Nirmala Sitharaman has no time for people with ‘problems’ or for critics

Have Union Ministers lost their head and lost their touch? In sharp contrast to Indira Gandhi who would wade into crowds and listen to people, Nirmala Sitharaman appears to have no time for them

Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman.
Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman.

Sujata Anandan

I do not know if Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman's recent shenanigans are an indictment of her degree from Jawaharlal Nehru University or simply that of the general cluelessness of her political party. Or merely of women in politics. But ministers in this Government show startling lack of compassion and empathy.

India has had a woman Prime Minister who was brilliant and surpassed the achievements of both her father Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and also proved among our most formidable prime ministers who made lasting changes to India's polity as well as economy.

Indira Gandhi preceded Sitharaman in the defence and finance ministries and conducted herself well, so there is really no reason to believe that women in politics are a misfit or incompetent. Thus, it must have something to do with the BJP which makes a Maneka Gandhi, the daughter-in-law of Indira Gandhi arrogant and abusive, a Smriti Irani, arrogant and a dunderhead unable to distinguish between a degree and a leadership programme or a Nirmala Sitharaman who is arrogant and plain incompetent.

The worst is the last – incompetence combined with a premier education and complete lack of compassion for the people and a mind utterly closed to acknowledging policy failures or listening to the trials of the suffering people.

In recent days, two videos have gone viral on social media that underline her hateful character. A man who recently underwent a kidney transplant but soon lost his savings in the crash of the Punjab and Maharashtra Co-operative Bank tried to tell her he had no money for medicines--but she was simply not interested in even listening to him, let alone give him a sympathetic ear.

In another incident, less to do with human nature and more with government policy, she was both deaf and blind to how the Goods and Services Tax has destroyed thousands of businesses and the economy and refused to listen to the appeal of a citizen seeking an audience with her in the hope she could find them a solution.

Now I do not think any of these citizens would have mobbed or physically manhandled Sitharaman the way I saw Assamese women do Mrs Gandhi when she visited the site of the Nellie massacres in 1983. There was not much security cover that a prime minister had in those days – in fact, Mrs Gandhi had far less then than Sitharaman had last week in Mumbai and Pune – but she was unfazed by that.

I was standing merely three feet away from her when one of the survivors threw herself at Mrs Gandhi and tugged at the pallu of her saree, crying out loud and saying, “How are we supposed to go on living when all our men are dead? You did nothing to save us!”

Instantly more wailing women surrounded Mrs Gandhi and I lost sight of her for a bit.

When the security forces cleared the mob, I saw Mrs Gandhi holding the woman who had hurled herself at the prime minister close and comforting her in almost nursery fashion. “Chinta mat karo behan. Main hoon na! Main aap ke saath khadi hoon,” she was saying, even as she rocked the distressed woman back and forth like a baby.

The police had to prise the woman away from the prime minister – neither did she want to let go, nor did Mrs Gandhi seem in a hurry to get away from her.

Now one certainly did not expect Sitharaman to similarly croon to the men seeking her help but at least she could have sat them down in an airconditioned room and given them a patient hearing? But I notice compassion and sympathy is not part of the DNA of the BJP, men or women.

Else the government would not have so ruthlessly shut down Kashmir the way they have and even the women ministers who presumably are all mothers, have not a word of sympathy for the plight of children in that state.

However, compassion is not a gender specific quality. I recall Sharad Pawar surprising many women journalists during the 1992-93 Mumbai riots to reveal a side to him that we had not associated with the generally emotionless Maratha strongman.

He was the Union defence minister then and In Mumbai but had refused to speak with reporters. When a couple of women journalists turned up at his residence at nearly midnight, at first, he was annoyed. Then he decided to make an exception for them. “I was angry when you turned up here despite my forbidding it,” He told them. “But then I thought had my daughter been in your place, how bad I would have felt had she travelled through a burning city at night and her mission had proved fruitless.”

He then sent the women home in security cars with armed guards who were instructed to make sure they were safely behind their locked doors before returning to base.

However, Pawar showed equal concern towards a farmer who once gatecrashed his residence with a litany of woes for which he sought the chief minister’s assistance.

Pawar stopped the security guards from turning him away. He stepped out and gestured to the farmer, saying “Ya mazha barobar (come with me),” before sitting the man down in his parlour and listening patiently to his problems. Pawar could hardly have done anything about the vagaries of the weather, unlike Sitharaman with the man-made disasters of her government, but still there was an attempt to soothe the man's nerves and seek solutions to his problems.

Then there was also the Congress government's attempt to rehabilitate villagers who were displaced by the Mumbai-Pune Expressway and the subsequent BJP government who bulldozed the villagers and rendered them not just homeless but also without livelihood.

Those villagers subsequently turned highway robbers and began looting motorists using the Expressway with vengeance. It took years to calm them down and another Congress government to find solutions.

I am afraid that people who are now merely pleading and crying, including women being raped and being told by a BJP MP that there is no punishment for rapists in Hindu culture, about the destruction of their lives by this government will one day similarly seek out vengeance from the unsympathetic and cruel current leadership.

It could have disastrous consequences for both the party and its leadership and the country.

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