Unable to beat the cancer that had swiftly consumed her in the last two months of 2018, Meera Sanyal died on January 11. She was 57.

Meera was a successful, professional banker whose entry into the hurly-burly of politics in 2009 was a bold move. It came a year after the Mumbai terror attacks of 2008, in which Ashok Kapur, her mentor in banking at ABN Amro Bank and at Grindlays Bank, was killed along with 166 other people. At that time, the state government was in a shambles, providing no satisfactory answers for the many questions citizens asked them.

That was when Meera began a search for like-minded Mumbaikars desperately seeking a responsive and responsible leadership. She and her husband Ashish were often spotted in the audience in meetings in suburban community halls, such as those held by Dr Jayaprakash Narayan’s Loksatta Party, as well as in South Mumbai soirees, in which Mumbaikars brainstormed for an alternative to the status quo.

At these meetings, the questions by the Sanyals were always: “What can we do? What is your solution, and how can we participate?” Everyone was in search for a suitable candidate from within these groups, but none were willing. Politics felt like another world for a large section of them.

In March 2009, Meera announced that she would contest as an independent candidate from the Mumbai South Lok Sabha seat. Within hours, she had a flock of people join her campaign. These were the Mumbaikars who were tired of career politicians and were looking for a leader whom they could relate to.

Her announcement was, however, more than that. It heralded the entry of the middle class into politics. The next month, other candidates such as classical dancer Mallika Sarabhai in Ahmedabad, and entrepreneur Captain Gopinath in Bangalore, also announced that they were contesting as independents in the 2009 general election. All of them wanted to bring about some change – an alternative to the current politics.

Soon, hundreds of young people began following Meera, joining in her rallies and plunging thereafter into the anti-corruption movement that played out over 2011 and 2012. For these youngsters, Meera was someone who represented their concerns. “Meera is us out there,” was the refrain.

Meera began a padyatra across South Mumbai to understand her beloved city’s every corner, to persuade citizens to think beyond the established parties and vote for clean politics. She reminded them that “politics is a noble public service”, that they should “vote for the greater good” instead of the lesser evil.

Clad in saris and a comfortable pair of cobalt blue leather chappals made in Kolkata, Meera and her followers walked and walked and walked. There wasn’t a shrine in South Mumbai she didn’t stop at, there wasn’t a shopkeeper or street vendor, especially the women, she didn’t talk to.

Meera loved walking in the narrow lanes of Mumbai’s slums. In these tenements, homes are spotlessly clean, children are scrubbed and ready for school, and its residents always offer water to passers-by – even though they have no running water at home. Most of them had a job, life insurance, a television, phones, and even their own vehicles. But they did not have a pucca home. Meera said that Mumbai is a middle-class city without affordable housing. She wanted to make policies that would make the city liveable for these people. She wanted to help them lead dignified lives.

Meera did not win the 2009 election. But the political seas had parted. The anti-corruption movement, and the arrival of the Aam Aadmi Party on the stage, indicated that Meera’s belief that a different kind of politics was possible, had energised others.

Meera Sanyal campaigns in Mumbai on March 31, 2014. (Photo credit: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP).
Meera Sanyal campaigns in Mumbai on March 31, 2014. (Photo credit: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP).

Breaking the mould

Meera broke the mould everywhere. For instance, in 1982 when seeking an MBA, she opted for France’s INSEAD business school over Ivy League schools in America because she believed US schools were too insular. At that time, their idea of international was the UK and Spain, she believed, with India and China nowhere in their sights or syllabi.

As the country executive of ABN-Amro Bank in 2007, which later became the Royal Bank of Scotland, Meera got mandates for the company that the very big boys vied for, and kept away from the glamorous debts that have felled so many of her peers in Indian banking.

Meera always wore saris. When her foreign bosses asked her how she hoped to be successful in international banking wearing what was seen as a native outfit, she replied, “Wait and see.” They saw what she could do, and never questioned her again.

The daughter of a vice admiral of the Indian Navy, Meera had a clear and rooted sense of India. She saw its potential and drawbacks, none of which made her morose. Instead, she worked to overcome hurdles. During her election campaigns, she made a distinction between creating jobs and creating entrepreneurs. She believed entrepreneurs were better for India at its stage of development. As the head of the Royal Bank of Scotland Foundation, she helped create over six lakh women entrepreneurs.

Meera and Mumbai

Meera may not have won the 2009 elections but she did make a difference in Mumbai over the next few years.

As a Navy child, she had seen the city from its eastern seaboard, where the Naval dockyard is located, rather than from the western shore of Marine Drive, Carter Road and Juhu. She had taken in the eastern seaboard’s shining shipyards and naval dockyards but also the crumbling Lakdi Bunder and the derelict wasteland that Sewri and Cotton Green had become after the collapse of old mercantile Bombay. She also knew that 775 acres of eastern seaboard land belonged to the people of Mumbai – it was mandated to them in 1980 by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi when the development of the Nhava Sheva port in Navi Mumbai was approved.

But Mumbaikars never saw that land, which is controlled by the Port Trust and misused by several players. Major corporations still retain possession of huge warehouses on that land, despite holding expired leases.

The Maharashtra State Electricity Board imported coal from Indonesia at Haji Bunder to ship to its power plants in Nashik and Bhusaval inland. The area was covered with mountains of coal. No pollution control norms were observed, making the whole area black with dust, creating a respiratory epidemic in the Sewri area. Because of this, few citizens visited the Sewri Fort, with its stunning view of migratory flamingoes that nest in the Sewri mudflats in the winter.

Most beautiful of all is Hay Bunder – an untouched, 15-acre forest within that area, perfect for trekking, picnics, play, romance and film locations.

Meera vowed to restore this land to the citizens of Mumbai. Through a 2014 Public Interest Litigation filed along with colleagues such as her trusted friend retired Vice Admiral IC Rao, and with her limited funds, Meera took on the state and the port authorities. The revelations of the menace of coal dust within the portlands area drew the attention of the media, which backed the environmental campaign against the coal dump. Eventually, the port and the government backed off. The import of coal through the Haji Bunder port was stopped in 2015.

The greenery in the area was subsequently restored. The Sewri Fort saw an increase in visitors hoping to catch a glimpse of the flamingoes. In 2017, Meera’s group helped organise football tournaments in the Haji Bunder grounds to celebrate the improved air quality in the area.

Plan for the eastern seaboard

By this time, Meera had a band of loyal followers – those who loved the city as much as she did. They dreamed about what this vast land on the city’s eastern seaboard would look like if given back to citizens..

Meera initiated charettes, bringing together young architects, conservationists and dreamers, to draw up a plan for this space. A vision emerged, under the brand of APLI – A Port Lands Initiative. The area would have colleges, schools for the disabled, schools for the arts, performance centres, skilling centres, marinas, sports facilities. All of this would be connected by public transport. The heritage part of the area like the old Cotton Exchange would be restored for tourism, as a reminder of Mumbai’s immensely successful mercantile history. The plan had everything except housing and commercial buildings, to keep land sharks at bay.

When the plan was revealed at a street exhibition in Mumbai in November 2014, it garnered enthusiasm not just from Mumbai and India, but from overseas. Columbia University’s Graduate School of Planning and Preservation, the Indian Merchants Chamber enjoined the cause.

Much of it has now become part of the Mumbai Port Land Development Report, with the backing of Union Road Transport and Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari. The Draft Development Plan was formally published on December 27. If all goes ahead as planned, Meera’s ideas for the eastern seaboard will be now be realised.

The 2014 elections

It was with this vision in mind that Meera ran for election under the banner of the Aam Aadmi Party in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, which she eventually lost. She had left her job the previous year to concentrate on politics full-time.

The calcified candidates of the old dynastic parties of Mumbai – the Shiv Sena, Maharashtra Navnirmal Sena, the Congress, the Nationalist Congress Party – attacked her viciously during the campaign. They mocked her as the “Malabar Hill memsahib”, a fact she never denied. Meera wasn’t afraid of being middle class, and she was not afraid of being herself.

The authenticity of her persona and ideas gained many admirers, not just among India’s youth, but among the establishment too. During her padyatras, Meera even went into the Shiv Sena and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena strongholds, where candidates from other parties would not dare enter. She was given a warm welcome there. Party bosses had sent word to these constituencies that no harm should come to her, and that she should feel free to campaign in any place she wanted. At debates, her rivals treated her with unusual courtesy, and were forced to respond in kind when she focused on facts rather than mud-slinging and accusations.

Often, the simple folk of Mumbai who were used to nothing changing, would ask Meera in wonderment, “Madam, why are you running when you know you may not be elected?” And Meera would tell them, “I am running for you, for me, for the country. I may or may not win, but I will run again and again and again, and change the debate, and we will change the country.”

Manjeet Kripalani served as press secretary for the “Meera for Mumbai campaign” in 2009, and campaign advisor for the 2014 election. She is currently the executive director of Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations, Mumbai.