WOMEN FIRST, a series on known and unknown women who broke the glass ceiling and carved a niche for themselves
Sumitra Mahajan made Sushma Swaraj wait for well over half an hour because her seven-year-old insisted that she make ladoos before leaving for work. Now, both have made it big: Sumitra Mahajan is Lok Sabha Speaker and Swaraj India’s External Affairs Minister. But if it is family or ladoos for her kids, Mahajan may set aside work to attend to household chores. Her son has now grown up, but if he were to ask for “tere haath ke ladoo (laddoos made by you), she would think nothing of going into the kitchen to knead the dough as it were.
That was one such day when Swaraj was visiting Indore and Mahajan was expected to be part of her entourage. Just as she was leaving, her son demanded ladoos. Her plea that his grandmother would make them for him did not work. He wanted to eat the ones she made. Between her son and Sushma Swaraj, Mahajan found it easy to negotiate with Swaraj and tell her to push back the programme by about an hour: “Ladoo banane ke baad," after I make ladoos, she had then told Sushma Swaraj.
Like most Indian woman, Sumitra Mahajan has always balanced home and work. Every morning before she set out, she would pack everyone’s tiffin. Then she would jump on her bicycle and travel through the length and breadth of the city and the constituency, Indore, that has returned her eight times as a member of Parliament. Today she holds a constitutional position, being the second woman after Meira Kumar to don the mantle of Lok Sabha Speaker.
However, the climb has been full of challenges. She did not begin from the top, but roughed it out rising from the ranks. She started as a corporator and lost a few assembly elections after winning her first Lok Sabha in 1989. Since then, she has not looked back.
Politics was neither Mahajan’s first nor her natural choice. She was content being a housewife and counselling women who would come to her lawyer husband seeking a divorce. In fact, her diktat to her husband was that women who wanted to file for divorce be sent to her first. This may have dented his practice given that Mahajan would, many times, help arrive at an amicable resolution before her husband took up the brief. This is not to suggest that she saved all marriages or believed that all marriages must be saved, but a fair deal for the victim was her goal. It is a role that she continues to play: women from her home state come to her with their share of problems and she does what she can to resolve issues. Popular as “tai”, elder sister, Sumitra Mahajan happily plays mediator. As it has panned out, even in her role as Lok Sabha Speaker, a prerequisite of her job is to mediate between political parties when tempers run high. With battle lines drawn between the ruling dispensation and the Opposition and acrimony at its peak, it may be an uphill task but Sumitra Mahajan is adept at handling warring groups spewing venom at each other.
Had the Emergency not happened, Sumitra Mahajan may have spent her life, ironing out marital discords. The imposition of Emergency jolted her: a wrong which, she felt, must be corrected. She took it upon herself to look after the families of the leaders who were jailed whether it was in terms of paying the school fees of their kids or delivering food to their homes: “I felt something terribly wrong was happening and it was my duty to set it right. I could not remain a mute spectator saying yes, a wrong is being done, but I will only criticise. I was not content being a fence sitter in the face of injustice. I had to fight it…jump in and say I will do my bit”, Sumitra Mahajan said. It is therefore no surprise that four decades later when she sat down to watch Indu Sarkar, a Bollywood film on the Emergency, many images came alive.
Call it her determination, strength or even stubbornness—zid, to quote Mahajan—she always accomplished what she set her heart on. Whether this had something to do with her father or Madhu kaka or a bit of both is difficult to say but they left an imprint on her mind: “From my father I learnt to take things head on, but it was Madhu kaka, an elder and a lawyer, who influenced me. He suffered a stroke, and his speech was impaired but he would gather us kids and teach us how to sing. Looking at him I wondered the stuff he was made of: he could barely speak but was hell bent on seeing his sadhna, learning, take effect through his disciples”. From Madhu kaka, Sumitra Mahajan also learnt to forge friendships and take people along.
It is this trait that has helped her steer clear of controversy. Her long political career has largely been unblemished and she is one of the few politicians whose life is an open book. This, however, is not to suggest that she does not have enemies or critics: “Dushman bahut hain, many enemies, but I don’t waste time on them. I tread my own path. I look at the positives and if there is a negative, I just move on instead of playing God and expecting a course correction”, she says.
For Mahajan, politics happened much later in life, when she touched forty. It was not a step-up to power or a success ladder, but a baby step towards national duty and social service: “Nation was top of the mind since childhood, sanskar mein tha, part of the legacy, as they say” she said.
Her family was seeped in the RSS ethos, given that her father, Purushotam Neelkanth Sathe alias Appa, was a Sanghachalak. His second marriage to a widow way back in 1937, had kicked up a storm in Chiplun, Maharashtra: it was shunned by the majority and dubbed as “revolutionary” by a handful. Dr K.B. Hedgewar, RSS founder, was among those who supported Sathe’s bold move. Therefore, politics was neither alien nor unfamiliar territory: “We knew what was happening around us”, Mahajan said.
It was Appa’s training that made his children selfless: “In the village, we lived in a rented house and when I said apna makaan hona chahiye (we should have a house of our own), my brother said what is apna makaan ? In every village we have a home, wherever people welcome us with open arms that is our home”. It is another matter that when she married, her in-laws home was a three storied building.
Till she plunged headlong into politics, life was a dream, a lot of fun and games. Her husband, Jayant, indulged her. They were a happy twosome and great company to each other. They had a lot in common including their love for ice-cream: “I would hop on to my husband’s scooter to go and eat ice-cream. And it was never one ice-cream…we would eat several”. He also went sari shopping with her. Her enviable collection of Chanderis and Maheshwaris is thanks to him though after his death Sumitra Mahajan wears more off-white and pastel shades. She says that she wanted to look good and hence was always well turned out. She also makes no bones about the fact that she liked the good things of life, as it were. They often went jewellery-shopping and chose different types of ear studs, then more popular as “tops” as Mahajan chose to describe them: “I had a huge collection and matched them to my saris. Chains were expensive and out of our budget so I wore nothing around my neck, but tops yes, I was crazy about them”.
Her husband’s death took away a lot from Sumitra Mahajan—a part of herself, the fun days and her fondness for ice creams and jewellery: “That is all over now. I don’t eat ice-cream any more or wear tops”. Yet, positivity did not elude her. She changed tack and went for watches: “Yes, I have a weakness for good watches. I wear a different one every two days” she said. Not particularly brand conscious, she is content having “almost all models” of Titan which she says is affordable and a home-brand. During her trips abroad, including several to Geneva, she is content window-shopping because the exorbitant prices would dig a deep hole into her pocket: or so she claims.
For someone who was trained to live within her means and one who graduated to a Luna moped from a bicycle, driving around in a luxury sedan worth 48 lakhs, somehow, does not fit in. As Lok Sabha Speaker, Sumitra Mahajan’s official car is a white Jaguar XE Portfolio, a choice that raised hackles among the opposition, including the Congress.