That morning, Panabaka Lakshmi lost the keys to her cupboard. A genuine reason to be behind schedule because her sarees were all locked inside the cupboard and she could not find one to drape herself in.
Not unusual, given that she is not focused and runs her set up like a fiefdom: several aides but none equipped to handle the handful of visitors who wait for “Madam” with wilted flowers.
There seems to be no system of communication except the parroting of “Madam will call” “Madam will come” or “I will tell”. No discrimination: everyone made to wait long hours, and sometimes for weeks at length.
Given that this is Panabaka Lakshmi’s second tenure as minister, her aides seem past-masters at the game.
In her last tenure as union minister of state for health, her boss, Anbumani Ramadoss cracked the whip: he took away all work from her and reportedly issued instructions that files should not be sent to her.
Whether this had something to do with her inefficiency, or to allegations about her loyalists being on the take is difficult to say, but her detractors succeeded in launching a slander campaign against her.
If it was not about irregularities in disbursing funds under the MPLAD Scheme, as health minister it was about her building more roads than sanctioning hospitals: “One built exclusively” said a Congress functionary, “to connect her fields”.
Lakshmi, it is learnt, has sprawling agricultural land, both ancestral and acquired, in her native village.
As an MP this is Lakshmi fourth term, her first being in 1996. She entered politics via the Railways. Her husband, P. Krishnaiah, was a railway employee in Andhra Pradesh. Boredom led her to join the cultural wing run by spouses of railway officers. A chance meeting with former PM Narasimha Rao’s daughter paid dividends.
Lakshmi was fielded from Nellore constituency to contest Lok Sabha. Later, Janaradhan Reddy, state’s former CM backed her. Currently, the two are at daggers drawn.
Reddy is irked by her excessive use of the Dalit card. Lakshmi, on her part, has charged him with engineering her husband’s defeat in the recent Assembly elections to the state.
Though Lakshmi finds gender and caste to be her undoing, her detractors see it as her trump card: “A SC and a woman, what more can she ask for?” said a Congressman. With Congress wooing both, Lakshmi has had it good. Add to that her bonding with Kumari Selja, also Union Minister and a Dalit, Lakshmi is on track.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Lakshmi told HT, is her “godmother”. But for her, it would be tough to survive in a man’s world. With the Congress High Command favorably inclined, she can spend time playing the harmonium, her favorite instrument and forget work if she wants to.
(The author is Editor, National News)