Of Her, By Her, For Her: Private anecdotes about some of the most powerful women in the making of India

Excerpted from She, the Leader: Women in Indian Politics by Nidhi Sharma, with permission from Aleph.
Sucheta Kripalani.
Sucheta Kripalani.

Former president and an old Congress hand, Pranab Mukherjee has written in his book, The Dramatic Decade: The Indira Gandhi Years, that the imposition of the Emergency was really Siddartha Shankar Ray’s idea, the chief minister of West Bengal at the time.

Ray, however, completely washed his hands off the decision before the Shah Commission. ‘Deposing before the Shah Commission, he ran into Indira Gandhi—draped in a crimson sari that day—in the commission hall and tossed a sprightly remark: “You look pretty today”. “Despite your efforts,” retorted 
a curt Indira Gandhi.’

Indira’s relationship with the media had always been thorny. Unlike Nehru, who was known to have complimented cartoonists and newspaper editors for their honest criticism of his government’s policies, Indira made her displeasure known indirectly through her coterie. Nehru met the press corps in the capital once a month, but Indira met once a year. ‘Frank Moraes, a leading editor, recalled, “Nehru talked a great deal in an interview. You started him off, and off he went. She is not forthcoming.

Jawaharlal Nehru with Indira Gandhi
Jawaharlal Nehru with Indira Gandhi

She’s rather like a convent schoolgirl, tongue-tied. Nehru didn’t care what the newspapers said about him. With her, if there’s an article, editorial or cartoon she doesn’t like, one of her entourage lets her disapproval be known.” Her disapproval was generally ignored by the editors and proprietors of leading newspapers, who had a healthy disrespect for authority, but it became noticeable enough after 1969 to be raised in Parliament when Opposition MPs objected to governmental pressure to silence dissent.’

The first indication of what she expected from the journalists came at a meeting of the National Integration Council in June  1968, when she said, ‘We have to ensure that our educational processes, the books we read, the radio we hear, the films we see, do not distort the Indian mind but lead it to integration and solidarity.’ ‘Her remarks were not then construed as a call for reins on the mass media, but they were the first sign that the media must be more pointedly directed by the government, the first sign, too, of a policy, contrary to the principle and practice so far, that expression must be free and it was the leadership’s duty to safeguard that freedom until it became part of the people’s natural expectation.’

But what happened during the Emergency was censorship of a different nature—the newspapers had to submit articles to get a nod from the government. Several journals either shut down or carried blank spaces as a mark of protest against the government’s attempt. The foreign press was edged out of India completely. In less than thirty years of Independence, a country whose leaders used to smuggle news through crudely printed booklets to gather support for its struggle for independence overseas had clamped down on free speech. 

14 August 1947, 11 p.m.:

The Central Hall of Parliament was decorated with flowers. The visitors’ gallery was packed. The president of the Constituent Assembly, Dr Rajendra Prasad, had taken his seat as the presiding officer on the high podium. Two men holding the national flag flanked him. Prasad turned to the thirty-nine-year-old freedom fighter Sucheta Kripalani to initiate India’s first steps towards Independence. The entire house stood up. Sucheta, an elected member of the Constituent Assembly from the United Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh), rendered the first verse of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s ‘Vande Mataram’ in her melodious voice. Prasad’s address was followed by Jawaharlal Nehru’s iconic ‘Tryst 
with Destiny’s speech.

‘The Muslim League as well as the Muslim leaders (in East Bengal) had been wanting to take revenge for the Great Calcutta killing and they were gradually working among the maulanas, some of whom were MLAs… They had organised volunteers who were going from place to place for some weeks terrorising the people. And then, on a particular day, on a signal they went and attacked the people, burnt the Hindu houses, killed people, took away the girls (and) looted them. All the bazaars and everything was destroyed. But we knew nobody had any authentic or correct news.’ It took two attempts by JB Kripalani and Sucheta to reach Noakhali as railway lines had been uprooted and hundreds of boats burnt.

They first used a plane from Calcutta Flying Club and then rode a boat to reach the first village. On the ground, they found villages that had been burnt down, Hindus who had been forced to eat beef, and stories of abductions and forcible marriages of girls and women. The villages wore a deserted look, and if there were any Hindu families left, there was a general atmosphere of fear among them. Sucheta hit an instant chord with the people, whom she persuaded to share their stories. While JB Kripalani left for Delhi, Sucheta stayed on and worked to establish small camps in villages, rescue Hindu families, bring them to safety, and rehabilitate them.

Sushma Swaraj with Narendra Modi
Sushma Swaraj with Narendra Modi

The intercom buzzed at around 11 pm. The Uttar Pradesh Governor Moti Lal Vora had retired for the night. It had been an eventful summer day on 3 June 1995—he had sworn in Kumari Mayawati as the state’s first Dalit chief minister. He was told she was at the Raj Bhawan to see him. Vora was surprised at this breach of protocol for chief ministers who always sought time to meet the governors in advance. But then the events leading up to the change in regime had been nothing short of dramatic. Within two years of the Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) government led by Mulayam Singh Yadav, the BSP had pulled the plug and staked claim to form the government with the support of the BJP.

On 2 June, a mob of irate SP MLAs had gone on a rampage in the state guesthouse in Lucknow where Mayawati was holding a meeting of BSP MLAs. Yadav wanted to split the BSP so that he could get the requisite numbers on his side. As Mayawati retired to her suites 1 and 2, the mob physically dragged the BSP MLAs out of the waiting hall and into cars to drive them to Yadav’s home. Then they started pounding on the door of Mayawati’s suite, hurling the choicest abuses and crudely detailing what would happen to the thirty-nine-year-old BSP leader once she is dragged out. It had taken several hours for District Magistrate Rajiv Kher and several police officers to push the mobsters out of the state guest house. After a lot of reassurance from Kher, Mayawati and a handful of MLAs locked inside the suite opened the doors. Vora immediately provided a shaken Mayawati enhanced security. The next day, with her mentor Kanshi Ram and the BJP veteran Atal Bihari Vajpayee watching proudly, Mayawati had taken oath as the youngest and first Dalit chief minister of UP.

Now, just hours later she was at Vora’s doorstep, unannounced.

The man in his forties wearing a muffler around his neck saw Mayawati surrounded by books. He introduced himself as Kanshi Ram, a respected and well-known leader who was organising the Dalit community—especially government servants—under the Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation (BAMCEF). As her father wondered what Kanshi Ram could possibly want from his daughter, the Dalit leader asked Mayawati what she wanted to do after studying. She said she wanted to become an IAS officer and work for her community.

At this, Kanshi Ram or Saheb, as he was known to all, is believed to have told her that he would make her such a big leader that several IAS officers would take orders from her. Mayawati was quite taken by this and was quick to forego her dream of becoming an IAS officer. Mayawati’s proximity to Kanshi Ram and her political work with the BAMCEF did not go down well with her father Prabhu Das who was disappointed to see his daughter give up on becoming an IAS officer. When the fights at home grew, Mayawati packed a small bag, carried savings from her teacher’s salary, and left in a huff. She was forced to take refuge in the BAMCEF office as she had nowhere to go, and Kanshi Ram was travelling.

Once back from his tour, Kanshi Ram told Mayawati to use his one-room tenement as her boarding place as he was mostly out of Delhi travelling. In the early 1980s, a single unmarried girl in her twenties, living in the house of a bachelor in his forties, did not go down well with society. 

Swaraj returned home from Malta, Kalsoom and others left for London to be present for the law exam results of Maryam’s daughter Mehr-un-Nisa and Sharif headed for Paris to attend the climate change talks. A day later, Sharif had an unscheduled but animated discussion with Modi for two minutes in Paris. The two national security advisors met in Bangkok on 6 December 2015, and Swaraj was in Islamabad to attend a conference on Afghanistan on 8 and 9 December.

Apart from her meetings with Sharif and her Pakistani counterpart Sartaj Aziz, she again spent over four hours with Sharif’s family in Islamabad. Aziz even complimented Swaraj for her command over Urdu, confessing that in his case, his Punjabi at times interfered with his Urdu pronunciation. ‘Yes, subah (morning) becomes severe-severe (Punjabi),’ Swaraj joked.

She again called on Sharif’s mother. ‘Tu mere watan se aayi hai, vaada kar rishte theek karke jayegi (You have come from my homeland, promise me you will try to improve relations),’ she told Swaraj and spoke with nostalgia about her birthplace, Bheem ki Katra, in Amritsar. She said neither had she visited Amritsar after the Partition nor met any from her watan before Swaraj. The two spoke at length about Amritsar, a city Swaraj would visit often when growing up in her Ambala hometown and later during her political career. Akhtar also recalled Modi and told Swaraj that the Indian prime minister had sent her a shawl and asked about her well-being whenever speaking to her son.

Swaraj also met Sharif’s wife, daughter, and granddaughters. Swaraj’s meeting with Aziz led to the decision to resume comprehensive bilateral dialogue. Before returning, Swaraj met Sharif’s daughter,  Maryam. ‘Tell your grandmother that I have kept my promise (on improving relations),’ she told her. Not once did Swaraj take the credit for this. She merely tweeted about Modi’s statesmanship, ‘That’s like a statesman. Padosi se aise hi rishte hone chahiyen (That’s the kind of warm relations neighbours should have).’ A year later, Swaraj offered her resignation to Modi. She needed a kidney transplant and was not keeping well. Bansuri says, ‘When she was unwell, she offered her resignation to the prime minister. 
He refused and said you get your operation done and come back after full recovery.’ Swaraj broke another taboo— unlike politicians who keep their health problems, especially surgeries, a closely guarded secret, Swaraj declared on Twitter that she was undergoing surgery.

She had borrowed a lakh from her father to make it on her own and the money was depleting soon. Come back and get married, she was told on the phone. The day she agreed, she was offered the role of Tulsi Virani, the priest’s Sanskara daughter who glued Indians to their television sets like probably only BR Chopra’s Ramayana and Mahabharata serials had in the 1980s. ‘I had gone to Balaji Productions to sign a contract to play some side character in Ghar Ek Mandir, which had actors Ram Kapoor and Gautami. They were going to pay me Rs 1,500 per day. I remember the day well as it was 
23 March, my birthday.

A face reader was sitting with Ekta Kapoor in her office—it is all glass and she can look outside. The face reader asked her—“Who is that girl who is standing there, catch her, she will be big,”’ she recalls. Ekta Kapoor walked out and asked what she was signing and asked the office to prepare a new contract. ‘She asked me how much will I charge? I was quickly doing the math and I couldn’t think of a number and just rattled off—Rs 2,000 per day. She said “done” and before I could realise I was the leading lady in Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi. But Ekta paid Rs 1,800 no matter the Rs 2,000 I asked for,’ says Smriti. In her twenties, Smriti did not mind playing a much older character of the ideal bahu with sindoor, mangalsutra, and seedha pallu sari. 

She went on to announce a fast unto death on Vajpayee’s birthday if Modi did not step down. It sent shock waves in the party—a political greenhorn had taken on Modi in his home turf of Gujarat. Smriti had clearly tried to choose sides, in this case, Vajpayee’s camp. However, later that evening Smriti had to retract her statement. Two months later, LK Advani hosted a screening of a documentary at his home and Smriti bent down to touch Modi’s feet, who accepted the gesture and blessed her by calling her ‘Gujarat ki beti’. Many felt that this would end Irani’s career, some said that she was made to give that statement, others said she clearly tried to choose a camp. In a 2016 interview with the well-known television journalist Barkha Dutt, Smriti cleared the air, ‘At that time, I was just a young kid,’ she said, while Mr Modi was ‘a star of the BJP’.

He could very well have told the organisation that this upstart of a girl has said something, kindly have her sacked, or kindly put her in a place from where she never politically rises,’ she said. Instead, Irani recalled, ‘He sat down with me, he said, “Tell me how you reached this conclusion.” When she replied that she had been influenced by what was reported in the media, she says Mr Modi replied, “Don’t judge me by editorials” and then advised her, “You ensure you see me by the programmes that I roll out, see me by the effectiveness, or if there is a gap, tell me what the gap in that program is, help me work so that I can deliver on the promise of development.”’ Irani said that the PM advised her, ‘I am not looking for apologies, explanations.

If you can apply yourself to any one programme and help me make it a success, that is something you should do for the party.’ She was appointed the national secretary and later the head of the BJP’s Mahila Morcha in 2010. Within eight years of joining the party, she was nominated to the Rajya Sabha from Gujarat in 2011. The nomination had Modi’s blessings—he was present when Smriti filed her nomination papers. A little-known fact is that Smriti began her close association with Gujarat with this nomination and as an MP nurtured and closely monitored tribal-dominated areas such as Kevadia, where the world’s tallest monument, the Statue of Unity, was planned and constructed. Her spectacular rise through the echelons of the saffron party, which is perceived as patriarchal, started rumours objectifying Smriti as yet another actor charming her way into power. She had attracted the ire of the entrenched old guard. There were ludicrous claims of a tunnel running between Smriti’s and a senior leader’s home in New Delhi. 

Excerpted from She, the Leader: Women in Indian Politics by Nidhi Sharma, with 
permission from Aleph 

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