Chief ministers' wives are the first ladies of the state. They guard their husbands' image and nurture their constituency. Some venture out and seek a public role. But what is common is that they all rule at home.
Sadhna Singh, 48
Married for 23 years
Sadhna Singh is the ideal political wife of a chief minister whose state is in election mode. The wife of the Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, she harbours no political ambition, is aware of every political swing in Madhya Pradesh and is in touch with party workers across the state.
As Chouhan’s Jan Ashirvad Yatra Rath (a remodelled luxury bus) yatra rolled along the 230 assembly segments, she was by his side, arranging warm water or tea and other essentials for him, the party workers and other leaders accompanying the CM, and directing people with petitions towards the CM himself even though they requested her to intercede on their behalf.
Party insiders, however, said, her back-seat driving was a new development. Till last year, she had a strong public presence, leading roadside dharnas against the policies of the central government as state BJP Mahila Morcha vice-president. Ahead of every assembly election, a group of party workers would show up at the state BJP headquarters to demand a party ticket for Singh from the Vidisha assembly constituency.
Only recently, a BJP MLA said he was concerned about his prospects of getting a ticket as “somebody had conveyed some wrong information about him to Sadhna Singh”, indicative of her say in the process.
Singh is clearly more than just a housewife and a mother of two. A native of Gondia in Maharashtra bordering Madhya Pradesh, she, however, withdrew from the political arena all of a sudden. A bout of illness — she was hospitalised in Mumbai — may have been one the reasons for this retreat.
The Opposition has attacked Singh inside and outside the assembly. In the initial years of Chouhan’s tenure, he and his wife were embroiled in a dumper purchase scam; a case was registered in court but both were acquitted.
Opposition leader Ajay Singh said “she is a currency note counting machine” and that “she had patronised Gutka barons in the state” in two different programmes this year. Chouhan and his wife gave him legal notice. Later, they filed a defamation suit against Singh, who has since backtracked and has denied making these remarks.
These events, however, may have put pressure on Chauhan and made him realise that it would strengthen his detractors to diminish him before the central leadership. Party leaders said he might have then prevailed upon his wife to withdraw herself from politics.
Sunita Gehlot, 62
Married for 36 years
Humility is said to be the trademark of Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot. His wife, Sunita Gehlot, seems to be cut from the same cloth.
The state is in the throes of poll fever and family members of all politicians are taking to the streets to canvass for the candidates. In this scenario, Sunita Gehlot is the odd one out. Despite a master’s degree in public administration, the high-voltage exposure of politics seems not for her.
She prefers to maintain a low profile and keep away from the limelight. This stance, however, is in keeping with her profile throughout her husband’s governance. She is a political wife who has been rarely seen or heard. At the few functions she has attended, the spotlight has firmly been on her husband.
Away from the public glare, she is the administrator-in-chief of the CM’s household. She ensures his family life is guarded from prying eyes.
Those who know her say she is reticent and reserved and opens up only to close family members and friends. Unlike other first ladies’ clubs active in other states, the camera-shy Sunita has no coterie. Daughter of the late Ram Swaroop Chandel, an advocate, she is the mother of two. She, however, does have one public role. She is the patron of Cancer Care, a trust, in Jaipur.
Veena Singh, 55
Married for 34 years
A simple housewife, happy being the “home minister” of chief minister Raman Singh, Veena Singh embarks on her political duties during election-time. Her focus is Rajnandgaon, her husband’s constituency since 1998, despite being urged by party workers to play a pro-active role in the state’s politics.
Veena Singh is a good stand-in for her husband especially as the number of women voters exceeds that of men in Rajnandgaon. “As a committed wife, her contribution to the political sphere is restricted to her support and care for Raman Singhji,” said Savita Jain, a BJP leader who works with Veena during every election.
Interestingly, the wife of Raman Singh, a resident of Rewa district of Madhya Pradesh, belongs to a family of Congress backers. Post-marriage, she “believes” her husband’s party, the BJP, is the better party to govern Chhattisgarh and her husband its suitable CM.
When asked why her Congress-minded family married her to a BJP man, her response is quick and politically correct. “Perhaps my father, who was a known Congressman, was bowled over by the charm of the CM saheb, who was then a doctor,” she said, smiling. Despite being Raman Singh’s wife, she still enjoys a good rapport with Congress stalwarts such as Digvijaya Singh, Ajit Jogi and Charan Dass Mahant. The late Arjun Singh considered her his daughter.
Veena Singh may not be media savvy but those who know her say she is able to reassure the CM and party cadres when they are disheartened by media reports. During elections, the soft-spoken housewife puts herself through a gruelling schedule in Rajnandgaon so that Raman Singh can concentrate on the entire state. Last week, she covered more than 12 villages, reaching out to voters and personally urging support for her husband.
Said to be reserved and modest in her behaviour, she has a son, an engineering graduate, and a dentist daughter. “During elections we miss mother the most. She prays nothing goes wrong with dad’s health, work and well-being during this time. Dad was not able to spare much time for the family even when we were kids,” Abhishek Singh, her son, said to HT. Veena Singh, of course, is quick to defend her husband. “We always knew his life is in the service of the people and the state.”
Lal Riliani, 70
Married for 30 years
Apart from being Mizoram chief minister Lal Thanhawla’s wife, Lal Riliani is senior advisor to the Mizoram Pradesh Congress Committee. But whenever she visits the party office at Treasury Square, Aizawl’s happening hub, her first concern is to sniff out the smokers.
There is hardly any government or private function where Lal Riliani, 70, hasn’t accompanied her husband. “If she happens to skip one, people begin to wonder if they have had a fight,” a senior officer at the chief minister’s office said. The CMO, adjoining Lal Thanhawla’s official residence in Zarkawt locality, is close to his sprawling private residence. Because of Riliani, it is a no-smoking zone.
The no-tobacco rule also applies to the central paramilitary force personnel guarding the complex. But Riliani is not status-conscious. She wins smokers over with her brisk manner and persuasive skills, both of which she acquired during her long association with the church.
Riliani also backs her anti-tobacco campaign with statistics, the importance of which she realised during her job at the Aizawl deputy commissioner’s office, from which she retired in 1991. The VRS came two years after she became founder president of the Mizoram chapter of the Indian Society on Tobacco and Health. The crusade against tobacco coincided with the start of Lal Thanhawla’s second stint as CM.
“We involved NGOs in carrying out surveys across Mizoram and found smoking and tobacco addiction were high. Too many people were dying of oral, lung, ovarian and abdominal cancers,” said Lal Riliani.
The data collected in 2012 revealed 62% Mizo women consumed tobacco in various forms – second only to Mizo men at 72.5% – against the national average of only 2.9%. This made Mizoram the highest tobacco-consuming state in India. The consumption was attributed to ‘tuibur’, nicotine-laced water passed through a Mizo-style hookah and ‘meizial’, a hand-rolled cigarette a girl offers a young man during courtship.
“It is amazing how she finds time out of her household chores (like most Mizo women, Lal Riliani weaves the traditional ‘puan’ or wraparound, gardens and decorates the interiors) for philanthropy.
Her efforts are bearing fruit, as people nowadays seek permission to smoke, which was unthinkable two-three years ago. She also upholds the values of the church, making her one of the few Mizo homemakers capable of performing multiple roles to the fullest,” said Rev Lalchungnunga, a former church leader who now heads the Mizoram Board of Secondary Education.
How much of a say does she have in her husband’s work or in party affairs? “She does not interfere,” a senior Congress leader said. “Her only agenda is that no Congress worker should take tobacco in any form so that they can set a good example in society.”