A woman of her own

A woman of her own

While Jaya Jaitley’s book, Life Among the Scorpions, talks of her turbulent years in politics, it is the struggle of little people that has been the primary focus of her life, says Saimi Sattar 

She sits in her Hauz Khas office, surrounded by things which can be called a reflection of her life. There are books on textiles, stick it notes which act as reminders, visiting cards, a handloom sari draped over a chair and a lot of knick knacks.

Dressed in an aubergine handloom sari with an orange border, Jaya Jaitley answers phone calls which interrupt the conversation with grace that has personified her life. The phone calls are congratulatory messages on the release of her book, Life Among The Scorpions, and also ones where she is trying to help the family of Shabir Ali Beigh, a kani shawl weaver from Kashmir who has passed away in Pune, where he had gone to attend a bazaar organised by Dastkar Haat Samiti, the not-for-profit organisation which she founded 26 years back. “He was one of the pillars of the Samiti and I wish I could’ve gone but there are other pressing matters. So, the family and along with them, some other people as well are flying to Pune,” says Jaitley.

Identification with the cause of the weavers and craftespersons as well as being an active politician are the two very public faces of Jaitley. And she has not shied away from speaking about either. With great candour in the book as well as in person, she talks about the Tehelka expose, her tenure as the Samata Party president, her brushes with the “socialists” who can no longer be identified with the tag. There is, of course, another aspect of her life that has been a huge influence and at the same time put her in harm’s way, more often than she cared for — her association with George Fernandes or rather George Sa’ab as she calls him.

The Tehelka expose, which put Jaitley in the spotlight as it was alleged that she had been accepting kickbacks on behalf of the then Defence Minister, George Fernandes, is still under investigation. “I fought and fought and fought. I still go to court and when people talk about the many years of harassment, I tell them it has become as normal as brushing my teeth,” says Jaitley.

She feels that the so-called expose was more of an attempt to undermine the power of Fernandes via her. “Would all this have happened if I was a man colleague of his. To say that I am an evil defence dealer is ridiculous. People and the investigation agencies should see my life, my bank account, home and what I own. But nobody has done it in these 16 years because the details would be pathetic there,” says Jaitley.

Jaitley has not forgotten the day the scandal broke. She was in the middle of designing a handmade wedding card for her daughter Aditi who was getting married to cricketer Ajay Jadeja. “I was told that I was involved in dirty deals and a big bomb was thrown at me. I had to clog up and couldn’t suddenly unclog and say that it is my daughter’s wedding,” says the 75-year-old former Samata Party President. On her daughter’s important day, she didn’t feel happy or sad unlike most mothers as she had shut down all her feelings.

From the very beginning the association of Jaitley, who was divorced from diplomat Ashok Jaitley, with Fernandes was not looked upon kindly. “The world perceived our relationship in a way where I was called every single name in the book. But whenever I told him that somebody is saying this or that, he always told me, ‘I don’t think what other people think’ and effectively shut me down. He didn’t let me mourn and groan. He told me constantly that politics is not a bed of roses and no one will make your bed for you,” she says. Another thing that the veteran leader told her was that her staying was totally voluntary. “If you can’t stick it out, you are free to leave,” he told her.

Jaitley came from an intellectual background where her mother was the daughter of Rajah of Kollengode and her father was a diplomat. She immensely admired Fernandes who was willing to give his life for any issue that he was fighting for. “This man dropped college and went off to seminary, was self-taught in eight languages and was willing to fight for the underdog. How could people like me not admire that? He was very magnetic and I am very spontaneous. I like working with a person who inspires me at all times,” she says as she pauses to gulp down some water. She feels that he was such an inspiration for people around him that they were ready to do anything for him. “I keep reiterating that it’s not because I’m a woman that I’m fida over him, men are too,” she says.

But one thing that really acted like a glue was that not for a minute did Fernandes show a moment of disrespect to her as a woman. “More than anyone else, my friends or family, he showed most respect to me for my intelligence which was important to me. If I wrote an article, even on something that didn’t interest him, he would read it carefully without letting his attention wander and pat me on the back and say excellent. That would be a huge certificate because he was so meticulous,” she says.

She recalls an interesting episode with Fernandes who got his first paid job as a proof reader with the Times of India. “Once George Sa’ab, Farooq Abdullah, his son, my son and I went to Karim’s, Jama Masjid. The menu had so many hilarious typos and mistakes. He took out his pen and started correcting them. So I told him to sign and he wrote “George Fernandes, proof reader”.”

But while Fernandes might have served as an inspiration to her, Jaitley backed him all the way. When in-fighting hit the Samata Party while Fernandes as the Defence Minister was in China in 2003, Jaitley was quick to step in, write a note to settle ruffled feathers. “As a political advisor, a colleague and wanting the party’s and his interest I had to take such steps. I am not a steno, I used my brain to draft that letter.” she says.

Despite this, she took her role to be more of a supportive and secondary one. “I never carved out an ambitious goal for myself even in my crafts. I look at the future of my craftspersons. If they have benefited, I have succeeded,” she says.

The cause of the weavers, the Dastkaari Haat Samiti and Dilli Haat, are some of the things that Jaitley is really passionate about. Even as a Samata Party leader, where contrary to popular belief she never contested elections, she worked hard to get as many members in the Parliament as possible so that she could feed them questions about handloom workers. “But I didn’t find that happening. They were not interested in my voice or my issues maybe because it didn’t get them votes. All these things added to disappointments with the party. Later the Swadeshi Jagran Manch approached me to try and understand the problems of the weavers and build an organisation for them,” she says.

The Dastkari Haat Samiti founded by her has become self sufficient. “The karigars maintain this place and give money from their membership to pay salaries for the staff as well as for the electricity and water charges of office. We do glossy brochures and books promoting crafts. I have no personal ambitions for material wealth. It is not a question that I want to become anything, I wanted to get something done,” she says. Jaitley feels the work of the Samiti would be accomplished once the karigars do not need it and can stand on their own.

The iconic Dilli Haat is another project that is close to Jaitley’s heart and she is angry with the Delhi Tourism for almost killing the cause for which it was created. “I created it after six years of struggle and saw how successful it was for 10 years. The Delhi government is trying to make profits here to cover the losses in every venture.  The newer stalls created by Delhi Tourism do not have facilities but are rented out for Rs 50,000 which is five times the amount of the ones given out by the Central Government. They just want money to come in and don’t care if a smuggler or trader sets up shop rather than a genuine karigar. People sell things bought from Lajpat Nagar and Sadar Bazar and keep moving their stalls around. I have sent photos, videos and lists of names to the Textile Ministry, Delhi Government, DC Handicrafts to prove it but there is no respite.”

Since her book is about the “memoirs  of a woman in Indian politics” the societal attitudes to women in power are reflected in it. “Women can go to Mars, they can be journalists, lawyers but politics is the ultimate power structure and that is why men try to be patronising and condescending,” she says. And Jaitley points out that this can be seen when men often ignore what a woman says in politics. “Either she doesn’t have to be heard or she can say what she wants and men will do what they want,” she says. However, Jaitley is known not to get loud, aggressive or adversarial and she realised that because “she was soft-spoken, people actually listened and toned down.”

She recognises that the fault for this attitude doesn’t lie with the Indian public or voter who is not patriarchal. “They want delivery and treat a princess like Vasundhara Raje or an activist like Mamata the same way if they promise to deliver. It is the power structure in a party that is skewed this way. The public is secular, non-sectarian and democratic so they are ready to accept anything credible. It is the men in the political parties that want to hold on to power,” she says. 

On the other hand, she believes that women need to follow the due process rather than arriving in the Parliament riding on the coat tails of 33 per cent reservation. “Women will have to earn their spurs and come through a political party where you go through hell and try to fix things and you hold your own because politics and governance are not easy. Being in opposition isn’t easy and being in power is worse. All the things you shouted about and wanted to happen in the opposition don’t materialise because there are undermining and competing systems,” she says.

Moreover even when women come to power, they are essentially playing a man’s game in a man’s world. “Women leaders unfortunately never made a difference to women. We are still stuck in the syndrome of having to take on the aggressive tendencies and the muscle and money power that men use. Mayawati uses caste, Mamata uses andolan, Indira Gandhi used her family and dynasty,” she says.

However, she is all praise for the present government where prominent ministries like Defence and Ministry of External Affairs are headed by women. “These are huge and carry a lot of responsibility. Neither can be held by a namby pamby. You can’t be a man or a woman but a sharp political person who also knows international ramifications, the subject or can grasp it quickly. And for the BJP, which considers external safety to be an important issue, to hand over these to women speaks a lot for them,” she says.

On demonetisation as well as GST too, she is supportive of the government. “Six weeks after demonetisation, we held the Dilli Haat Bazar and we were worried that in the absence of cash, how would our craftspersons travel. We thought the customers too would find it difficult to pay. But we did one crore more sale than the previous year and there were no complaints from karigars or customers.”

But while the NDA gets her approval, she believes her former political co-travellers, the Socialists are deeply flawed. “They have made themselves irrelevant because they have strayed the path in many ways. They fought corruption, they respected women and were secular. But the last word does not not mean caring for one and ignoring other. You should love your country and civilisation. Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay wrote beautifully about women in Vedic times but now if you talk about Vedas, you are alleged to be furthering Hindutva,” she says.

She’s rather unsparing about her criticism of Nitish Kumar who treated Fernandes badly when he was unwell. “He’s one of the so many examples of how politics could be better and can’t because of the flaws a person,” she says.

However, having quit active politics after resigning from Samata Party, she is more concerned about “fighting for a thousands of small things which are more important than a mega thing. Small people make the country. I have my heart and soul in the crafts sector,” she says, signing off.

Photos: Pankaj Kumar



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