WOMEN FIRST, a series on known and unknown women who broke the glass ceiling and carved a niche for themselves
Supriya Sule’s relationship with god is like her connection with the tiger: it is her own private fiefdom, a kind of one-on-one where there is no place for anyone else, not even her husband.
In fact, if Sadanad, who Supriya married some 27 years ago, has any competition, it is with the tiger.
To paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, for Surpiya, tiger is THE animal, every other animal inconsequential. She describes it in one word, kachra patti, something that is really difficult to translate. In essence, no animal can match up to the grandeur and splendor of a majestic tiger. “Its beauty is something else,” she says.
The firebrand MP and Maratha strongman Sharad Pawar’s daughter, Supriya does spend time in the jungles attempting to catch a glimpse of the tiger. If she is able to see one, she does not waste time clicking pictures: “A tiger drives me completely crazy. When I see one, I look straight into its eyes and savour the experience. It is my moment with the tiger…only mine”.
The statements sounds like a love quote straight out of a Mills and Boons romance. The obvious question therefore was the kind of competition that Sadanand faced, if at all: “Yes, my husband’s only rival is a tiger. If a tiger asks me to live with it, I probably would agree even at the cost of being gobbled up. But if I could I would love to keep a cub.”
Jungles, in any case, are the best option for a family that is often divided over “boys thing and girls thing”. As parents of two young kids, her son wants to watch Star Wars while her daughter wants to shop. In the last year of her teens, Revati is a shopaholic quite contrary to Supriya, who “hates it”.
On the face of it, Supriya comes across more like the God-types rather than I love the tiger variety. She appears too gentle and feminine to pitch for the carnivorous beast, therefore when she switches tack to god, it all falls into place.
Like hers with the tiger, Supriya’s relationship with God is purely a private affair: “I am god loving and god fearing. My father is an atheist, but my mother is not. She observes the navratri fast, I don’t. I prefer to diet. Do I go to a temple? Yes, I do. Do I make a song and dance about it? No, I don’t. What I ask from God is something I don’t need to broadcast to the world.” Like it is with the tiger, Supriya’s moment with God is “very very private. God for me is energy”.
Supriya Sule comes across as being very content with her life; she says she has got more than she can ever wish for. “God,” she says, “should slap me if I ever ask for more. I am eternally grateful for all that I have. When my father was ill, we had access to the best doctors. I never had to worry about a roof over my head, or where my next meal was coming from. I am blessed with a large family and huge circle of friends. What more do I need?”
Coming from someone who has over Rs 100 crore declared assets, requirements like a meal and roof sound very basic. But that is what Supriya is—down to earth. She is vocal, forthcoming, and does not mince words. If anything, she is spontaneous. Unlike seasoned politicians, she does not measure her words.
The sari controversy, in fact, is a case in point. Supriya had, almost two years ago, said that the Parliament was not always about serious issues, and that MPs often indulged in small talk about saris: “We often discuss things like where we bought our saris,” she said while speaking to students on the topic. The point she was trying to make was that in everyday lives, politicians think and work like average people.
All hell broke loose because Supriya had, in a single stroke, reduced elected representatives from demi-gods to ordinary mortals. She was grossly misunderstood, as plain speaking people often are, but Sule stood her ground even at the cost of being politically incorrect.
But then that is Supriya and says what she thinks she should, be it about the NCP that her father built brick by brick or the controversies that have taken a toll on her family.
NCP is a party borne out of rebellion. Sharad Pawar founded it after his expulsion from the Congress. He questioned Sonia Gandhi’s leadership on grounds of her being a foreigner. However, in later years, the NCP became a Congress ally and formed a government with it.
Therefore Supriya is bang on when she says that NCP is a party born with a 'golden spoon', but one that’s sheen is wearing off: “Right after its genesis, it was in power for 15 years. It has never seen hardship, but being in the opposition will help it set its house in order.”
That apart, there is the question about its relationship with the Congress. Equally unconfirmed are reports that the NCP is not averse to a tie-up with the BJP: “I am a bit bored with all this,” says Supriya. “It is like shaadi hone wali hai par hoti nahin hai—rumors of a marriage that does not happen.”
Simply put, she believes too much is being read into the personal rapport between Sharad Pawar and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “Personal relationships do not necessarily have political relevance. Just because Pawar and PM Modi have a personal equation, it should not be inferred that there is a plan B. In any case, why should the NCP be part of a plan B, and not plan A. As for the Congress, every relationship has cracks, but we have to walk that extra mile to cement them”.
Nevertheless, there were reports of Prime Minister Modi offering a cabinet berth to Supriya. But she has gone on record that she will “never” go with the BJP. She sees herself diametrically opposite to the party's ethos. “I am too modern for a party like the BJP. We are not here to dictate how other people should live, neither do we want to micromanage anyone’s life and thought. I want to look at the big picture. If you ask me if malnutrition is an issue, I would say yes. Am I worried about conversion? No, I am not”.
Eradicating malnutrition and ensuring tribal welfare are subjects close to Supriya's heart. When she is not debating issues in Parliament, she is out in the fields, managing schools for tribal children and helping develop self-help groups. She played a stellar role in bringing together members of all political parties to jointly tackle malnutrition. Equally, she has friends in the corporate world and is comfortable hobnobbing with them. She is comfortable with street food as she is eating out of silver.
Therefore, if anyone has managed to assimilate Bharat and India into their persona, it is Supriya: “They are one and the same and I see no difference between the two, and I am glad to be exposed to both in equal measure”.
Though among the few young politicians who stands to be counted, politics was not on Supriya’s radar. She was studying water pollution in Berkeley and later moved to Singapore before returning to India for good. It was the ill-health of her father and father-in-law that prompted her decision to return. She entered the Parliament through Rajya Sabha and later contested from her father’s constituency Baramati.
Seen as her father’s political heir at the national level, Supriya is not overawed by Pawar’s larger than life persona. To her, he is “dad”, like fathers are to daughters. Her life has been influenced by both parents, she says. “My mother is a strong person, and tougher than my father. My parents are like chalk and cheese. My father loves being a public persona, and my mother hates it. Most people do not know who she is, and she loves that anonymity. She has always remained grounded”. It is thanks to her mother, perhaps, that they grew up as normal “Mumbai kids”. Family holidays and celebrations are always high on the agenda. There are cousin holidays, sisters-in-law vacations, and Diwali and Christmas celebrations when the entire family lets its hair down.
Just mention sibling rivalry and the rift between the heirs to Pawar’s political legacy, and Supriya declares: “I love my brother to death”. In any case, in her scheme of things, “blood is thicker than water”. “If it is blood versus career, it will always be blood first,” she says.
Ajit Pawar, Sharad Pawar’s nephew and Supriya’s first cousin is seen as her political competitor. Even though Supriya is in national politics and Ajit confined to their home state, Maharashtra, there is speculation about his tripping Pawar’s only child in the power game.
Whether loving her brother is a statement for public consumption is difficult to tell but judging Supriya she is unlikely to say one thing and do the other. In any case Life is “toooo perfect” as they say and she seems to be enjoying every bit: “I look at every as a happy situation. If my son fails in maths I don’t think the heavens have fallen. Life has gaps and we all deal with adversity. The point is do you wear it on your sleeve or ride the tide and move on?”.
Supriya believes in moving on. Life, for her, is a blessing. She believes that small things are as important as the big ones. Even while steering people’s lives as an MP, her son’s math lessons and the shape of his birthday cake occupy her mind-space: “Being a parent for me is as important as being an MP”, she says disarmingly.