IT’S ONLY a job,” says Meira Kumar, “Like any other.” Yet, she is the first woman to ever hold it. 64-year-old Meira was unanimously elected the Speaker of the Lok Sabha on June 3, 2009 — a role that, over the last decade, has evolved from that of a mere presiding officer to a position that defines political careers. As the composition and character of the parliament changed, so did the profile and demeanour of the Speakers. They were known to display a quiet civility in the decorous early years of one-party majorities. But from the late nineties, as the lower house saw diverse ideology and agenda, belligerent politicians would frequently rush to the well and raise slogans. As ‘unparliamentary behaviour’ grew, Speakers resorted to stern, almost snappy tones, the most familiar one being that of the outgoing Speaker Somnath Chatterjee.
Perhaps it’s time that the bad cop routine was phased out. After even Chatterjee’s stentorian scoldings failed to fully rein in rowdy parliamentarians, Meira’s reed-thin voice and mild manner might do what a good cop does best. Gain full control while pretending to give up some of it.
“People assume that a soft voice means a soft personality but that is just a myth,” says Anshul, Meira’s son and a television journalist. “As her son, I can assure you that her soft voice doesn’t stop her from being a disciplinarian.” Anshul points out that his mother has also won elections since 1985. “She has campaigned across the country. She can be voluble when the situation demands it.” Meira says of her predecessor, “Somnath Chatterjee conducted the job with great aplomb, especially given the circumstances. He is a man of his convictions.” Sitting in her New Friends Colony home in Delhi, Meira looks at ease as she receives the stream of reporters. An oil painting of a woman in a white sari adorns her living room. It is signed ‘Meira’ in Hindi. Artist, poet, diplomat, politician. Meira has donned many roles. Is being the Speaker the most uncharacteristic role of all? “I will have my own style and will conduct the job with the political acumen and tact it requires. A booming voice is not a job requirement,” defends Meira.
Meira Kumar’s new role as Speaker comes after she served 12 years as an IFS officer and 30 years as a politician in her own right. Kumar is the daughter of Babu Jagjivan Ram, popularly known as ‘Babuji’ and highly regarded among the dalit community as second in stature only to BR Ambedkar. He was a Congressman with an uninterrupted record of 50 years in Parliament — the highest for any Indian, even now. He supported then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi through most of the Emergency before joining the Janata Party coalition in 1977. It is this legacy that Meira has sought to keep alive. After serving as a diplomat in embassies in Spain, Mauritius and the UK, Meira entered electoral politics, contesting her first election in 1985 in Bijnor, UP. In an unbelievable victory, she defeated her opponents Ram Vilas Paswan from the LJP and Mayawati from the BSP.
“I know that every election I have won is also the victory of the memory of my father,” confesses Meira, “I cannot even touch the heights my father did.” In 1989, however, memory did not suffice — many in Bijnor complained that Meira neglected her constituency. She lost her Bijnor seat, but moved on to win thrice consecutively from Karol Bagh in Delhi. Though she lost to the BJP wave of 1999, she was re-elected in 2004 from Sasaram, her father’s constituency in Bihar. It is Sasaram that has voted her back to power in 2009 too. Meira thus holds the distinction of having won elections from three different states — laudable because she won over three different electorates, but illustrative of those voters’ disinclination to vote for Meira after her alleged neglect of their constituencies. “She works hard as a minister, and this consumes most of her time. This may have led to the feeling that she has neglected her constituency,” says a close associate, who requested anonymity.
Meira’s appointment is a cocktail of several symbolic gestures from the Congress to its different voter groups. “As a woman, Meira’s appointment shows the Congress’ commitment to push 33 percent reservation for women in Parliament,” says Rashid Alvi, Congress’s Rajya Sabha MP from Bijnor. Along with India’s first woman President Prathibha Patil, Speaker Meira Kumar represents the Congress’ promise to give women their due share.
The other symbol, Meira’s dalit background, has brought her to parliament for five terms. It even played a part in Sonia Gandhi handpicking Meira as a candidate for Speaker. It is viewed as an attempt to revive the party’s dalit base, especially in the face of the real political threat from the other female dalit icon — Mayawati.
While welcoming her to the House, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh explained why Meira was the best person for the job — a woman, a dalit, and Babuji’s daughter. “So what is her quality as an individual?” asks dalit writer Chandrabhan Prasad, adding, “It’s disappointing that she has not gone beyond her identity.” In her last role as the Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment from 2004-09, expectations ran high, but Meira was criticised for being lack-lustre. She did propose reservations for SC/STs in the private sector, but gave in to pressure from the Opposition against the move. She also tried to encourage inter-caste marriages by offering to pass a law that would grant SC status to a child when only the mother was a dalit. This too, did not see the light of day.
Meira herself believes that there are two sides to symbolism. “One side is a great sense of empowerment for the community that has, until then, been denied such a rise to power,” says Meira Kumar to TEHELKA. “The other side, is the real work that comes from wanting to fulfill people’s hopes.” When asked what she considers her greatest achievement as minister, she says she has visited every place where caste atrocities took place in the country, trying to address the needs of the oppressed. Chandrabhan Prasad, however, says Meira was more a representative of the Congress than of the dalit community, “If you ask me what she achieved as the social justice minister, I have one word: zero.”
Meira was the best person for the job: a woman, a dalit, an icon’s daughter. ‘So what’s her quality?’ asks a dalit writer
Dalit activist John Dayal says that during Meira’s regime as the Minister for Social Justice, he found the ministry “extremely hostile” to the appeal from dalit Christians and Muslims to be given the same rights as that of dalit Hindus. “When Ram Vilas Paswan was shepherding the same ministry earlier, he persuaded the parliament to give dalit Christians equal rights, but in Meira’s time, the ministry was opposed to the suggestion.” Dayal hopes that as a Speaker, she would make it convenient for the equal dalit rights Bill to be passed.
Meira’s dalit identity and reactions to it have, in fact, several underlying layers. Her father, and dalit icon BR Ambedkar were contemporaries; the two never been criticised each other. “But Meira questions Ambedkar’s iconic status. She believes Babuji is the greater icon. For this, she’s disrespected by many within the dalit community,” says Chandrabhan Prasad. Dalit politics in the Congress is known to have cast off Ambedkar (one reason being his souring relations with Jawarharlal Nehru) and co-opted Babu Jagjivan Ram. “Meira and her generation of dalits in the Congress do not feel a sense of loyalty to Ambedkar,” says John Dayal, “This is natural, a residual effect of the way dalit politics emerged. But today, when Ambedkar is a hyper-icon for dalits, Meira cannot be forgiven for questioning his status.”
Whatever her alleged biases, Meira Kumar has promised that from her very first day in the Speaker’s chair, she will be “impartial”. “I will have to be a referee for parliamentarians,” she says to TEHELKA. And as she eases into her role as Speaker, Meira becomes another symbol, this one, perhaps the thorniest of them all — the symbol of impartiality.