The saffron-clad 47-year-old sadhvi or nun was just another first-time MP from Uttar Pradesh and perhaps a lucky entrant into the Union ministry until the nation got to hear her fiery, invective-laced speech at a Delhi poll rally.
People in Hamirpur, the constituency she represented as an MLA, said power has gone to the head of Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti — a former farmhand and hymn singer who rose through the BJP ranks to become the minister of state for food processing industries on her Parliament debut.
“Sadhvi mataria gayin rahein,” said Indivar Singh a resident of the town, known as the gateway to Bundelkhand. “Of late, she’s become arrogant.”
But Mahesh Awasthi, who has chronicled her political life, said she wasn’t like this. “She was simple and suave, always speaking softly and devoid of inhibitions.”
She gave a glimpse of her changed attitude when she allegedly threw a tantrum at Kanpur railway station last week for not sending an official vehicle for her. For that incident, she accused the Samajwadi Party government of conspiring to get her killed.
She was involved in an ugly spat over her choice of village in Fatehpur for adoption under the Adarsh Gram Yojana.
The Fatehpur administration found the village was well off and requested her to choose another one. But Jyoti dug her heels and her reaction led to protests that left one man dead. She has yet to adopt a village.
“She called names, including a derogatory word against UP minister Azam Khan. What she uttered in Delhi is a continuation of what she’s been doing,” Awasthi said.
Born into a community of poor boatmen in a village close to the Yamuna, Jyoti started young to lighten her father’s load of feeding a large family that was making ends meet with the produce from four bighas of land it owned and whatever little it could fetch from the river.
She used to catch fish in the Yamuna and sell them in the weekly village market, the yield hardly enough to augment the family income.
The young girl, whose educational qualification in her Lok Sabha profile reads intermediate, was forced to work as a day labourer at construction sites and fields as a farmhand.
Poverty and hunger drove her to satsangs or prayer gatherings where she found free food and emotional solace from the back-breaking work. “She was good at reciting the Bhagwad Gita and Guru Achootanand heard her at one such satsang. He was impressed and took her under his wings,” said Pradeep Singh Deepu of Fatehpur, who has known Jyoti since her early years.
At her religious guru’s insistence, Jyoti renounced the material world and became a sadhvi or nun.
By now she has earned quite a reputation as a katha vachak delivering religious sermons through storytelling; but Swami Parmanand, the vice-president of the VHP’s Ram Temple Margdarshak Mandal, recognised the young woman’s gift of gab and fiery tongue.
Jyoti made her political debut at height of Ram Janmabhoomi movement. “She was an impressive orator, eloquently juxtaposing religious analogies to bolter her speeches. And then, she spewed fire,” said Awasthi.
Local BJP old-timers believe it was her political mentor’s clout that secured her an assembly poll ticket for the Hamirpur seat in 2002. She lost, followed by another defeat in 2007.
The poll wind turned in her favour five years later when she became one of the three BJP MLAs from the Bundelkhand region, winning the Hamirpur seat.
Within a year, the party moved its backward face for Bundelkhand to Fatehpur Lok Sabha constituency and she won the seat handsomely.