, he says there is a big support base there too. “Those who are not interested in politics are eager to help too. Even for the leaflets, the community is coming forward to help. I am getting funding from Indian and South Asian communities. I feel grateful and I feel every leaflet should be used wisely because people’s money is involved.”
Asked if he has ever encountered racism in politics, Kumar says, “If I had to think along those lines I wouldn’t have stood for elections. In this world there, is always preferences over fairness. That creates an obstacle for talented and hardworking people,” adding, “We can’t change colour and we don’t need to change, we need to act and do good things. Colour does not make quality or character; they come from hard work and creativity. We need to do good things for Australia as a country and, at the same time, maximise migrant presence in more policy levels and ask for more inclusion of diversity. The progress of democracy is incomplete without inclusion of diversity. We are politically backward, so let’s move forward.”
As someone in the public life, Kumar is aware of shallow politics where people take photos just to use in social media. But politics, says Kumar, has to be understood and, importantly, one has to understand people. “People have expectations of you, so you have to show your leadership. Not everyone is educated and sometimes the educated are egoistic. Being a leader it is important to be inspired, understand the different policies and the challenges in Victoria and Australia.”
In 2018, does it still seem a long road to persuade the larger population to trust their way of life and their security to a leader who is a migrant? Kumar says he is OK to lose but he wants his hard work and commitment to do the talking.
By Indira Laisram