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BW Businessworld

Looking Back: Women Of Substance

Some have dominated politics; many have done exceptionally well in banking and quite a few have made a difference to poor lives. They are women of substance.

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Ideally, she should have been in the section that featured corporate and business tycoons in the country. But there is no doubt that she adds weight even to this list. Most women who are recognised as industrialists, as it often happens in politics, have family backing in the form of a father or husband. In this new age of start ups, this has been changing dramatically as more and more independent women are becoming successful entrepreneurs on their own. To Kiran Majumdar Shaw must go the credit for being a pioneer of this gender revolution. Literally from scratch, she has created a multi-billion dollar biotech company that is unique. Let’s hope the start up revolution creates many more such companies and tycoons.

It is not often that someone who is an IAS officer gives up her job and goes to dusty villages in poverty stricken Rajasthan to try and foster change at the grassroots level. Along with her husband Bunker Roy, Aruna Roy has spent more than 40 years dedicating her life to social causes. It is easy for “liberals” to become “activists” of the arm chair variety and attend five-star seminars. Aruna Roy is in a different league. She actually lives with the people she cares for. She had a productive as well as controversial tenure as member of the NAC under Sonia Gandhi during the UPA regime. But critics apart, there can be no doubting her commitment and credibility, something often missing in the NGO sector.

When K. V. Kamath was the head of ICICI Bank, there were a number of highly competent women who were getting ready to succeed him. Eventually, Chanda Kochhar was anointed the successor. But she had a very rocky and turbulent start at the helm. Thanks partly to the 2008 global financial meltdown and to a blowback to the overtly aggressive tactics adopted by the bank, it was in considerable trouble. It faced serious allegations of employing thugs to collect debts. Kochhar had a formidable challenge of rescuing ICICI and restoring its reputation. Credit to her that she has managed that to a large extent first by consolidating operations and then gradually unfolding a new growth strategy.

If you go by recent media reports in the aftermath of demonitisation, both she and her bank are in trouble. Too many Axis Bank managers and branches seem caught up with laundering money. A few dozen have been dismissed and some even arrested. There have even been rumours that the Reserve Bank of India would close down the bank. But the crisis could well be temporary, as they often are. Shikha Sharma was an outstanding banker at ICICI and moved on when Chanda Kochar became CEO. She has done commendable work at Axis Bank and made it one of the fastest growing in the retail banking sector. Along with Yes Bank, Axis has been consistently rated as one of the best performing relatively new private banks in the country.

She made waves when she became the first woman to become an IPS officer in the country. For many, she became even a folk heroine when unconfirmed stories emerged of how she had penalised Rajiv Gandhi for wrongly parking his car. She also had a controversial run in with Delhi lawyers. But she really achieved global attention as head of Tihar Jail where she tried out many path breaking reforms. Some of them still work almost two decades after her stint. Inevitably she became a part of the Anna movement and was comrade in arms with Arvind Kejriwal for some time. Ironically, she was picked by the BJP to take off against Kejriwal during the 2015 assembly elections in Delhi. She lost her own seat in the AAP wave. Kiran Bedi has had her share of critics. But there is no doubt that she is a contemporary woman of substance

People who recall the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics will remember the heart stopping and then heart breaking 400 meters race. An inspired P. T. Usha ran the race of her life only to miss out on the bronze medal by a whisker. This was exactly what had happened to Milkha Singh many Olympics ago. But despite that narrow loss, Usha has become an icon and a role model who inspired many young Indians to take up a life of sports. Many sports experts say that if Usha had the benefit of modern and professional world class coaching, there is little doubt that she would have been a world champion. But she did exceptionally well in Asia winning a clutch of medals in her long and distinguished career. Usha runs an academy in her home state of Kerala to coach budding young athletes.

Virtually the entire state of Tamil Nadu was in mourning when chief minister and supremo of AIADMK passed away recently. The scenes in front of Apollo Hospital where she breathed her last and at her funeral were testimony to the special and astonishing bond she shared with common citizens despite her imperious nature. In fact, when she was convicted on corruption charges a few years ago and sent to jail, most residents of the state felt that this was unfair as she had already been "punished" by voters for her arrogance. Amma, as she was popularly known, used the large tax revenues of the state to unleash a flurry of welfare schemes that touched millions of poor lives. For a former film star, this was no mean achievement.


She is one of the few remaining genuine Gandhians left in the country at the age of 83. A one time professor of English and a lawyer by profession, Ela Bhatt is universally recognised as one of the pioneers of a movement to empower women. She is the founder of the iconic SEWA that helps women set up cooperatives and earn a dignified living as self-employed professionals. The organisation has touched millions of lives and inspired many other groups across India to help women become independent entrepreneurs by helping each other out through cooperatives. A woman of indomitable courage and integrity, Ela Bhatt has spent more than five decades devoted to her cause. Most importantly, she differs dramatically from a new generation of women activists who sometimes talk more and work less. Bhatt now leads a more or less retired life in Ahmedabad.

It is not easy for the wife or daughter of an industrialist to carve out an independent identity as an entrepreneur. Most people automatically assume that her success is more due to family connections than her own talent and hard work. But Mallika Srinivasan has defied these prejudices and successfully run and managed TAFE, the Chennai-based company that manufactures tractors, farm equipment and diesel pumps. Srinivasan has been a hands on boss for a long time and has been responsible for ensuring steady growth and profitability of the company. She sits on the boards of many top companies and institutions like the ISB. Down south, she is known for her love for art and culture and her philanthropic activities. And oh yes, her husband is Venu Srinivasan, chairman of TVS Motors.

As a doubles player, she has won dozens of tournaments including virtually all the Grand Slam events and has remained at the very top for a very long time. In recent times, her partnership with Martina Hingis has been one of the most successful ones in contemporary tennis history. Her on court success has inspired many young girls to take up tennis as a career and dream of global success. Her marriage to Pakistani cricket player Shoiab Mallik has been the source of much talk and some controversy. Many right wing bigots have targeted and attacked her for marrying a Pakistani. But Sania Mirza has been amazingly dignified amidst all this and lets cynics know she is a true blue Indian through deeds rather than mere words.

Some of her critics say that she is an arrogant and abrasive personality who has used her celebrity status to climb the political ladder and become a minister without being qualified for the post. Some of her admirers think that she could well shake up Indian politics in 2019 by defeating Rahul Gandhi in the Amethi constituency. Smriti Irani, quite simply, is controversial. After becoming a massive TV star, Irani triggered a political controversy by publicly criticising Narendra Modi for the 2002 Gujarat riots. Subsequently, she became a big fan of Modi. Irani has contested two Lok Sabha elections, one against Kapil Sibal in Delhi and another against Rahul Gandhi in Amethi. She has lost both and has been a Rajya Sabha MP from Gujarat for many years. She is easily the most high profile woman minister in the Modi cabinet, even after being shunted out of HRD to Textiles. But even critics admit that she is an extremely hard working, combative and no-nonsense political worker.

Many Decades Ago, Sudha Murthy was working at Tata Motors when her husband N. Narayana Murthy was bitten by the IT bug and wanted to launch his own company with some friends. But where would the money come from? ISudha Murthy acted as an angel investor and took out her personal savings to help out her husband. It turned out to be a great investment in the long run. Within two decades, Infosys had become one of the hottest and most talked about corporate success stories in India. But Murthy was not satisfied with merely basking in the glory of Infosys. An independent woman with strong views, she became an author and wrote some best selling motivational books. Apart from that and running her household like a middle class Indian, Sudha Murthy has encouraged many philanthropic activities without making a song and dance about it. Can anyone doubt that she truly is a woman of substance?

There is every chance that she will win the coming assembly elections and once again become the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. Even when her party BSP was swept aside in the Modi wave of 2014 and failed to win a single Lok Sabha seat, her opponents were wary of writing her off. The rise and rise of Mayawati as a powerful figure in Indian politics is testimony to things: how Indian democracy does provide space for leaders from humble backgrounds and traditionally oppressed communities to grow and how Mayawati herself has displayed grit, steely resolve and a ne’er say die attitude against all odds. One of the most traumatic events in her life was when some workers of Samajwadi Party had physically attacked her at a guest house with murderous intentions. But she never let that affect her. Her critics accuse her of indulging in corruption and amassing vast amounts of money. At the same time, the same critics admit that law and order situation in UP improves whenever she becomes the chief minister. Perhaps her only regret could be that Mayawati has failed to emerge as a pan Indian Dalit leader despite her best efforts.

There can be no doubt that she has been one of the more controversial media personalities in contemporary times, albeit an immensely successful one. Supporters of Narendra Modi love to hate her. She is perhaps the most abused media celebrity on social media in India. Some of the more nutty critics even accuse her of serial marriages with men from the Kashmir valley and of being a secret asset of the ISI of Pakistan. But there are also legions of young girls who are inspired by her success as a television reporter and anchor and who want follow in her footsteps. She has spent virtually her entire two decade long career at NDTV, once one of the most respected and credible media houses but now under a cloud for alleged financial improprieties. Barkha Dutt will always deserve legitimate praise for telling news reports from across India, particularly from the Kashmir valley. At the same time, she will be justifiably criticised for what was exposed by the Radia tapes.

Over the last two decades and more, she has emerged as one of the most authoritative and credible voices on contentious issues like environment, pollution and adulteration. And she has achieved this without organising street protests or noisy demonstrations outside corporate headquarters. Sunita Narain and her outfit Center for Science and Environment have relied on hard core data and scientific methods of research to say what they have to say. She has been one of the first to raise red flags related to pollution, particularly the alarming levels in Delhi. She has shamed many a big corporate name by exposing how their products were either downright adulterated or of inferior quality. There is no aspect in her chosen field of research and activism that the CSE has not touched upon. Over the years, her credibility has also been the result of the CSE avoiding making sensational allegations unless it has enough evidence to back them up. Narain continues to play a key role in these days of visible distress caused by environmental damage and pollution.

Sports can be a cruel taskmaster. This champion injured herself during the Rio Olympics and had to undergo surgery that needed a long period of recovery. Even as she was hurting and recovering, another badminton star, P. V. Sindhu, burst onto the Indian sports scene. She electrified Indians by winning the Silver medal at Rio. But Saina Nehwal is a champion who has no regrets. She is back playing competitive badminton and it is a matter of time before she regains her magic form and touch. Both Nehwal and Sindhu know that having two champions is actually a blessing for both as each would strive harder to become even better. It would be fun to watch the two compete in the global arena in the next few years. All said and done, it was Nehwal who convinced budding players that it is possible to defeat the seemingly invincible Chinese in badminton and do it consistently.

Hers would be one of the most interesting life stories when looked at from a distance. Marriage to the son of a powerful prime minister and coming from Italy to India as a wife and “Bahu”. A beautiful life with two children and a pilot husband who had no interest in politics. Becoming the wife of the prime minister under tragic circumstances and becoming a widow after another tragic assassination. After years of reluctance, jumping into politics to save the legacy left behind by her adopted family. Becoming the power behind the throne and unquestionably the most powerful Indian for 10 years between 2004 and 2014. Hoping that her son would one day learn the ropes of politics and allow her to retire. Waiting anxiously and nervously for that day to come. Being devastated by the worst defeat ever suffered by the party she had tried to save. Facing numerous charges of corruption and worse. If someone made a masala movie on her life and times, it would surely be a blockbuster that beats all records!

She became a global, personality when her book The God of Small Things not only fetched an obscene amount as advance and became a runaway bestseller, but also ended up winning the Booker Prize. Most expected her to build on her literary career and deliver a few more compelling masterpieces of fiction and bestsellers. But Arundhati Roy chose a totally different path. She became a rebel without a pause. When India conducted nuclear tests in 1998, She wrote a long and winding polemic slamming the move and announced that she is "seceding from the Indian Republic" she gave unstinted and whole hearted support to the Narmada movement where she became comrades in arms with Medha Patkar. She spent time with the murderous Maoists in Chhattisgarh and described them endearingly as Gandhians With Guns. But her act has become a tad tiresome of late and even those who supported her now wonder what exactly she is up to and what is her agenda.

Both she and her NGO lawyers, Collective, have been in the news in recent times. The Union Government has banned it from receiving foreign donations. Apparently, she committed gross violations even while holding a constitutional position in the previous UPA regime. A large number of liberal Indians have come out in her support and slammed the government for its draconian moves. But the controversy apart, Indira Jaising has over the years built quite a formidable reputation as a successful lawyer. She has never shied away from taking up "controversial" cases and made it a point to every now and then help a poor Indian seek justice. The upper echelons of Indian judiciary and the legal profession is dominated by males. Jaising happens to be a woman of steel in that group.

For almost two decades, she was the silent but powerful symbol of protest against the heavy handed, arbitrary and often brutal behavior of the security forces in troubled and violence ridden Manipur and the whole of north east. She went on a fast unto death demanding the withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act from Manipur. This law virtually gives total immunity to the armed forces against any action of theirs while fighting insurgency and terrorism. Government after government at the state and central level tried to ignore her. She never opened her mouth in protest even as she was force fed through tubes to keep her alive. Over time, she became an icon for dissenters across the world. It was indeed remarkable how the frail lady from a "normal" background found the courage and determination to continue her protest and her fast. In 2016, she announced that she was stopping her fast and expressed her desire to contest elections and change the law. She has been surprisingly shunned by even her former supporters and people in her own locality. But Irom Sharmila is determined to march on.

In the contemporary political arena, the top echelons of the Left parties have almost always been occupied by male leaders who conform to stereotypes. Even though Left parties shout the loudest when it comes to gender justice, they have seldom practiced it. For that matter, they have seldom elevated people from the lowest and oppressed castes to top posts despite tall talk. Over the years, the sophisticated and suave Brinda Karat has been an exception. Her ability to sound convincing and credible has made her a powerful spokesperson for the Left. She also happens to be married to Prakash Karat who was general secretary of the CPI (M) till recently. But with the Left in a free fall and terminal decline in the electoral arena across India, Karat seems to be a voice from the wilderness now.

It was recently revealed that she had suffered from kidney failure and needed a transplant. She herself tweeted out the information, in sharp contrast to most other political leaders who try very hard to keep their health concerns a state secret. Tens of thousands of people from across India offered their kidneys in a gesture of astonishing solidarity. That most of the offers came on social media was fitting. Sushma Swaraj has been a hyper active external affairs minister since 2014 and has used Twitter to help hundreds,possibly thousands of ordinary Indians. But it is not as if it was Twitter that made her famous. She has been a formidable political leader for a long time, including being the leader of opposition in the Lok Sabha in the previous regime. There was a time in 2011 when Balasaheb Thadkeray of Shiv Sena had suggested that she would be a good BJP prime minister. That moment has passed but her political reputation has soared.

When she emerged as a youth Congress leader who never shied away from street protests in the 1970s, the communists ruled West Bengal. It took her 34 years of angry street protests and agitations to finally dislodge the Left from the state. There have been many times when Mamata Banerjee has been attacked by Left workers; once she was severely injured on the head. And though she kept winning Lok Sabha elections regularly and became a Union minister in various regimes, she kept failing in her lifelong mission to oust the Left. Finally, with the Nandigram and Singur agitations turning the tide and popular support away from the Left, Banerjee ousted the Left and became chief minister in 2011. She won again in 2016 with a thumping majority. But critics say that she has never left behind her street agitator persona even after becoming the chief minister.

She was already a big star when BW Businessworld was born and delivered critically acclaimed performances like the one in Arth directed by Mahesh Bhatt. Azmi gradually turned into an activist who passionately believed in a better life for the down trodden. She has fought many a battle for improving the conditions and infrastructure facilities for slums in Mumbai. Perhaps the influence came in her early years when her father, the legendary lyricist, Kaifi Azmi, and his friends believed in the ability of the Left ideology to do good. Azmi faced a lot of flak for the break up of the marriage of Javed Akhtar whom she eventually married. But she maintained a dignified silence. Along with her husband, Azmi fights the good war on behalf of liberal Muslims and doesn’t hesitate to speak out against bigotry of all kinds and in all religions. Like Sharmila Tagore, Azmi too has aged with amazing grace and poise.

Banking and financial services is one industry where women have successfully and consistently broken the glass ceiling. Many analysts have wondered why this is so but the debate over it continues to rage. As if to prove this, Naina Lal Kidwai is one of the first women bankers to rise to the top in India. She has always been high profile and visible in power gatherings across India and the world. But it is not just networking that finally propelled her to the top. The bosses at foreign banking giant HSBC did recognise her leadership skills early and Kidwai has been head of the bank for a long while. Over the years, she has emerged as a powerful and credible voice on economic as well as gender issues.

Many critics have dismissed her as a blue blooded royal who has taken advantage of lingering feudal traditions in Rajasthan and its seemingly never ending love for Maharajahs and Maharanis to become chief minister of the state. But they are wrong. She is a royal no doubt and she makes it known at every opportunity that she is proud of that heritage. But she has always been a hard working political worker and astute leader and campaigner. She led the BJP to a thumping majority in 2003 in Rajasthan. It was internal bickering and feuds that led to the narrow defeat of the BJP in 2008. For a while, she was at loggerheads with the then BJP bosses in Delhi and looked all set to exit the party. Enter Modi and Vasundhara Raje Scindia leads the BJP to an even more historic victory in 2013. In her second term, she has attempted many landmark economic policy reform measures that could transform the state in the long run.

Most young indians are familiar with how the brutal gang rape of Nirbhaya towards the end of 2012 shamed the nation and led to a mass movement demanding not just protection of women but also laws to punish rapists more severely. But most would not even be aware of a lady called Bhanwri Devi, a poor village woman from Rajasthan who was gang raped by a group of high caste men as punishment. In what would rank as one of the most shameful episodes in Indian judicial history, one judge was allegedly heard wondering how a person with her looks could be raped. The case, like Nirbhaya, attracted global attention. Eventually, everyone forgot about this poor lady from a Rajasthan village but laws were changed in the aftermath of her case reaching the Supreme Court.

For years, she honed her marketing skills and rose through the ranks at Cadbury. For people who were familiar with the workings of the FMCG industry back in the 1980s, Vineeta Bali had already acquired a formidable reputation as a brilliant marketing person with leadership skills that would take her far. She did go far. After Nusli Wadia had a falling out with Sunil Alagh, Britannia Industries badly needed a leader with a strong marketing background as competition was buffeting the company from all around. She was made the boss of the company and did a remarkable job of not just protecting market shares but also expanding into new horizons. She may not be as highly visible as some others, but Bali has always been a woman of substance.

If you are not familiar with the world of economics and research, you would know her as the wife of Montek Singh Ahluwalia, one of the longest serving and most powerful bureaucrats dealing with economic policy making, the man who handled the finance ministry for most of the time during the exciting days between 1991 and 1996. But that would be gross injustice to Isher Judge Ahluwalia who currently heads the respected research organisation ICCRIER. If you happen to have followed solid and painstaking research done in economics in India, you would remember her seminal contribution through the 1986 book Industrial Growth & Stagnation that raised many significant issues and questions related to policy making in the country. She writes actively at the moment on issues like urban renewal and infrastructure.

It is testimony to how highly her talent and leadership skills are considered that she was one the leading contenders to be the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India when Raghuram Rajan did not get a second term. That she lost out to Urijit Patel has less to do with her and her gender than other strategic considerations of the government. At the moment, she is on an extension as the chairman and managing director of the State Bank of India. Her articulate manner has been on full display in the post demonitisation era where she has clearly and crisply spelt out what exactly is happening while many others have floundered. It is not easy being the boss of the largest bank in India that dwarfs all others by a distance. But Arundhati Bhattacharya has been a success by whatever yardstick you measure her tenure, including the contentious issue of NPAs.

In the contemporary world of high decibel and angry debates on TV studios, many women have emerged as champions of gender equity and justice. The more aggressive you are and the more offensive you are, the more you would be respected as a doughty fighter for gender justice it seems. But for those who have been familiar with this field for a long time, the pioneering sought fighter for gender rights and justice has been Flavia Agnes. The Mumbai-based lawyer and activist has taken up numerous cases where women have suffered discrimination and worse in their marital lives or even in their work places. Without caring much for limelight or stardom, Agnes has doggedly fought for women, poor, middle class and rich who have been given a raw deal. She represents depth and commitment over noise and rancor.

It is the most unlikely political alliance and threatens to collapse every other week. But after the death of her father, Mehbooba Mufti has tried very hard to keep the PDP-BJP alliance government intact in Jammu & Kashmir. There has been a massive increase in both public protests and terror strikes engineered from across the border in the state. Armed forces casualties have been the highest in eight years. It looks as if there is simply no solution to the festering Kashmir problem. One thing is clear though. The chief minister of the state will have to play a crucial role in whatever form a solution takes. That is the importance of Mehbooba Mufti Syed.

Given the kind of controversies surrounding them over the years, many of them of the most unsavory kind, it would appear odd to have a spiritual leader in this list. But the spiritual leader from Kerala Amritanadameyi Mata has often floored even cynics, atheists and critics of spiritual gurus with her humility, disarming smile and the famous hug. She has attracted millions of followers over the last two decades or so, ranging from the desperately poor to top bureaucrats to super rich tycoons. Her Ashram and the dozens of educational and other institutions she runs have never been hit by scandal. And there can be no doubt that she, without claiming any special powers, has helped people in distress. That in itself makes her a woman of substance.

It is not easy running a mainstream media empire these days. Nobody would know it better than Shobana Bhartia, granddaughter of the legendary G. D. Birla and aunt of Kumarmangalam Birla. She has been heading HT Media for a long time now after her father K. K. Birla handed over the reins to her. To her credit, she has constantly tried new things and re-invented her media company. In the early 1990s, she made an ambitious foray into television with Home TV. But when she realised that the business was not viable, she moved out before it could bleed the whole group. In a bold move, she launched a financial daily Mint in tabloid form about 10 years ago. It is yet to make profits and has become a broadsheet this year. But it is a powerful brand now and second only to The Economic Times. At the moment, Bhartia is attempting a massive digital makeover of her media house. Here is hoping she succeeds.


On the face of it, there is nothing that she had achieved in her young life that would qualify her to be present in this list of women of substance. But it was in the tragic and needless manner of her death that Jessica Lal became a symbol of Indian women struggling daily for their independence and their right to make choices in life. At a party in 1999, Jessica Lal was performing the role of a bartender when she refused a drink to a young man from a powerful political family. Official closing hours for the bar had already been announced. The writhed and incensed man who turned out to be Manu Sharma hit her dead and fled. It was a series of mass protests that eventually led to the culprit getting a long prison term. Jessica Lal may have blossomed into a successful woman in her own right. But in her death, she became a powerful symbol for Indian women.