Behind her censor bill,austerity and righteousness

Natarajan started out as a fiery debater at Holkar College in Indore

Written by Nistula Hebbar | New Delhi | Published:May 4, 2012 3:24 am

The irony has not been lost on anyone. Meenakshi Natarajan,the token “grassroots” leader in Team Rahul otherwise made up of inheritors and dynasts,has been trying to move a private members bill in the Lok Sabha for a regulatory authority with powers to gag the media.

Her Print and Electronic Media Standards and Regulation Bill,2012,provides for a regulator with sweeping powers that include banning or suspending coverage of an event or incident that “may pose a threat to national security”,besides search and seizure of documents and suspension of a media organisation’s operations.

One might expect that somebody who has risen up the ranks would value a free press in a democracy more than those who have inherited power would,but not Natarajan. It’s not clear when she decided the media should be shown its place but,according to those who know her,it is not uncharacteristic of her. “Self-righteousness and austerity often lead to this kind of thinking,” said one flamboyant first-time Congress MP,who had been made to feel embarrassed about his SUV when confronted with Natarajan’s use of public transport.

Natarajan started out as a fiery debater at Holkar College in Indore. Her father,a textile engineer,had settled in Madhya Pradesh and she entered politics as part of the National Students Union of India.

Her rise in the party began when during a CWC meeting in the mid-1990s,held in Bhopal,she was introduced to Sonia Gandhi by fellow Tamilian Mani Shankar Aiyar. Those were the Narasimha Rao days in the party,but Sonia did not forget the young Natarajan who had impressed her with the fact that she possessed no political pedigree and had made “simple living” a virtue.

In 1999 she was appointed NSUI president,a post she held till 2002. During this time,she established a network at the central level and was made Madhya Pradesh Youth Congress president soon after.

All this while,her greatest recommendation was the fact that in a party governed by pedigree,she had none. The press uniformly covered the fact that unlike other political wannabes,Natarajan used public transport,carried a jhola and wore crumpled cotton salwar kameezes. She traded neither on appearance nor on family connections.

In 2008 she became AICC secretary second to Rahul Gandhi,and was given national charge of the NSUI. It was felt that someone who had come up from the ranks would be ideal for bringing in the democratisation process that Rahul was striving for. That didn’t happen.

What did happen was the growth of a cult of simple living around Natarajan,whose style confounded many. There are anecdotes about how,at a meeting called by Rahul,an out-of-breath Natarajan arrived late. Huffing and puffing,she reportedly told a bemused Rahul that her search for chhutta paisa (change) to pay an autorickshaw driver was the cause of her tardiness.

After she became MP from Mandsaur,many thought she would use one of the vehicles provided by the Lok Sabha secretariat to parliamentarians who don’t own cars. She didn’t. Among the first visuals of the 15th Lok Sabha were those of Natarajan flagging down an autorickshaw outside Parliament. Attempts were made to tell her the Lok Sabha transport service would take her wherever she wished,to no avail. She had made the next day’s papers,and taught her SUV-driving colleagues a lesson in imagery.

Despite the slide of the NSUI under her stewardship,she was put in charge of the Indian Youth Congress,Rahul’s pet project. Young leaders from moneyed backgrounds had to watch their step — and their branded clothes and shoes — while in her presence. The tyranny of her austerity offended many.

With the bill she wants to move,her supporters say,she has signalled to her party bosses that unlike other young leaders who are currying favour on television channels,she cares not about her image but about National Security. That bill,besides the image of austerity,will now be part of what defines Natarajan.

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