Written by Mark Tully
Book name: Life Among the Scorpions: Memoirs of a Woman in Indian Politics
Writer: Jaya Jaitly
Publication: Rupa Publications India
Price: Rs 595
Jaya Jaitly, crafts pioneer and politician, has written a book which is two biographies in one. It is the story of her life and an apologia, which does not mean an apology but an explanation or justification, of the life of George Fernandes, one of the most charismatic Indian politicians. Jaitly’s close association with Fernandes involved her in the tumultuous events of the Mandal Commission and the rise of caste parties, the rise of the BJP too, and the decline of the Congress. Her career in politics effectively ended with the resurrection of the Congress in 2004.
Jaitly’s first career in crafts was stormy enough. While working with the Gujarat State Emporium, she clashed with her boss, an IAS officer, and was eventually sacked. She didn’t take that lying down, fighting the Gujarat government in the courts for 12 years before eventually winning. She was the founder of the highly original crafts bazaar, Dilli Haat, and eventually lost out there to traders who she alleges “have changed its purpose, systems, and integrity.”
But Jaitly’s battles with traders and
bureaucrats in the world of crafts were nothing compared to the battles she faced as a politician during her 30-year career alongside Fernandes.
Jaitly ’s political career started with the 1984 general election when she helped Fernandes with his campaign in Bangalore. The anti-Sikh riots earlier that year were one of the main factors in her coming to believe she had to get into politics. Another was her commitment to improving opportunities for crafts-persons to exhibit their talents and ensuring that they were adequately rewarded for their work.
The whole of Jaitly’s political career was dominated by Fernandes. He became her “cruel but excellent teacher”. Writing of her grief as she witnessed Fernandes’s decline, brought on by Alzheimer’s disease, she describes him as her “chief mentor, political guru, father, brother, mother, best friend, caretaker, well-wisher and confidante.”
Inevitably, a close relationship like this invited rumours of a physical relationship. But Jaitly flatly denies this, describing herself in one place as having become “George’s personal confidante and well-meaning adviser.” In fact, she does not see her personal life as an important part of this narrative. She only mentions her separation from her husband, the IAS Officer Ashok Jaitly, in a casual aside. She is scornful of the Delhi establishment who couldn’t understand how one of their number could go into politics and be so closely associated with a politician who was anything but an establishment figure.
Fernandes was at the heart of the formation, dissolution, and reconfiguration of parties that went on among the the aaya ram and gaya ram politicians who had formed the original Janata Party, and could only agree with themselves to fall out again. He was responsible for making Jaitly president of one of the parties they formed, the Samata Party. Jaitly had no time for the Janata leaders. She writes, “Leaders were so consumed with their own importance that everything revolved around their egos and whoever hung around them . There was no commitment to a solid ideology or long-term loyalty to the organisation.” Jaitly portrays Fernandes as the peacemaker trying to hold the leaders together. She doesn’t shine much light on how Fernandes justified the compromises with his socialist principles that he had to make to survive. In particular, she doesn’t provide any principled justification for Fernandes agreeing to Samata’s alliance with the BJP, certainly not a socialist party, in 1996. She admits it was done to ensure the survival of the Samata party, and merely says that Fernandes remained committed to fighting extreme communal activity.
It was as defence minister in the BJP-dominated National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Government that Jaitly and Fernandes were enmeshed in the Tehelka allegations. She defends herself strongly in this book, explaining the footage of the interview at the heart of the allegations as she sees it; and, maintaining that “it gives no evidence of my taking money other than grainy images and a suggestive defamatory commentary of an event which was not what it was made out to be.” However anyone reacts to that, no one can but deplore the ongoing harassment Jaitly has suffered at the hands of the judicial system since then.
Jaitly’s book ends with Fernandes’s Alzheimer’s affliction. She describes movingly the loss she feels, and the book is the story of a unique political partnership. Some will argue that Fernandes emerges as a knight in shining armour, but there can be no questioning that Jaitly is right in presenting him as an exceptional politician who, in his spartan personal life, lived by his socialist principles. She emerges from the book as a woman of great strength and unflinching loyalty in a male-dominated profession where loyalty is a rare commodity.