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Scorpion Among Politicians

Scorpion Among Politicians

Pratibha Hari is a friend and MLA from Kayamkulam, my home town. She belongs to the CPM. During the elections, her rival, a young man from the Congress, brought out a leaflet questioning the performance of the previous MLA who also belonged to her party. Questions were also raised about her performance as president of the Alappuzha district panchayat. He was well within his rights to question her competence to represent Kayamkulam in the State Assembly.

What I could not approve of were the snide remarks the Congress candidate made about her. When I read it, I wondered whether it was a crime to wear a variety of colourful saris. If that was a crime, the worst criminal in India was Prime Minister Narendra Modi who is not known to have worn a dress a second time. It is a different matter that a suit he wore just once while meeting US President Barack Obama fetched Rs 4.31 crore!

In a Facebook post, I criticized the Congress for hitting Pratibha Hari below the belt. What the leaflet pointed to was a mindset that did not approve of women, particularly women with a mind of their own, playing their rightful role in politics. My contacts with her were limited to some fleeting meetings, while I had an occasion to have a long chat with her husband which proved the theory that behind every successful woman was a man.

When I saw Pratibha Hari’s maiden speech in the Assembly on YouTube, I felt vindicated because she was able to present her views, forcefully, elegantly and admirably. For once I realized that my support for her candidature, whatever be its worth, was well-deserved. India is a land of paradoxes. Had not Sirimavo Bandaranaike not become Prime Minister of Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, in 1960, India’s Indira Gandhi would have been the first woman to become the head of an elected government.

At least three leading parties in the country, namely the Congress, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Trinamool Congress are led by women. There is hardly any sector where women have failed to prove themselves if they were given a level-playing field. 

Politics is an exception. Although they constitute nearly 50 per cent of the 1.3 billion population, their presence in Parliament and state legislatures is not even 10 per cent of the strength of the Houses concerned. A Bill was passed by the Rajya Sabha to have 33.33 per cent reservation for women in Parliament but no party wants the issue to be taken to its logical culmination.

I remember Congress supporters insinuating that Pratibha Hari had strained relations with her husband and they were living separately. Far from that, her husband was doing everything possible to get votes for her. He even visited me one evening to thank me for my Facebook post. Women in politics have to face worse insinuations and propaganda.

That is not what prompted me to attend the function where Jaya Jaitly’s book  Life Among the Scorpions: Memoirs of a Woman in Indian Politics (Rupa) was released. She was an occasional contributor to the editorial page of the  Indian Express when I was in charge of the page. I was in touch with all other contributors, including Mushirul Hasan, Mani Shankar Aiyar and the late JN Dixit, but I cannot claim to have had any contact with her.

Even when I commissioned her to do a piece on a topical subject of her interest, she routed the article through my boss and editor Shekhar Gupta, who had a public conversation with her as part of the book launch. I had no complaint because I knew that she was a “pedigreed” political leader.

I did not know that she was a Malayali until much later when her name got involved in the Tehelka sting operation. It was only after I read her book that I learnt that she was the granddaughter of Sir Vasudeva Rajah of Kollengode in Palakkad district. Her maiden name was Jayalakshmi Chettur, though she was called by her pet name June, given by her English nanny on the ground that she was born in June. She should be thankful to God because she was born one month earlier as the result of an accident her mother had that induced a premature birth. Otherwise she would have been named July or August.

I am sure that those who know the history of the Congress would find her maiden surname interesting, if not curious. Her father Krishna Krishna Chettur was related to Sir Chettur Sankaran Nair, the only Malayali ever to preside over a Congress session, at Amravati in Maharashtra in 1897. It is a different matter that he fell out with Gandhi and wrote a book  Gandhi and Anarchy criticizing his dictatorial attitude. Jaya’s father was the son of Sankaran Nair’s younger brother.

I have a friend from the  agraharam at Kollengode who has an excellent command of the English language. I tell her that her language skill has something to do with the fact that Malabar of which Palakkad was part was directly administered by the British, unlike Kochi and Travancore, which were princely states. This was one reason why the region produced a large number of ICS and, later, IFS, IAS and IPS officers.

The author’s name underwent a change when she dropped Lakshmi from her name and replaced her father’s family name “Chettur” with “Jaitly”, the surname of her husband Ashok Jaitly, who was an IAS officer who belonged to the Jammu and Kashmir cadre. Her father was India’s first Ambassador to Japan.

Chettur was once described as India’s first whistle blower because it was he who wrote to the Indian government about the missing gold, diamonds and cash that were handed over to Subash Chandra Bose of which he was allowed to carry only some in the ill-fated aircraft he boarded. Out of the huge treasure, only 300 gms of gold was accounted for, the rest having been looted by various persons, including Ramamurthy, a South Indian in Japan who lived a lavish life when the Japanese were struggling to make both ends meet in the wake of the War.

Chettur was known for his drafting skill and played a major role in the Bandung conference. He was transferred to Rangoon where the family became friendly with Burmese Prime Minister U Nu, who was displaced by the military junta. Prime Minister Nehru gave him asylum and he lived a modest life in a small bungalow in Bhopal. He spent his time reading Buddhist scriptures and had become an ascetic by the time the junta allowed him to return.

The day before U Nu was to leave for Burma, now Myanmar, he was given a civic farewell, organized by KP Narayanan, editor of the  MP Chronicle, at the Rotary Bhavan at Bhopal. I was able to interview him for a few minutes and he thanked the people of India, especially Bhopal, for their hospitality. I remembered this when I read, “He left Burma and stayed for many years in Varanasi in India, and finally went back to Burma to take the quiet, meditative ways of a Buddhist monk” (Page 53).

Jaitly lost her father, while he was posted at Brussels. She had not even completed a year into her teens. Soon the world changed for her. The privileges of being the daughter of an Ambassador — a large mansion to live, servants to do every chore, tasty dishes on time and a limousine to move about — ended with his passing away. She had to move to Delhi with her mother and be one among the  hoi polloi.

Family connections helped her to go to the US and join Smith College in Northampton (Massachusetts), promoted as “an uncompromising defense of academic and intellectual freedom, an attention to the relation between college education and the large public issues of world order and human dignity, and a concern for the rights and privileges of women”. These are principles she claims to have imbibed!

Connections again helped her land a job in Air-India, which had a hyphen in its name till it was removed by Thulsidas, a Malayali who became the airline’s chairman. Her marriage to Ashok Jaitly and their life in Kashmir gave her an opportunity to understand the Kashmir psyche better than many others. She was witness to the 1965 war and, later, the Bangladesh war. But for some tidbits about Kashmir and how signs of progress could be seen, she does not throw any light on the issues at hand and the growing alienation of the people.

Politics enters her life when she comes in contact with Industry Minister George Fernandes in whose office her husband is posted. She gets an opportunity to prove her skills as an organizer and administration when she joins Gurjari, the handicrafts corporation of Gujarat. She is able to organize the craftsmen of Gujarat and popularize the art and craft of the state. Success has many fathers while failure is an orphan. At the end, she was virtually sacked forcing her to go to the courts which upholds her plea after over a decade. The success means she can to go back to her old job and get the same old salary.

Jaya describes the Orwellian year of 1984 as a turning point in her life. She saves two Sikhs from a marauding mob and organizes a relief camp for the victims of the massacre. She sees the Congress party as the instigator of the anti-Sikh pogrom but does not recognize the fact that the rioters were not just Congressmen but also the kind who pulled down the Babri Masjid, eight years later. She mentions a “Ram” who raped a Sardarni! She does not say whether he was a Congressman.

She is oblivious of the fact that in the election that followed the Congress got a massive mandate only because those who would have traditionally voted for the BJP had also voted for the Congress. The defeat of Vajpayee was a case in point. She glosses over Ayodhya and the heavy price the nation continues to pay for it. She is politically so partisan that she dismisses the Gujarat riots as of not much significance.

While her contributions to the making of Dilli Haat are beyond doubt, her portrayal of Fernandes is beyond belief. He began as a socialist but he had no compunction in defending the indefensible. He was cleverly used by the Sangh Parivar when Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two children were burnt alive. Again, his conscience did not prick when people were burnt alive as at Best Bakery in Gujarat.

I remember an editorial conference presided over by Swapan Dasgupta at the Indian Express, who is a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha. He told us that for the RSS, Fernandes would be the most acceptable Prime Minister if Vajpayee were to leave the scene. Jaitly says Fernandes wanted to “secularise” the BJP when the fact is that he was saffronised by the BJP. 

As a result, he lost election after election and became a caricature of his former self. In short, he became a man without principles. He was no longer the enfant terrible of Indian politics! As defense minister, he had no clue when Pakistani intruders captured an area as large as Delhi in the Kargil sector!

She devotes most of her book to defend herself vis-a-vis the sting operation conducted by Tehelka. As a journalist, I did not approve of the methods adopted by Tehelka, which amounted to entrapment. Tehelka made a fool of the BJP President Bengaru Laxman. 

True, she did not take money. The tapes did not contain anything which indicts her. In fact, she is more sinned against than sinning. What she does not realize is that Fernandes and her campaign against the Congress for its involvement in the Bofors scandal was also without any proof. 

She ends her chapter on the sting operation by recalling what happened to Tarun Tejpal, who is now in jail facing the charge of trying to molest a colleague who was his daughter’s friend. It may be poetic justice. Is it poetic justice that Jaya Jaitly was not found fit enough to be nominated to the Rajya Sabha because of the Tehelka expose? 

While attending the book release function, Mani Shankar Aiyar described himself as a “scorpion among politicians”. In the book the scorpions are Nitish Kumar and his ilk. She has only words of praise for Modi, who was very deferential to her while attending TV debates, while one of his predecessors in Gujarat wanted to spend an evening with her in the state guest house in Ahmedabad! It is a different matter that the Chief Scorpion was converted into the Chief Saviour of Bihar when Modi and Amit Shah’s charm was unleashed on Nitish Kumar. It is all a matter of perception, Jaya Jaitlyji!

The writer can be reached at  ajphilip@gmail.com

(Published on 13th November 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 46)