The Last Word
Lady with the Lamp — and Broom
Roopinder Singh and Jangveer Singh
She is a third-term legislator who claims she is not a politician, a minister who does not entertain “favour-seekers”. She knows Punjabi, but does not use it officially. Punjab Health Minister Laxmi Kanta Chawla is someone who is difficult to fit into any slot.
A Toyota Camry may have replaced a bicycle she rode 50 years ago, but her simple, even spartan, lifestyle is as widely talked about as it is not emulated.
The politician with a mind of her own and an unbending attitude recently weathered a political storm, which was ignited when diagnostic centres run by relatives of BJP chief parliamentary secretary Jagdish Sahni were raided by health officials. Chawla remained unavailable to Sahni and other BJP leaders till the case was admitted in court. Clearly, she did not buckle under pressure, and stood for what she believed in. Eventually, Sahni was made to eat humble pie. However, in the process, perhaps for the first time, her reputation came under a cloud.
Personal honesty and simplicity have been the twin pillars for the lady who has called a four-marla house in Namak Mandi, Amritsar, her home ever since she first became a councillor in 1972. During her three terms as an MLA, she chose to stay at MLA Hostel rather than take a flat. Even now, when she is a minister, she “does not want to be a burden on the state”. She lives in MLA Hostel, often makes her own cup of tea and reportedly lives on the gratuity and other benefits she got working as a teacher in BBK DAV College in Amritsar, a job from which she took leave from 1992 to 2000 before retiring in 2001.
While many applauded the Health Minister for transferring VIP doctors, especially spouses of VIPs, it was at the cost of a rigidity that brushed aside even genuine requests, to an extent that it was alleged that the minister had kept couples apart during her tenure. She, however, stood her ground. When a VIP sought to take L. K. Advani’s help, she refused to pay any heed, sayng: “Advani ji ko kahiye main unka kaam nahi kar sakti (Tell Advaniji I cannot do his work).”
Chawla’s convictions, simple ways, and even quirks, like refusing to speak in Punjabi officially, can be traced back to the RSS as well as Leftist influences. She was raised in a family that was associated with the Sangh Parivar, and the eminent Communist leader, Vimla Dang, taught her in school.It was only natural for the young Chawla to be inducted into the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad. In the 1970s, she led campaigns against bride burning, and proved her mettle by taking part in underground activities on behalf of the Sangh during the Emergency period.
In the ’80s when Punjab was engulfed by terrorism, she drove her moped to newspaper offices, distributing press releases against militants - a rare act of courage those days. She was among the few BJP leaders who spoke out in favour of victims of terrorist violence, including Sikhs. Bereft of funds, she would often get the victims to Chandigarh and hold press conferences at the Arya Samaj temple in Sector 22. Following her efforts, compensation was awarded to the victims. Chawla also campaigned for and got a fair deal for mental hospital inmates in the state, many of whom had been abandoned by their families.
In her tenure, hospitals have started working again. An increase in the number of deliveries in community health centres indicates that more people are being treated there. Chawla has taken up the cause of poor children and started schemes whereby hundreds of children have now been treated for congenital heart diseases, cancer and thalassaemia. While she gets a high rating for her schemes, she is yet to score on the administrative side.
The minister, though married to former party organising secretary Avinash Rai Jaiswal, leads a spinster’s life - she separated from her husband a decade ago. She always dresses in a white khadi sari with a small border. A strict vegetarian, she does not even eat onion or garlic. Since she travels a lot, she usually snacks on roasted chickpeas, a packet of which she always keeps in her purse.
Austerity is a virtue, acerbity is not. “Do you have any identity of your own or not,” she asked the members of the IAS Officers Wives’ Association when they introduced themselves using their husband’s surnames.
Tweaking the noses of some snooty people is one thing, but Chawla seems to have developed a streak of hostility towards the ‘established order’. “She starts her day by asking for the files that do not have any recommendation,” a doctor exclaimed admiringly. Naturally, this intolerance of the ‘sifarish’ culture has earned her many influential enemies.
She is said to have “accommodated” Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal a few times, but Badal himself denies this. She is said to have a soft spot for Finance Minister Manpreet Singh Badal, and the Finance Minister returns the compliment, praising her honesty and hard work. She is also close to some police officers, particularly those who have served in Amritsar — once she tied a rakhi on top cop K.P.S. Gill’s wrist.
Badal took over her authority to repatriate state government doctors posted in Chandigarh following appeals that she was not even listening to “genuine” cases. Party workers, hoping she would be sympathetic to them, are also met with a steely “No” for any “sifarish”.
In the last three years, Chawla has distanced herself from both her party colleagues and workers in her constituency. She neither attends any social function nor accepts sweets from anyone.
In Amritsar Central, her Assembly segment, BJP’s Navjot Sidhu lost by over 10,000 votes in the last year’s parliamentary elections, though he did win the Amritsar seat. While the BJP frets about its future in the constituency, Laxmi Kanta Chawla has announced that she will not contest the next Assembly election and that she would prefer to pick up the pen to write on causes dear to her. Maverick to the last.