Meera Sanyal: Portrait of a liberal Indian

Meera Sanyal: Portrait of a liberal Indian

Accidental banker, then accidental politician -- sometimes the most honest breed of government servant is the most unlikely of candidates
Meera Sanyal
"If people like us, educated, privileged and professional were to join politics, we could make a big difference," says Meera Sanyal.

The tiny Malabar Hill neighborhood of Mumbai is known for its poor record of voting turnout during elections. The rich and influential residents of the area are usually perceived as being uninterested, even disdainful of participatory politics. 

So when one of them, Meera Sanyal, 49, stepped into the electoral arena as a candidate in the parliamentary elections of 2009, it came as a surprise to most. 

What was even more unusual was that Sanyal was a professional banker -- now country executive with Royal Bank of Scotland -- not a breed often associated with high profile political activity. 

As an independent candidate new to the hurly burly of politics, facing two strong rivals from the established political parties, those close to Sanyal professionally and personally were skeptical of her decision to jump into India's murky political world. She was not expected to win and the inevitable happened. She lost.

But a month and a half on the campaign trail for the first time in your life, will change you. 

"I went to the poorest quarters in my constituency, met with people there, saw how they had they kept their homes spick and span but also saw how they had to struggle for the basics, water, good housing, sanitation," Sanyal recalls, while sitting in her well-appointed office.

"That is what I think we need to work on. I think if people like us, educated, privileged and professional were to join politics, we could make a big difference. And what I discovered during those days of electioneering was that people like us, who normally stay away from political activity, can and should join public life." 

Now Sanyal is convinced that public life is where she wants to be. 

The citizen banker

"My father, Admiral Hiranandani, who passed away shortly after my 2009 campaign, was my mentor and guide. His advice, 'You must serve your country, our people deserve better,' has been my inspiration," she says.

Admiral Hiranandani worked for the Indian Navy and his job took him to different parts of the country while Sanyal schooled in New Delhi and Mumbai. The family shifted to Russia when she had just finished high school. So she learned Russian, as well as Sanskrit in school along with French and German.

Returning to Mumbai (then Bombay) in 1979, Sanyal joined college for a degree in commerce and immediately after, headed to INSEAD, a top management school in France, for her graduate degree.

Meera Sanyal"I had no particular plans to join a bank," says the now chairperson for RBS Bank India.With an MBA under her belt, Sanyal says she was all fired up to join the Indian corporate sector but things were not exactly smooth. 

"My degree did not impress anyone, not least because they did not know much about INSEAD and even wondered why anyone would have bothered to go to France for an MBA," she says.

A few months of interviewing did not lead to anything worthwhile and just when she was toying with the idea of heading back to Europe for a job, she got offered a position at Grindlays Bank.

"I had no particular plans to join a bank, but it seemed interesting so I took it up," says Sanyal.

In the nearly three decades Sanyal has been in the banking business, she has worked everywhere -- from investment banking to operations to integrating different systems and work cultures whenever her own organization merged with another.

"Often there were crises and impossible deadlines, like when he Y2K bug was about to hit in 2000, but each time it was full of learnings and lessons," she says.

From an "accidental banker," as she describes herself, Sanyal eventually moulded herself into a "citizen banker" because, "one has to be involved with the society around oneself," she says.

So in ABN Amro, where she worked for nearly two decades, she put in place liberal affirmative action policies which call for hiring of not only people from disadvantaged backgrounds but also differently abled employees.

"They are chosen on merit, of course, but being handicapped does not and should not come in the way of hiring any person," Sanyal believes.

Convener of liberal Indians

Meera Sanyal"[My father] always used to talk about how we should serve our country," says Sanyal.The urge to make a difference and contribute to public debate has now led Sanyal to become the national convener of the Indian Liberal Group, a 45-year-old organization which was very active at one time but has become moribund in recent years. 

The group has many well-known names as its members and upholds the principles of a free economy and a free society. It recently held a symposium and Sanyal says in the coming months, it will prepare scholarly papers and recommendations on major policy and governance that will be submitted to the government.

But more important, it will provide a platform to those who want to take part in public life in any way.

"I am constantly approached by people, especially youngsters, who want to do something for India. This country has wonderful people and they need to be given a platform," she says.

So would she get back into politics, say standing as a candidate in the elections to the municipal corporation due in 2012?

"I will certainly help any good and clean candidate in any which way I can," she says. The idealist that Sanyal is, she is convinced that even among politicians, who are constantly criticized, there are people who are honest and dedicated and who deserve public support.

She may manage a prestigious bank and play video games with her son or the odd game of chess. She may be nearing the half century mark and may not have won a parliamentary seat, but after nearly three decades of relative anonymity, Meera Sanyal is now irrevocably in public life.

And that's how you become an 'accidental politician.'


Sidharth Bhatia has spent a lifetime trying to understand Mumbai, a city he loves and despairs of at the same time.


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