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Different strokes with Lok Sabha speaker Sumitra Mahajan: The Tai who cares and dares

Lok Sabha speaker Sumitra Mahajan reduced food wastage and introduced piped gas in Parliament. She also cracked the whip on MPs when required. Here’s a look at the different shades of the soft-spoken Mahajan.

india Updated: Sep 30, 2018 11:27 IST
Kumkum Chadha
Kumkum Chadha
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Sumitra Mahajan,Lok Sabha,Parliament
Lok Sabha speaker Sumitra Mahajan was brought up in a modest household.(Burhaan Kinu/HT Photo)

It was her mother’s training to limit portions of food at the dining table that Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan has deftly put to use in Parliament. So if MPs who break bread with her, be it during an all party meeting or a conference, are left wondering why the portions in their thali are half of what they used to be, they need to go dig into her past.

Brought up in a modest household, Sumitra watched her mother counsel family members against wasting food. Therefore, soon after she took over, Mahajan not only replaced lavish buffets with a no-fuss thali but also instructed the staff to limit portions. “Instead of four pakoras give two because it is always better to serve less than let food go waste”, she said.

The mother in her also ensured that complaints of cold food were resolved. During her predecessor Meira Kumar’s tenure, there were issues with storing gas cylinders within the Parliament House premises. But Sumitra Mahajan succeeded in getting piped gas, which has led to hot food being served to MPs.

Being the Lok Sabha speaker

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi handpicked the soft-spoken Sumitra Mahajan as Lok Sabha Speaker over many others, there were doubts whether the then 71-year-old would be able to steer the House into order.

In the last four years that she has held the post, disruptions have marked sessions of Parliament. Mahajan cracked the whip when she suspended Congress MPs from Lok Sabha for unruly behavior in the House. Congress leader Sonia Gandhi had then decried Mahajan’s act as a “black day” for Indian democracy. Mahajan, on her part, agreed. “Of course it was a black day but who was responsible for this? It is a black spot on the conduct of those obstructing proceedings,” Mahajan said quite confident that her action was correct.

In any case she is not the first Speaker to use her powers to discipline unruly members. Her predecessor Meira Kumar too had suspended MPs after one of them used pepper spray in the House. That afternoon four years ago, mikes and computer screens too were broken.

Making a difference

But this is one part of being Speaker and Mahajan surely does not want to limit her role to playing headmistress. She is determined to make a difference and among the many initiatives she has taken, one is to reach out to legislators and bring them out of their states to focus on development.

“It was to use empowered women to empower the nation,” she said. The idea followed her restlessness at the mere tokenism when women gathered every year to celebrate Women’s Day, gulp gallons of coffee and go back home. Mahajan decided to give this a new meaning and use women lawmakers do their bit. “The next time around, the men said that they should also be included and it became broad-based.”

Sumitra Mahajan is the longest-serving woman member of Parliament, this being her eighth term. She has never lost a Lok Sabha election, her first being in 1989. However, when it came to assembly elections, she was thrice unlucky. She lost from Indore, a constituency which returned her as an MP over and over again.

“Dushman bahut hain”

Despite consecutive wins, things have not been easy. If in 2014, she had an impressive margin of over four lakh votes, she barely managed to retain her seat in 2009. Envious of her dream run, there were many who wanted to see her out. Had the party not checked inner sabotage, Sumitra Mahajan may have stumbled then.

For someone who has learnt to take things in her stride, Mahajan’s ability to take people along has helped her steer clear of controversy. Her life may be an open book, but it is not free of enemies. “Dushman bahut hain, many enemies. But I don’t waste time on them. I tread my path, look at the positives and move on,” Mahajan said somewhat philosophically.

Of ice-creams, saris and watches

Popular as Tai, Marathi word for elder sister, Sumitra Mahajan has often played the role and mediated to settle disputes. This did take a toll on her husband Jayant’s legal practice. Being a lawyer, he handled marital disputes. But Sumitra made him promise that he would let her counsel his clients against divorce and she would often resolve discords amicably and her husband would be left holding a brief that never reached the courts. It broke Sumitra’s heart to see estranged couples spew venom at each other.

However, her husband’s death took away the fun days and put an end to her eating ice-creams and shopping. “It was a post dinner ritual to ride the pillion for ice cream. And it was never one ice-cream. We would try many flavours at one go.”

After Jayant’s death, Sumitra Mahajan has almost given up on ice-cream. Her enviable collection of saris, mostly Chanderis and Maheshwaris, is because her husband bought her countless, like he did jewellery. The reason she has more ear studs than gold chains is because those were cheaper. “There was limited money and we could not afford to buy chains,” she said, delving into the past.

Lok Sabha speaker Sumitra Mahajan has an enviable collection of saris, mostly Chanderis and Maheshwaris. (Burhaan Kinu/HT Photo)

Sumitra Mahajan’s current passion is watches. She has dozens of them, her favourite brand being an Indian one. “I have a weakness for watches and change one almost every day.” When she travels abroad, even if she does not buy one because “the prices are prohibitive”, a must-do on her list is to go window -- shopping and see what is trending.

Had it not been for the imposition of the Emergency by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Sumitra Mahajan would have been content being a homemaker and taking care of her kids.

‘I could not be a fence sitter’

Politics in any case was not Sumitra Mahajan’s first choice. She entered it rather late. “The wrongs perpetuated during the Emergency had to be corrected and I could not be a fence sitter,” she said. For starters, she took it upon herself to take care of families of leaders who had been thrown in jail, pedalling to their homes with packets of food.

It was Sumitra’s father, who ingrained in her the concept of politics being a national service. Appa to her, Purushotam Neelkanth Sathe was a RSS Sanghachalak. His second marriage to a widow way back in 1937 had kicked up a storm in Chiplun, Maharashtra.

A believer of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (the world is one family), the concept of having a property was alien to Sathe’s children. So when Sumitra Mahajan expressed the need for apna makaan (own house) she was told that their home is in the people’s heart. It is another matter that when she married, her in-laws home was a three-storey building. Or that as Speaker, her official vehicle is a Jaguar worth lakhs of rupees, a big jump from the bicycle that she used to tour her constituency, and later a moped that her husband bought her.

Even as a politician, the mother in Sumitra Mahajan never took a back seat. She has often made party colleagues wait because her son suddenly demanded that she makes ladoos before she left for a party meeting. “Ladoo banane ke baad aati hoon”, (I will come after making ladoos) Mahajan had then called the party office to say that she was running late.

Like every good Hindu and especially one belonging to the BJP, Sumitra Mahajan also used to give discourses on the Ramayana. Women, she felt, had little time to read and therefore she took it upon herself to deliver sermons. It was during these interactions that she initiated many of her ilk to take a leaf from history. She regaled them with stories of Ahilyabai Holkar, the Maratha Queen, whose reign was legendary: “I am her disciple,” Mahajan said, quite keen that she too should leave her footprints on the sands of time.

First Published: Sep 30, 2018 07:10 IST