‘ Some­times I wake up at night and ask my­self what am I do­ing?’



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



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

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