Dressed in a traditional Rajasthani turban and kurta-pyjama, Arjun Ram Meghwal cycles to Parliament to do his bit for the environment. His aides often arrive in fancy sports utility vehicles behind him, carrying his bag and files.
Born in a Dalit family of weavers in Kishmideshar village in Rajasthan's Bikaner district in 1953, Meghwal worked as a weaver during his school and college days to support his family and pay for his education. He has now replaced Jayant Sinha, who was educated at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology and Harvard University as minister of state for finance.
And yes, the Bharatiya Janata Party's chief whip in the Lok Sabha pedalled his way to Rashtrapati Bhawan to take his oath as a member of Narendra Modi's Council of Ministers.
A self-made man
Meghwal's inspirational story of beating all odds to achieve success rivals Modi’s "tea-seller to prime minister" tale. If Modi battled his background of belonging to the Other Backward Classes, Meghwal's handicap as a Dalit weaver was perhaps even bigger.
Meghwal got married at the age of 15, when he was in Class 7 but continued his studies, even as he continued to work at a variety of jobs. "My father had strictly warned that he would not allow me to continue my studies further if I failed in any of my exams," he told Rediff in 2012.
He managed to get a job as a telephone operator with Indian Post and Telegraph Department, while pursuing his law degree. Failure came in his interview for Rajasthan Administrative Services, but he did not give up. He succeeded in his second attempt and got selected for the state industrial services. In 1994, he was recruited as the Officer on Special Duty to the Deputy Chief Minister of Rajasthan, and then was promoted to the Indian Administrative Services. He went on to become a Bharatiya Janata Party MP in 2009 from Bikaner.
He was re-elected in 2014, clearly helped by his work in highlighting the allegedly illegal land deals of Robert Vadra in his constituency.Meghwal is a social media savvy politician who makes sure to praise Modi every now and then. His Facebook feed is regularly updated with pictures and videos of every event or ceremony that he attends. He regularly retweets the prime minister and lauds various ministries for their work.
The Finance Ministry will be a new challenge for Meghwal as he works alongside Arun Jaitley to bring the economy back on track. Ministers of state usually don't have decision-making powers on national issues: their task is to assist in policy making and compile and reconcile voluminous data and information that comes in from the states as inputs. Meghwal will quickly have to play catch up if he has to shine.
What Meghwal does not lack is dogged determination. He has picked causes smartly. He has been a persistent cheerleader for the environment – and Modi. He is among the few who followed Modi’s suggestion of spending one night without electricity to save energy – and continues to do so once every month.
Like Modi, he believes yoga is the answer to most health problems, and often leads yoga events in his constituency and outside the state.
Amid all this, he has not neglected his constituency, and continues to visit and hold public hearings for attending to people's issues. In his two terms in Lok Sabha as an elected member from Bikaner, he has been an active member of multiple standing committees, having gained experience in the working of various areas from railways and external affairs to defence and science and technology.
In February, he led a contingent of parliamentarians as part of a committee to various airports around the country to check whether MPs were being given due importance and ease of access. He was quite miffed at the airport officials in Kolkata who apparently insisted on asking MPs for their identity cards because they could not recognise all of them by face. He insisted on inspecting the “quality of snacks” served to MPs on flights and asked the national carrier Air India to pay extra attention to this.
In May, he wrote to former Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani to request her to rename Indian Institute of Management Shillong after former President APJ Abdul Kalam, as that is where Kalam breathed his last during a lecture.
As the BJP’s Chief Whip in Lok Sabha, Meghwal has been able to gather troops around the causes he feels strongly about. One of these is the protection of the Rajasthani language. Meghwal has often campaigned to get the language included in the eighth schedule of the Constitution – which essentially means conferring an official status to a language.
His website showcases only one achievement – a letter he wrote to former Primer Minister Manmohan Singh asking him to give Rajasthani language an official status.
Sexist and homophobic?
While he has had a largely squeaky clean career, there have been times when he has managed to raise eyebrows. Among the most recent of such instances was his comment in Lok Sabha in May, when he claimed that women were afraid of flying MiG21 fighter jets due to high accident rates.
The episode also demonstrated another trait: his ability to adapt. As both the Speaker as well as the defence minister disagreed from him on the issue of women pilots, Meghwal immediately rephrased his argument to say that the government should provide awareness at school level against the fear of flying.
Gender bias isn't his only problem. An enthusiastic admirer of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ideologues MS Golwalkar and KB Hedgewar, Meghwal raised an anti-homosexuality bill in the Lok Sabha in 2013. His private member's bill was in opposition to the 2009 Delhi High Court judgement that read down section 377 of the Indian Penal Code unconstitutional and decriminalised gay sex.
“The main point of my bill is that the honourable Delhi High Court's decision is not in accordance with Indian culture,” he told the Hindu three years ago.
While his views stand largely in line with the BJP’s aversion to accepting homosexuality, his views on the judiciary seem to align with his now immediate boss: Arun Jaitley. Both Jaitley and Meghwal have spoken against judicial overreach in recent months. While Jaitley claimed that the judiciary is “encroaching” upon the powers of the legislature, Meghwal said in Parliament that judges should refrain from giving “running commentary” during the course of a judicial process as that ends up becoming “a law”.
“This is not good for democracy,” Meghwal said in April amid loud applause from a section of the members.