Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A beautiful politician

TARKESHWARI SINHA stepped out of college to step into the portals of Parliament House where for 19 years she spread radiance of a kind the august institution had seldom been accustomed to. Hardly 26 when she was sworn in as a member of the first Lok Sabha in 1952, the two sobriquets she earned instantaneously and which stuck to her indelibly were “Baby of the House” and “Glamour Girl of Indian Politics”.
Her face might not have “launched a thousand ships” like Helen of Troy but it certainly turned fellow members’ heads every time she strode into the House or stood up to make an intervention. When girls of her age were reading Mills and Boons by the dozen, she plunged into the 1942 movement as a student of Bankipore Girls College, renamed Magadh Mahila College in Patna.
Her family thought her honeymoon with politics was over when she tied the nuptial knot with the scion of an aristocratic zamindar family of Chapra, whose tenant was once the first President, Dr Rajendra Prasad. Married life in Kolkata did not keep her off from politics for long.
The INA trial in Delhi rekindled her passion for politics and soon she found herself elected President of the Bihar Students Congress, which broke away from the All India Students Federation. She was among those who received Mahatma Gandhi when he arrived at Nagar Nausa in Nalanda district to quell the anti-Muslim riots in the aftermath of Partition. The Mahatma also had a taste of the people’s fury when he was “manhandled” there.
Within a few months, Tarkeshwari was at the London School of Economics doing her M.Sc in economics. “Harold Laski had just left LSE when I joined there”, she had told me in an interview. However, she had to cut short her research on Indian taxation and return to India when her father died.
By then India had become a Republic and the first general elections had been ordered. She won from Barh defeating veteran freedom fighter Sheel Bhadra Yajee. The “Beauty Queen” took such an active part in the debates in the Lok Sabha that Jawaharlal Nehru immediately noticed her debating skills.
However, it was only in 1958 that Nehru chose her for a ministerial assignment. She became deputy to Finance Minister Morarji Desai. They became so close that tongues began to wag. And, when the Congress split in 1969, she sided with Morarji Desai and it marked the end of her political career.
Indira Gandhi disliked her so much that when greenhorn Dharambir Sinha defeated her in 1971, she rewarded him with information and broadcasting portfolio. Tarkeshwari returned to the Congress and contested on its ticket in 1977 when every Congress candidate in Bihar was routed.
Eventually, she quit politics and took up social work. It was in that capacity that she once came to invite me to Tulsigarh, her native village in Nalanda district.
Tarkeshwari wanted to show me a hospital she had set up in memory of her brother Capt Girish Nandan Singh, an Air India pilot who died in an air crash in New Delhi. During the journey to Tulsigarh, she told me how she had raised nearly Rs 25 lakh, a big sum those days, to construct the two-storeyed hospital where treatment was almost free.
She also prided herself in taking the initiative to construct a road to link the village with Chandi and Harnaut in Nalanda. During the return journey, I summoned up courage to ask her about her insinuated closeness to Morarji Desai.
“We became Central ministers on the same day. He trusted me and I trusted him. When Lal Bahadur Shastri died, I felt that he should have been elected Prime Minister. There was nothing more to our relationship”, she replied in a matter of fact manner.
Caste also cemented their relationship. Bhumihars of Bihar, of whom she was one, trace their ancestry to Lord Parasuram. They believe that Morarji Desai, too, was a Bhumihar.
It is a pity that when this stormy petrel of Indian politics died after a prolonged illness in New Delhi last week, few newspapers cared even to report her death.

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