Home / Opinion / Columns /  Opinion | Lessons from an old friend that India’s public life should imbibe

Stepping out of the comfort zone is never easy. In the zone, things are under your control. The world outside may be unfair, but you can’t do anything to change it. An individual voice can’t really be heard above the raucous din. Look at today’s politicians: grown men and a few women joining hands trying to form a rag-tag coalition, tilting at the master orator, who enjoys revealing his inner voice as he ridicules his opponents. Yet, some among us want to reshape the landscape around , not for our own benefit, but to improve the lives of others.

My friend of nearly four decades, Meera Sanyal, was one of them.

It is heartbreaking to write about her in the past tense, for Meera was meant to walk with us, showing us a different, better future. A banker who studied at Insead and Harvard, she gave up the wealth and comfort of corporate life for politics because she wanted to make India better. She lived that phrase often ascribed to Mahatma Gandhi—be the change you wish to see (he didn’t quite say it like that, though he did live by that precept). She embraced public life with an enthusiasm that was inspiring and, for a few brief moments, goaded many jaded and apathetic residents in the poshest parts of south Mumbai, arguably among India’s wealthiest parliamentary constituencies, to take politics seriously. Many remained unmoved, but that didn’t weaken her resolve.

Meera—for that’s how I had known her, as a friend at college with whom I took part in quizzes (and we often won), with whom I acted in plays, and with whom I passionately discussed a mind-boggling array of topics—spent less than a decade in India’s public life. But she set certain standards that India’s public life must learn from if it is to regain decency and humanity that are disappearing so rapidly.

Attack the argument, not the person: Meera used logic and facts with relentless accuracy, knocking down the opposing view without dehumanizing the opponent. Think of her clinical dismantling of the fast-changing explanations for the so-called demonetization when, in essence, the government withdrew one set of currency notes and replaced them with another, providing new and ingenious justifications, sometimes within hours. Meera saw through the government’s deceptions and revealed its falsehoods without demeaning her opponents. Read her book, The Big Reverse.

Be civil, always: During her 2009 campaign for the Lok Sabha (when she ran as an independent, a campaign I had supported), she was attacked personally and called names only internet trolls think is part of normal vocabulary. I got angry, but she calmed us down. Her standing instruction to all of us who spoke for her was to always maintain civility and to respond to shrillness with kindness, untruths with facts, always politely. She was grace personified. She wanted her supporters to reflect that.

Reach out for what is possible and don’t be dismayed by setbacks: At a debate during the 2009 campaign, things got heated, with candidates of the main parties raising their voices as if they were on live television. She stood apart with her calmness and smile. When cynical voters told her that they had no option but to choose the lesser of two evils, she urged them instead to think of the greater good.

If you don’t like something, do something: Meera lived in a part of Mumbai that was some distance from a mountain of coal dumped at Haji Bunder in her constituency. Any planned rejuvenation of the area had to be environmentally sustainable; and she said, respiratory illnesses were among the top five killers in the city. So she fought for and joined the movement to obtain a court order to remove the pile of coal.

Be an informed, independent citizen: Meera was independent in its original sense. She thought for herself, read widely, asked questions when she did not understand, challenged orthodox opinions and revised her own view if evidence demanded that of her. A liberal who trusts markets and enterprise, doesn’t like dynastic politics, corruption, violence, bigotry and communalism is on her own.

Be inclusive: The offices she ran—the corporate headquarters of Royal Bank of Scotland, or the back office of ABN Amro Bank—were truly inclusive. From the food in the canteen to ramps for the disabled, to flexitime for colleagues who needed it and in recruiting retired defence personnel, she took steps to seek out a diverse workforce, championing young employees and providing them opportunities. She was among the first candidates in the country to reach out to the LGBTQ+ community, supporting their fight to remove barriers that violated their dignity. She lived liberal, secular values.

As the country heads towards another contentious election where politicians will lie and make outrageous promises they won’t keep, who may have criminal or corrupt records, who will make bigoted remarks to reach out to base instincts and narrow constituencies, and virulently whip up passions, Meera’s absence will be felt each day. I grieve her passing as her friend. But the loss is India’s too, which needed her intelligence, leadership, decency and humanity to become a better place. She went away too soon. 

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at

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