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Leading ladies

Women who hold our lives in their hands tell us what it’s like to be in positions of power. What makes them tick? Read on to find out.

india Updated: Sep 29, 2009 16:45 IST

If you’re thinking, ‘Only five women? And why aren’t Sonia Gandhi, Mayawati, Mamata Banerjee etc. featured?’, here’s why. Sonia Gandhi, Mayawati and so on are constantly in the news. We know exactly how what they do can affect us. But we don’t know very much about our more unusual list of women of power: Nirupama Rao, Chanda Kochhar, Ambika Soni, Tessy Thomas and Agatha Sangma. In different ways, they hold our lives in their hands. What makes them tick? Read on...

Nirupama Rao knew she wanted to join the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) when she was just 12 years old. “That’s when I first heard about it and I thought it would be so wonderful to meet interesting people and visit interesting places,” she recalls. Sitting in her imposing office in Delhi’s South Block, India’s Foreign Secretary can look back at her childish dreams with indulgence. Today, she says serenely, she has realised that being a bureaucrat in a position of power is actually “being in a position of great responsibility. You have to put things in perspective, build consensus and utilise peaceful means to accomplish your goals. It is public service in the real sense of the word.”

Such a long journey
Rao has had a remarkable career. A topper of her batch (1973), she has worked in Indian missions in Washington, Moscow, Sri Lanka and China. She was the first woman to be appointed official spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs, at a difficult time, when relations between India and Pakistan were tense. The pinnacle came with her appointment as Foreign Secretary earlier this year, a post held by a woman only once in the past (by Chokila Iyer). Does it irritate her to be constantly upheld as an example of her gender’s success? “Well, women do have a long way to go to fulfill their potential,” she says. “Women in positions of high responsibility – that is a relatively recent phenomenon. So the attention is inevitable. But it could be a catalysing process, for other women to take up other professions. There is a larger national goal here we mustn’t lose sight of.”

Ordinary world
Rao, who is from Kerala, grew up in a family where she and her two sisters were encouraged to study and be independent. Her mother was the first woman in the family to go to college and live in a hostel. “My dad is 92,” says Rao, “And he was the happiest when I called him and told him about my becoming the Foreign Secretary.”

Following her dream also meant that Rao has had to live away from her husband, who is in the IAS, for many years. “I met him when I was 22 and we were both probationers in Mussoorie,” she reveals. “And it may sound clichéd to say this but he has been very supportive. He is my anchor. Though we don’t live together, we share a very strong bond and I can reach out to him whenever I want.” The trick, says Rao, is to create the right balance between professional demands and family responsibilities, or, as she says with a smile, “to learn to balance Mars and Venus.”

Her two sons haven’t followed in her – or her husband’s – footsteps. But what unites the entire family is their love of music. “And the usual things that any family does – watching a good movie, going for a walk…”

Reassuring to know that a powerful and influential woman’s life can, at one level, be as mundane as an ordinary woman’s!
Poonam Saxena

‘Unless you’re part of the system, you can’t make changes’

As spiderman said, ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’” Only Agatha Sangma could have defined power like this. And why not? She’s young, in tune with popular culture, indulges in her favourite hobby, photography, hangs out with friends and loves to cook. Much like any other working girl.

Except that unlike other working girls her age, Sangma’s job as Minister of State for Rural Development consists in making decisions that affect lakhs of people.

Father’s pride
Sangma grew up seeing how her politician father, P A Sangma, made a difference in other people’s lives. That’s why she always wanted to be a politician. “Wherever we went, I found my father had impacted people’s lives,” says Sangma. “For instance, in remote villages in the Garo Hills, I saw how so many children were getting a chance at education because of schools set up with the money from the member of Parliament schemes. Such concrete contributions influenced me deeply.”

Politics was on the agenda, but she wanted to get into it later in life. So after school at the Convent of Jesus and Mary, Delhi, Sangma did a Masters at ILS Law College, Pune, and went to the University of Nottingham for a Masters in Environmental Management. When she returned to India, she joined the law firm Fox and Mandal in Noida.

Then her father resigned his Parliament seat to get into state politics, and the opportunity was too good to lose. Agatha Sangma was first elected to the 14th Lok Sabha in a bye-election in 2008 and in 2009, she was re-elected to the 15th Lok Sabha.

Young and restless
Politicians are not taken seriously in India. But Sangma does not believe in criticism for the sake of criticism. “Politics can genuinely create change,” she says. “Unless you become part of the system, you can’t make changes.”

Changes she would like to make include a greater integration of the North East with the rest of India than exists now. “It is rich in natural beauty and ethnicity,” she says. “But this is being wasted. My prime agenda is to completely utilise the youth of the country, they are an important productive resource. And I want to seriously address the issue of global warming.”
— Parul Khanna

‘The more you can imagine, the more proactive you can be’

Actually,” Chanda Kochhar says demurely, “Women are the best people to work in banking. After all, banking requires a lot of thinking from the customer’s point of view, and women are good at putting themselves in other people’s shoes.” There’s silence. The world has turned upside down for a bit. Then Kochhar’s spacious office resounds with peals of laughter.

Gender bender
It isn’t Chanda Kochhar’s case that women are superior to men or vice versa. Rather, by using one stereotype about women (their famous emotional quotient) to counter another stereotype about women (their famous inability to deal with money), Kochhar, managing director and chief executive officer of ICICI Bank, displays her belief that when it comes to a career, gender does not matter. Only individual ability does. And as the head of India’s largest private bank, which is also India’s second largest bank overall, Kochhar, who featured in the Forbes list of the world’s most powerful women, knows she’s proof of that. She also knows exactly what her position means. What Kochhar does for the company she heads does not affect only its shareholders, employees and customers. It affects us all.

“If India is to grow, investments by the corporate sector and consumption by individuals is going to be very important,” she explains. “This is going to be catalysed by banks, and we can play a role.”

For example, the bank can make loans accessible so people can buy homes. That creates a multiplier effect that leads to the growth of other industries. And if the corporate sector needs to invest say, 400-500 billion dollars, it has to come from debt finance. Again, it’s the bank that makes the financing available for projects that affect us.

Some to grow on
“The more you can imagine, the more proactive a role you can play,” says Kochhar. “One way is to just sit back and play the role to the extent it comes in your lap, but the other way is to be more proactive and expand the role and therefore the impact you have on people.”

Kochhar is the daughter of an educationist. Growing up, she and her two siblings were fully aware of the importance of education – and a career. With an interest in economics, she had initially planned to join the IAS. But when her family shifted to Mumbai, commerce won.

After a Masters in Management Studies (Finance) from the Jamnalal Bajaj Institute of Management Studies, Mumbai, she joined ICICI as a trainee in 1984 and stayed there. But the learning, she says, never stopped.

“During these 25 years, ICICI grew and diversified into many new businesses, so while I have been in one organisation, I have done many different jobs,” says Kochhar. “I was involved in many new ventures right from scratch, almost like an entrepreneur. So it’s been very rewarding.”
— Kushalrani Gulab

‘I would see rocket launches all the time and I was fascinated’

Science has no gender,” says missile scientist Tessy Thomas. The associate project director for Agni III may look like the epitome of the traditional Indian woman, but there’s nothing traditional about her choice of career. Attached to the DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organisation) in Hyderabad, Thomas’s work has contributed significantly to India’s security – the 3,500 km range Agni III ballistic missile can strike at targets in the heart of China.

If that isn’t a job of national importance, we don't know what is. But, like many women in positions of power and authority, Thomas is modest about her achievements. “My role may be a leadership role, but it’s all about team work,” she says.

A Malayali from Alleppy, Thomas grew up close to the Thumba rocket launching station. “I would see rocket launches all the time and I was fascinated,” she remembers. “That’s when I decided what I was going to do in my life.” She did a B Tech and an M Tech and joined the DRDO in 1988.

Coming from a family of five daughters and one son, Thomas says all of them were brought up as equals. “We were always encouraged to work and be independent,” she says. Even so, she never dreamt that she would be in the position where she is today. “It’s a very challenging job,” she says. “There’s nothing routine about it. Sometimes the hours are very long. You have to keep updating your knowledge. In science, something new comes up every day. It’s never-ending.”

But she wouldn’t have it any other way – even though her work has meant that she has had to stay away from her husband, a commodore in the Indian Navy, for many years. Her son, engineering student Tejas (named after India’s light combat fighter) has been her big support all these years. “We play chess together,” she says. When she isn’t watching television, that is: “I’m a total Star Plus person,” she reveals with a laugh. (Clearly, not everything is rocket science!)

Under the influence
Thomas says she feels a deep sense of pride when she sees women moving into important, influential positions in their careers. “But men should also encourage women to realise their potential,” she says firmly.

The ‘Agni putri’ as she is often called by the press says her big inspiration is A P J Abdul Kalam: “He has been a role model for me,” she says. “Despite all that he has achieved, he remains so humble. I’m just a learner. I’m nowhere near great scientists like him.”
— Rahul Singh