Amongst the many images I have taken of Meera, there is one I hold dear above all others. Composed in the delicate morning light, it is a view from a soft distance, to her side. The year is 2014 and we are at a rally for her candidature, somewhere in the dizzying streets of Mumbai. Meera is laughing, her face is radiant in an open expression of pure joy, she is wearing her AAP cap slightly askew, she doesn’t know anyone is looking. It is a heartbeat of a glimpse into someone’s soul, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit.
As a citizen of India, it seemed only natural to want to take a stand in our 2014 Lok Sahba elections. India was at a tipping point. Both Meera and I felt India needed a culture of clean politics and sensible economics, and governance that was competent and compassionate. We needed leaders with ideals, integrity and intellect. It was also around this time that Meera relinquished her position as CEO and Chairperson of Royal Bank of Scotland in December 2013, to devote herself full-time to public service. When she then decided she would run as the Aam Admi Party (AAP) candidate for the Mumbai-South constituency, I knew she was the person and the cause I wanted to support and I came on to serve as her Campaign Manager for Policy and Communications.
The world knows Meera as a proud and engaged citizen of India and as a successful business person, but at the heart of her, she was a teacher. Her purpose in life was to give back; every time she got, she gave. When she learned something, she was the first to pass it on to those around her.
There aren’t very many opportunities for young women such as myself to learn and be mentored by other strong women. The role models we seek aren’t easy to find — our social structures aren’t inherently built to nurture women as independent leaders. Meera saw this gap and made it her life’s mission to change the status quo. She was a fierce advocate for women’s rights and more importantly, she built up other women around her, especially those younger and less confident. Meeting Meera was akin to meeting myself in full. She moved through the world with unshakeable calm, confidence and a fierce grace. In her, I saw a world of possibilities for the life I could someday shape for myself. She did this for me, and I know, for countless other women.
During her time at the bank, Meera mentored the microfinance programme, which financed over 650,000 women in rural India. She also chaired the bank’s Foundation, providing livelihood assistance to 75,000 women-led households in threatened ecosystems.
And it was during this time, working with microfinance and self-help groups (SHGs) across the country, when she found that women have a natural knack for starting and running businesses. She often said that when a woman is financially empowered, and generating income, life in her family dramatically improves. A woman invests in the right things; education for her children, more nutritious food, health and hygiene, and savings for a rainy day.
Meera strongly believed that women don’t need charity, handouts or reservations. We can succeed on merit if we are provided the opportunity. Which is why a primary focus of Meera’s candidacy was to create a level playing field for women in India so we provide them the means to feel safe, confident and empowered.
But if she was a teacher, her greatest lesson was to strive for what you believe in. During the campaign, there were numerous times our backs were against the wall and she wanted to say something that brought us together, a little band of brothers. Go out and fight. See what happens. That was her axiom, always. Fear was not a worthy enough companion for Meera, only Hope.
Most of all, I will miss her laughter and her kindness. She had a way of turning an entire room into co-conspirators, making everyone complicit in her delight. There was no artifice to Meera, her laughter was rich as it was warm and unselfconscious. Meera touched the lives of all those who were lucky enough to have met her; she was serene, funny, engaging, and curious, the sort of person who held her own, in a room full of others, without imposition. It is her humaneness, her compassion, her humility and her unceasing consideration of others above herself, that we will miss the most.
Meera never did lose a single battle. Nor was she unsuccessful. Not in facing her illness nor in how she conducted her professional and political career. Meera threw her hat in the ring on more than one occasion, she stood in the arena and she dared greatly, she knew the great devotions of life intimately, and she spent herself toward many a worthy cause. A life well lived is one which has goals, and integrity, which is chosen and directed by the one who lives it, to the fullest extent possible to any of us caught in the webs of society and history.
Meera Sanyal, the woman, the warrior, is the greatest success I know.