Saturday, January 1, 2011
The Palace intrigues and Nira Radia
Another new year, another new decade and once more the time has come for reflections and resolutions. 2010 will be remembered in history as the year of scams for India. From the common wealth games to Adarsh society to food prices to radiagate, it is a year that has made us question our politicians and their intentions like never before. No political party has escaped the scanner or come out spotlessly clean in this scrutiny. However, the scam that shook my convictions especially about media and the role it plays as the gate keeper of our social conscious has by far been ‘Radiagate’.
Being from the corporate world myself, I had never heard about Nira Radia until the tapes broke out all over Twitter and I went about searching for a copy of the Open magazine to find out what exactly was all the brouhaha about. I was fascinated by the guts, gumption, intelligence and influence of this lone woman who had powerful personas right from Rata Tata to Mukesh Ambani to Vir Sanghvi eating out of her hands. In certain instances, she was dictating their actions like they were school children waiting for the teacher’s instructions. Radia’s exploits have been much recorded and debated and she has shaken the foundation of Indian politics and media like never before. But, I kept wondering what egged her on? What did she want to achieve at the end of it? She stayed in the background, managed critical lobbying and snatched important posts for her front men through discrete phone calls and back end manoeuvring not once showing her cards fully. In this day and age, when powerful and ambitious women such as her wanted to be in the forefront of all action, how did she not give into the temptation of playing for power more explicitly and blatantly? And then, I found my answer in the several parallels I could find between the lives of Nira Radia, Draupadi and Empress Nurjahan.
I know, these are three very different women, residing in different parts of history and living in cultures and times that were vastly different from what we see today. But all these women were powerful in their own right and were the driving force behind several wars and coups that changed the lives of millions of people. However, the exact role they played is often not captured completely in our historical texts. Had it not been for the Open magazine tapes, Radia’s role in the way politics and business is being shaped in India would also be obscured forever. Let’s delve briefly into the lives of each of these women and see how they drove the events around them and became crucial parts of some of the most defining moments in history.
Draupadi – All we know about her is that she was married to all five of the Pandava brothers and performed her wifely duties with the utmost propriety to all of them that earned her an elevated place in history. However, I always felt that this was a uni-dimensional way of looking at one of the most complex characters in Indian history and mythology. Careful scrutiny of some historical texts throws light on Draupadi, the woman who loved one man but pledged her loyalty to five men and never swerved from her duty towards them. She prided herself on being the ‘Queen of queens’ and never allowed any of the other women her five husbands married, to step into her place thus maintaining her supremacy both in the Palace and in her husbands’ kingdom. One might look at this as the spitefulness of a jealous woman. But this was a well thought through political move which gave precedence to her and her children and nipped any political coups in the bud with the other wives never being able to step into the kingdom itself. When one reads the part she played in helping her husband turn ‘Khandavprastha’ into ‘Indraprastha’ and the vision she had to build the most beguiling palace of all times, one does not wish to begrudge her, the quest for power and kingdom. It is a tragedy that she also saw the downfall and destruction of all that she so lovingly built and nurtured.
Not many may be aware, but Draupadi had the power to stop the Kurukshetra war had she told her husbands to forget about getting revenge on her behalf. She held great influence over the five bravest warriors in history and could have got them to acquiesce to her wishes if only she said the word. Instead, she spewed vitriol for 13 years on the injustice done to her which was grave indeed, but one she could have forgiven had she been a different kind of woman. She deliberately accompanied her husbands on their exile, though she had the option to stay back at her father’s palace, an option that all their other wives took. But, she did not want the band of her influence over her husbands to be loosened and she accompanied them so that every day, she could remind them of the humiliation she had to suffer due to their inability. It is difficult for 5 men to live on revenge for 13 years but with one vengeful woman amongst them, they never had a chance to forget their revenge or her vengeance. She helped them forge key alliances during the war and held her men to the word they gave her in fits of anger and vengeance. She probably caused the deaths of millions of people and pushed several women towards widowhood while losing all her children in the battle. But, she was the veiled face, who stayed behind the palace walls and egged the greatest war of all times on. We might think it was her destiny, the task she was born to do. However, she never questioned her destiny and changed the course of history while staying behind her veil all the times and never letting the men even guess at the part she was silently and slyly playing.
Several of the Mughal empresses borrowed heavily from Draupadi’s ideology and if I may add fine-tuned the way she held her influence over the most powerful men of the land to great levels of sophistication. But, no empress did this better than Nur Jahan. Born as Meherunnissa, into the family of a lowly Persian noble who fled his homeland with 2 gold coins in his pocket, her rise to become the most powerful wife of Emperor Jahangir is the stuff of folklore. She overcame a failed first marriage that resulted in a girl child and several financial setbacks owing to the dishonesty of her father to reign supreme in the Mughal Kingdom in the early 1600’s. Those times were not easy for the women of the imperial family. The Mughal emperors were known for the harems they built and were in the habit of collecting women for these harems. Only one woman could reign supreme in the Imperial harem and she would be given the epithet of ‘Padshah Begum’. The politics that one needed to play amongst the women to become the ‘Padsha Begum’ would put today’s politicians to shame. Being the twentieth wife of an aging Emperor, known for his roving eye, Nur Jahan used all the political skill and machinations she could to reign supreme in the harem where she was a late entrant from a lowly family. She borrowed from Draupadi, by slowly and steadily, enhancing her influence over Emperor Jahangir, the most powerful man in the Kingdom. History has it that, the King was so enamoured by her that she was to become the last wife he ever took. For 17 years, he never travelled anywhere without her at his side and took her counsel and advice on all critical matters.
Jahangir is credited with having the vision to leave imprints of Mughal architecture all over his kingdom through the various tombs, palaces and other monuments he built. But, not many would know, that it was actually the vision of Nur Jahan who wanted both her and her husband’s name to remain in posterity. It is also believed that Shah Jahan, her estranged step son was inspired by the tomb she built for her father in his design of Taj Mahal but never gave her this credit. However, just like all ambitious woman, Nur Jahan also gave vent to her plans and greed by trying to place her dim-witted son in law Shahryar on the Mughal throne instead of the more eligible Shah Jahan. She was responsible for the bloodiest coup in Mughal times, whereby Shah Jahan killed all his brothers and caused his father’s death to get to the throne. Nur Jahan’s influence and her ambition were instrumental in Jahangir turning against his own son and had he lived longer, she may have succeeded in her plans. But his untimely death, sent her into exile and in spite of being the resourceful woman that she was, even she could not overcome the stigma of widowhood in those times to wrest power from Shah Jahan’s hands once again.
When I look at the way Nira Radia operated in enhancing her circle of influence around the who’s who of Indian business, politics and media, I can see that she is borrowing heavily from her illustrious ancestors. Modern times don’t require her to be married to a powerful man to wield her influence. But she did recognise the most powerful men and in some cases women in the triumvirate of business, media and politics and succeeded in winning their confidence. Her resourcefulness must be of gargantuan proportions as she got to handle the public relations of two differing and warring conglomerates like the Tata’s and the Ambanis. One can only guess at the balancing act she would have had to play to keep both the men happy with her work and gaining for them the political mileage they needed to succeed in their respective ambitions. Just like Draupadi and Nur Jahan, she fuelled the ambition and greed of some very powerful men to further her own agenda. I only wonder what was the goal she was leading towards and would have loved to know what was the ultimate vision she had but I realize that no good may come from that.
While the woman in me admires the guts, cunning, intelligence and ambition of all these women who have left their mark on history in some way or other, the citizen in me wishes that these immensely powerful women would have used their resources more wisely and for the greater good. I wish Draupadi had been more tolerant of the injustice of her time and avoided the death and destruction that came in the wake of her vengeance. I wish Nur Jahan would not have set the precedence of brothers killing brother for the throne. It was this precedence that got Aurangzeb to the throne after Shah Jahan and thus began the downfall of the powerful Mughal Empire. I wish Nira Radia had used her considerable connections and influence to push for more honest ministers for key portfolios. I wish she had pushed for good governance rather than a more convenient one. I realize it is naïve to think that these women could have altered the course of history singlehandedly. But the steps they took brought some key changes in our society and are probably instrumental in making us who we are. I hope that in the New Year, we can take some positive lessons from all these women and realize that we can yield immense power if we only wish to. However, it will do mankind a great deal of good if we remember that with immense power comes immense responsibility and responsibility well handled, can help us leave a better legacy for the generations to come.
Palace of Illusions – Chitra Devakurni Banerjee
Mahabharata – Rajagopalachari
Twentieth wife, Feast of roses and Shadow Princess – Indu Sunderesan
Travels in the Mughal Empire – Archibald Timmins