As other parties debate reservations for women in legislatures, the BJP takes the lead in setting aside one-third of party posts for women. The Sunday Express profiles the fresh faces in the party's National Executive

LK Advani loves to share this tale with people. Almost half a century ago, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat and he got themselves photographed in a group. A couple of years ago, an enterprising photojournalist captured the three, almost in a similar frame. The freeze-frame from the past was carried alongside the recent picture in a Hindi daily, and a proud Advani said that this camaraderie was only to be found in the BJP.

But there was one face missing in the frame. That was of Rajmata Vijayaraje Scindia. The picture was incomplete without the woman who saw the party (and its predecessor, the Jan Sangh) through its most difficult years.

The point is relevant at a time when all parties are debating the Women's Reservation Bill and the BJP has taken the lead in reserving one-third of party posts for women. Though the Congress had earlier announced its intention to take such a step, it is yet to induct additional women into its set-up.

While 27 of the 81-strong BJP National Executive are now women, the number of women officebearers has reached an all time high of eight (of a total of 24). What's more, BJP women's wing chief Kiran Maheshwari recently demanded that the party recruit women fulltimers. They may not immediately get a proportionate share in ticket distribution, but the women members, nevertheless, can look forward to better times.

That the saffron party's women were making their presence felt was evident at the BJP National Council meet in Delhi earlier this year in January, when Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, hailed by party faithful as "a nationalist in the Savarkar mould", found more than a match in Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje. While other CMs held forth on their states' achievements, Modi spoke of national affairs. A slighted Raje then roared: "Koi yeh nahin samjhe ki hum kisi se kam hain (we are second to none)."

Similarly, after the recent BJP victory in Karnataka, when Arun Jaitley was being feted for crafting the win, Sushma Swaraj, a key campaigner in the state, is learnt to have pointedly asked the leadership if she too hadn't played a role. Advani was profuse in his praise for Swaraj.

Clearly, the women in the party are asserting their identity and their position just got stronger with their numbers in the National Executive going up. Here are profiles of recent inductees who now make up one-third of the party's policy-making body.

Jaywantibehn Mehta
Active for four-and-half decades in the party, Jaywantibehn Mehta has become party vice-president for the second time. A former Union minister of state for power, Mehta is your grandmother-figure. Known as a politician with a human face, she once shifted one of her aides, an IAS officer her son's age, to her residence in Delhi when he was diagnosed with cancer so that he could be looked after well. She can justifiably claim to have looked after Mumbai (South) as well. But for Young Turk Milind Deora's charm, the constituency of the rich and the dispossessed (in equal measure) would not have swayed the Congress way. A Gujarati in Mumbai politics, she is in the Ram Naik mould—every inch BJP. Pity, the BJP could think of only a ceremonial post for one of the most respected names in the party.

Anita Arya
To many, the name "Anita Arya" doesn't ring a bell and BJP critics blame it on the party's upper caste character. But then this former Member of Parliament from Delhi's Karol Bagh constituency has not exactly stood out for taking up Dalit issues. Madam, as she is called by her supporters, is hardly a match for BSP biggies or even Congress's Meira Kumar. A former party general secretary in Venkaiah Naidu's team, Arya is known more for her interest in Delhi (where she also served as a former mayor). A regular at Delhi BJP functions, she has authored a book called Indian Women.

Smriti Irani
If a certain Ekta Kapoor made you believe that her K-serials on television mirrored the Great Indian Middle Class, Smriti Irani was her much-touted "perfect protagonist". The pativrata bharatiya naari image that Irani projected day in and day out, in reel life as also in real life, endeared her to the BJP. Her initiation into big-time politics, goes an apocryphal tale, was engineered to check the party's biggest woman leader. Ambitious and articulate, Irani flits from Delhi's Chandni Chowk (where she fought the Congress's Kapil Sibal) to Narendra Modi's Gujarat and to various television studios with effortless ease.
In demand for election campaigns, the actor-politician has managed to make a mark.

Nirmala Seetharaman
National Executive member
Nirmala Seetharaman is a rarity—she went to JNU and then made it to the BJP National Executive. After her MA and MPhil from Delhi's red-bricked Marxist bastion in the early 1980s, Seetharaman took up an assignment with PrivewaterhouseCoopers in London. Once back in India in 1991, she became active with the Swadeshi Jagran Manch and Rashtriya Sevika Samiti. A former member of the National Commission for Women, she spoke passionately on "Aung San Suu Kyi's Myanmar" at the recent BJP National Executive. She's a face to watch out for.

Sudha Yadav
Sudha Yadav's tryst with politics was providential. After her husband, a deputy commandant in the BSF, died during the Kargil conflict, the BJP persuaded this PhD in chemistry to take the electoral plunge. It was a meeting with the then home minister L.K. Advani that made her contest from Haryana's Mahendragarh. As an MP, she was known for the judicious use of the Local Area Development funds. She lost the 2004 election to her Congress rival.

Bijoya Chakrabarty
Bijoya Chakrabarty is the party's saleable face in the Northeast. A grassroots leader from Assam, she is a former Union minister of state in the Vajpayee Cabinet. Having begun her career with the Praja Socialist Party in the mid-60s, Chakrabarty is also a keen sports enthusiast. Having worked with the party's farmer's cell earlier, she has published three novels in Assamese.

Saroj Pandey
This former Chhattisgarh BJP general secretary Saroj Pandey is a full-time political worker. The daughter of a former BHEL employee, who now runs a school, Pandey is known as a feisty leader and an excellent orator. A two-time mayor of Durg, she has two MA degrees. She has overcome various odds while moving up the ladder. An able party spokesperson, she took the party's battle to the Jogis' camp in the state. She was also active in organising the Chhattisgarh leg of Rajanth Singh's Bharat Surakhsha Yatra a couple of years ago.

Sangeeta Singh Deo
National Executive member
Married into a royal family, the MP representing Bolangir in Orissa, is a graduate of Delhi's Jesus and Mary College. She joined the BJP along with her husband, now a minister in the Naveen Patnaik Government, and father-in-law R N Singh Deo, a former chief minister, in 1989. With three successive victories by impressive margins under her belt, she is a regular with questions and pointed interventions in the House. Known to occupy the rows just below the Lok Sabha Press gallery (it helps MPs to get their interventions noticed), she also feels strongly about women's issues. She likes to follow tennis and basketball and her only daughter, now 21, is studying finance in Switzerland.

Laxmi Kanta Chawla
National Executive member
One of the senior-most politicians in Punjab, Laxmi Kanta Chawla was the only woman candidate to be fielded by the BJP in the last assembly election. A former college lecturer with an RSS background from Amritsar, Chawla is Health Minister in the SAD-BJP Government. Known for her no-nonsense, corruption-free image, she actively worked for Hindu-Sikh amity in Punjab's darkest hour. An associate says she likes to be known as a "no-sifarish" minister (who doesn't entertain requests for political favours).

Bhavnaben Dave
National Executive member
A former Mayor of Ahmedabad, Dave has held various positions in the state BJP. A career teacher, she believes that "spiritual gurus like Morari Bapu have succeeded where the psychiatrists and psychologists have failed" in bringing peace and order to distressed souls in urban India in the throes of rapid changes. She's also a former MP, but couldn't win in her second attempt.

Premlata Katiyar
National Executive member
Premlata Katiyar has been a minister in governments in Uttar Pradesh headed by Kalyan Singh, Ram Prakash Gupta, Rajnath Singh and even Mayawati (when the BSP had a tie-up with the BJP). Representing Kanpur's Kalyanpur Assembly seat (under which IIT-Kanpur falls) continuously since 1991, this sexagenarian Kurmi leader has no connection with the other Katiyar that the UP BJP has produced. While Vinay Katiyar is known more for his hardline Hindutva, Premlata's association with the BJP began with the anti-Emergency movement. Her daughter, Neelima, is now an office-bearer in the state Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha.

Sudha Malaya
National Executive member
A former member of the National Commission for Women, she's also an art historian from Madhya Pradesh. The academic, who participated in the Ramjanmabhoomi agitation, has worked with historians sympathetic to the RSS "to prove the existence of a temple at the disputed site at Ayodhya".

Sukhda Pandey
National Executive member
A former MLA, Sukhda Pandey is currently the principal of a Patna college. Interestingly, she was also a National Executive member of the party (Atalji's party, as she likes to call it) when the BJP was born in 1980. She dabbles in literature and academics apart from politics. She teaches Hindi and likes her students to be her "brand ambassadors".

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