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Since 1st March, 1999
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‘Sometimes symbolism has its own importance’
Tête à tête

That’s all?” The trademark thin voice of India’s first woman Dalit Speaker betrays her surprise as I finish my set of questions. That’s quite different from the hint of dismay I had detected during my first meeting with Meira Kumar days after she was sworn in. “Another interview,” she had asked her staff then as I was ushered into her presence.

That day the handkerchief-sized lawn of her house in south Delhi’s tony New Friends Colony area was teeming with visitors; 15 minutes into the interview I had to leave to make way for bouquet-bearing VIPs. I had expected the story to be repeated, but she’s far more relaxed and in a mood to chat, offering chocolates and insisting I drink a cup of tea.

She is wearing a handloom saree, in colours that ably set off her dusky complexion. With a small red bindi blazing on her forehead and just a hint of grey at her temples, Kumar wears her 64 years extremely lightly indeed. It’s probably the result of yoga which the Sasaram MP used to do regularly but couldn’t keep up with during the campaign for the 2009 election.

The plush cream and beige drawing room has an uncluttered look. A painting of a woman’s profile done by Kumar hangs on one wall. She hasn’t painted for some years now, nor has she written poetry, some of which had been published in Hindi journals. Standing prominently on a low rough-hewn table is a photo of her father, the late Jagjivan Ram — Congress strongman, former deputy Prime Minister and defence minister.

He, she is sure, would have been extremely proud of her today. “He was very fond of me and always happy with whatever I did.” But she doesn’t feel she is carrying forward a legacy. “His work was more a mission. I was drawn into that mission.” That involved working for society, egalitarianism, fighting suppression and atrocities and it started long before she entered politics. In Jaipur’s Maharani Gayatri Devi school she used to knit sweaters for soldiers during the India-China war of 1962. Just after college (Indraprastha and Miranda House in Delhi) she got affluent families to adopt drought-affected ones during the Bihar famine of 1967. She would have continued such work even if she hadn’t joined politics, she insists.

In any case, she was never groomed for politics. Growing up in a political household meant seeing “the humblest and the mightiest” walk in and out of the home, but politics was never discussed at home. Though her father would relate stories about great men like Mahatma Gandhi and the freedom struggle to Kumar and her elder brother, Suresh Ram, he was more interested in talking to them about their school and hobbies.

He was keen on her joining the civil services. So was her freedom fighter mother, the late Indrani Devi, who believed the times had changed and that women had to step out of their homes. So five years after her marriage in 1968 to lawyer Manjul Kumar, she joined the Indian Foreign Service (IFS). By then she had a law degree under her belt in addition to her M.A. degree.

Fortunately for her, a rule that barred married women from joining the IFS or marrying after they joined the service had been scrapped. She became not only the first married woman to join the IFS, but one with two children. She worked really hard, she says, and gives her husband — whose mother, the late Sumitra Devi, was Bihar’s first woman cabinet minister — full marks for encouragement. “Whatever I have been able to do is because of him. He is extremely supportive.”

She was busy with her career and family when her life took an unexpected turn. Then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, in search of a prominent Dalit face for the party, had asked her father to get her to contest a bye-election to the Bijnore Lok Sabha constituency in November 1985 (her brother had died in May that year). Jagjivan Ram agreed and so Kumar, by then a mother of one son and two daughters, couldn’t refuse.

Kumar gave up South Block for the rough and tumble of electoral politics. It was a bit of a culture shock. Basically a shy and reticent person — a trait she has inherited from her mother — public speaking was quite an ordeal. “It took me some time to adjust.”

The political novice was pitted against — and defeated — Ram Vilas Paswan, who had a Guinness record for winning with a record margin of over 4 lakh votes in 1977, and a young woman from a party that was less than a year old — Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party. Isn’t it ironic that despite this, they are now seen as more effective Dalit leaders than she? But that’s a political question, she says, which she can’t answer since she is now the Speaker.

Does she feel history has been unfair to her father (who died seven months after her win), since he is not given the same iconic status as his contemporary B.R. Ambedkar? “Take a hockey field. Certain players play an entire field and some dribble in one corner. Are you getting my point?” The kohl-lined eyes lock on my face. “Similarly, some leaders decide to do national politics. And in that, the prime concern is those who are downtrodden and marginalised. But the politics is national.” She obviously hasn’t lost the diplomat’s knack for dodging difficult questions. Or being cautious. She doesn’t want me to use the tape recorder and she thinks before speaking, carefully choosing her words.

She’s unruffled when asked if conferring the Speaker’s post is nothing more than tokenism towards Dalits. It’s a high constitutional post, she points out, and not something insignificant. What’s more, there’s been an all-party unanimity over the choice. “There is a certain message it has sent, which has been taken positively. Sometimes symbolism does that. It has its own importance.”

Her ever-smiling countenance and barely-audible voice have had many doubt her ability to handle a rumbustious bunch of 545 MPs intent on disrupting parliamentary proceedings. “Let’s see,” she says and points out that if she could get thousands of people at election meetings to listen to her, this should not be too difficult. She doesn’t consider her voice a handicap. “Women don’t have booming voices. They have soft voices.”

Kumar may not be quite the pushover people think she is. She is known to be firm on getting things she wants — like converting her father’s residence on Krishna Menon Marg in New Delhi into a memorial. The single-minded focus is probably the result of her training as a shooter, in school and at the civil services academy. Corporate India certainly saw this focused side of her when, as social justice and empowerment minister, she was firm on implementing affirmative action and job reservations in the private sector.

In the beginning, she recalls, the private sector was vehemently opposed to the idea of even affirmative action. “They would ridicule me, deride me. Gradually, they came around to admitting there was a problem. They were just not prepared to do that earlier.” She isn’t disturbed by the fact that reservations didn’t happen. “Certain tasks take longer. Let affirmative action get done first.” Are reservations the right way to address the problem? “Yes. With downsizing happening everywhere, there are no jobs. Where are people to go? Caste prejudice is so strong.”

It’s a prejudice she has faced, even though she belonged to the social and political elite. “People do discriminate. They won’t call you to their homes. They will serve you in different vessels. This happened even in some very well-off homes.”

Another sport she learnt in childhood — riding (she was taught by none other than Shahnawaz Khan, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s associate) — must have taught her to hang on during bumpy rides, of which her political career has had its share. She has lost some elections. Within five years of joining the Congress she found herself in the Congress Working Committee and remained there for 10 years till she quit the party in 2000, speaking openly of feeling alienated and suffocated in the party. She, however, returned to the Congress fold two years later.

As I disregard her request to refrain from political questions and dare to ask her about that, I get a sense of what’s in store for disobedient MPs. Her eyes harden, the face tightens and the voice gets steely. “You are again asking a political question.”

The softer side takes over when she talks about playing with her grandchildren. “I draw energy from them, they are so rejuvenating.” Well, she’ll certainly need them around during Parliament sessions.

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