‘ Sometimes I wake up at night and ask myself what am I doing?’
FOUR YEARS AFTER A DRUBBING AT THE POLLS, MEERA SANYAL HAS RETURNED TO POLITICS. THIS TIME FOR GOOD. NOW BUSY CAMPAIGNING FOR THE AAM AADMI PARTY, THIS FORMER BANKER HAS HER SIGHTS TRAINED ON 2014. YET SHE SAYS...
She is one of the only 373 people BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi follows on Twitter and the only leading corporate banker to have contested an election as an Independant candidate. Now four years after a drubbing in the South Mumbai constituency polls, Meera Sanyal is back. This time for good. Convinced that public life is where she wants to be she has begun the process of relinquishing her executive responsibilities at the Royal Bank of Scotland, and to the world of Indian banking, where she has worked for more than a quarter of a century. “I feel in my gut that India is now at a crossroads. We can choose one of two paths: If we continue the way we are going there is going to be an inexorable slide downhill but if we choose better leadership there is a chance things could improve,” she says.
Criss-crossing the capital in the last days of October to campaign for the Aam Aadmi Party Sanyal appears to be for all purposes a woman on a mission. Not surprisingly high on her list of bug bears is the issue of corruption.
“It concerns all of us. If you look at the cost of corruption to a business, it is extremely high. We need to put in place strong deterrents. The Jan Lokpal bill is a good idea but we need a simple anti-bribery and corruption act. There is a very good one in Bhutan and in the UK at present. But is this a possible idea in a nation of jugaad?
“I think so. Just look at the way we can make railway bookings through
IRTC and file income tax returns online. People my age will remember a time when you could not get a railway seat without speaking to a minister. Now there are no intermediaries. You either get a seat or don’t and if you’re sensible enough you book in advance,” she says. “Earlier everyone was scared to go to an income tax officer because there weren’t so many layers of corruption. Now the whole process has become painless, honest and simple. The solution is to design systems which discourage human intervention as much as possible,” she says.
Sanyal famously sent shockwaves through India Inc. in 2009 when she made the move from corporate boardroom to the rough and tumble of politics. Disparagingly called the Memsaab from Malabar Hill she was criticised for being anglicized and elitist. One columnist went so far as to state “She’ll have to lose her pearls first!.” Sanyal can now look back at that time with a smile. “I’m not a Malabar Hill Memsaab,” she laughs. “I have no idea where that came from because I don’t wear much jewellery at the best of times. Maybe they mentioned pearls because I don’t wear diamonds. I’ve grown up a naval officer’s daughter; we’re very grounded. But people can criticise, that’s okay.
But she has good things to say about the campaign itself. “I learned during my first political outing that we
take our democracy and some of our institutions for granted. The election commission did a very good job. I was up against Milind Deora (who went on to win) and Mohan Rawle of the Shiv Sena among 18 others, some of whom were quite colourful characters. But it was a very clean campaign.”
Yet despite this in the intervening years none of her contemporaries or any other corporate leader has thought to follow in her footsteps. Is it a sign of political apathy in the corporate sector or something else? “I suppose there is an atmosphere of fear,” she says. “People are afraid that if they speak out there might be an impact on their companies or on their families. But I think the fear is unjustified because if we don’t take a stand...” and here she lets the subject slide. But wasn’t she afraid?
“Getting into politics wasn’t an easy choice to make. I went in with a lot of concern, with no idea of what would happen. This was in the aftermath of the 26/ 11 attacks and at that time I felt very strongly that we can’t sit in our drawing rooms and criticise the government. We need to step out and do something,” Sanyal says. So how did corporate India react to news she had taken the political plunge? “Women in banking have quite a lot of respect for each other. It’s not a bitchy environment. A lot of corporate India didn’t support me during my 2009 campaign but the women did and I’m really grateful for that,” she says. Sanyal mentions Naina Lal Kidwai in particular as “a very fine person” and “someone I have a lot of time for. I feel very supported by the women in the banking sector. It is a kind of sisterhood.”
A self confessed idealist, Sanyal is in many ways following in the footsteps of another “great idealist,” her father vice admiral Hiranandani. A gallantry award winner and author of several publications on Indian Naval history Sanyal says, “He was my hero.” She turns emotional when she talks about the most precious possession she owns: a Bhagwad Gita her father gave her before he passed away.
Little however is known about her mother Banu and Sanyal is happy to fill in the gaps. “My mother is a lawyer, a really brilliant person who gave the bar at the age of 21. She never practiced law but invested her education in us and I really feel the truth of that today. Unlike my father, she has always been a very practical person. And I think the combination of their natures was very good for us children,” she says. “What I learnt the most from my mother was the dignity of labour, that no job is too small. Naval officers in those days never used to earn much money. She stitched all her clothes, including mine. In fact she makes my sari petticoats till today. She is my sounding board,” Sanyal adds. And what did she have to say when Meera announced she was going to contest an election? “She asked me to think about my decision very carefully
POLITICS HAS BECOME A CLOSED CLUB, THE PRICE OF ENTRY IS VERY HIGH
WE HAVE TO TAKE A STAND NOW AND FIGHT FOR WHAT IS GOOD AND RIGHT.
and said, ‘Don’t be hurt when people call you names because that’s the nature of the game and don’t lose your balance and values. And don’t expect anyone to change for you’.” Sanyal replies.
Next summer Sanyal will contest from the same constituency again but this time she says she has a plan. Her official campaign was launched two weeks ago and she says she is keen for more volunteers to sign up on her website and support Team Meera, which is made up of former armed forces personnel, filmmakers, advertising industry professionals and poets. But how can this motley crew, (her husband Ashish, a consultant, is her campaign manager) ever hope to compete and win against entrenched political parties with huge muscle and money power at their disposal? Sanyal agrees the odds are stacked against her. “If you play by their rules you can never win. But what I learned in 2009 and am seeing with the AAP and what I plan for my 2014 run is a campaign driven not by cash but pow- ered by volunteers. Our volunteers work from their hearts and that’s not something money can buy. Passion and energy and ideas can supersede cash. But isn’t that highly unrealistic, not to mention idealistic? “I am an idealist,” she says with quiet pride. “I think this country needs idealists. The main things that concern me: the erosion of our institutes, whether it’s the police, the CBI, the judiciary and now they have attacked the CAG and army. And if these institutions, which are the pillars of our democracy, crumble then there is nothing left. There will be nothing between us, the citizens, and anarchy.”
What if she loses in 2014? If I win I have a very clear idea about what I want to do and if I lose life goes on. I will continue to work towards changing society through my work various NGOs.
Many would argue she stands a better chance of success if she joins a mainstream political party.
But Sanyal shoots the suggestion down. “Firstly I believe the policies of the political establishment, including the
BJP, are ruinous. But mainly politics has become a closed club and the price of entry is very high,” Sanyal says. “Look at our Parliament today. It’s there to make laws and legislations for a country of 1.2 billion people in the 21st century. Unfortunately that’s not what is happening. Most of the time parliamentarians are abusing each other or stalling house activities,” she adds.
But it’s not easy to fight against a system. “Sometimes I wake up at night and wonder what am I doing. But there is no other option. We have to take a stand now, and fight for what is good, for what is right,” she says. What sustains her in challenging times are some words of advice. “My father always told me, do your best and leave the rest to God. This advice always kept me grounded and going during difficult times. It is good to remember that a lot of what happens in life is not in our hands,” she says.
FACE-OFF: With Congress candidate Milind Deora during the 2009 campaign
SUPPORTING ACT: Sanyal campaigns for the Aam Aadmi Party in New Delhi