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Newsmaker: Supriya Sule

Sanjay Jog  |  Mumbai 

Supriya Sule

Her work on women’s empowerment and tribal rights has been overshadowed by Indian Premier League controversies.

For all the world, 41-year old Supriya Sadanand Sule is the auntie next door. She writes on her blog that she’d like to see every child in India getting quality education and then signs off hastily: “gotta go, helping the kids with their homework”.

Normally, women who have homes on Peddar Road and assets amounting to over Rs 50 crore (according to the income declaration she filed when she became an MP) hire others to teach their children. But Sule wears her declared wealth lightly. She dresses simply, wears next to no jewellery and comes across as a sensible, upper middle class, educated woman, conscious of her rights but anxious to dispel the image of politicians as all bad and corrupt.

If you consider her background, this is not surprising. She’s led a relatively sheltered political life, leapfrogging the heat and dust of municipal and state politics to become a Rajya Sabha MP in 2006. Pawar’s decision to nominate Sule, who is a trustee of the prestigious Nehru Centre in Mumbai, raised eyebrows then, for that’s when the world took note of the fact that she, and not the politically aggressive Ajit Pawar, Pawar’s nephew, would be Pawar’s heir apparent.

Parenthetically, since her nomination to the Rajya Sabha, Sule has been quite active in Pune, cousin Ajit’s sphere of influence, emphasising development and water issues.

Her entry into politics was gradual and measured. She married Sadanand Sule, the son of B R Sule, former Mahindra and Mahindra managing director. Sule’s husband was an IT consultant to multinationals, and after they married they moved to California where she studied water pollution at UC Berkley. After subsequent postings in Indonesia and Singapore she came home to Mumbai

Initially, Sule kept herself busy in rural service, managing schools for tribal children and working on women’s empowerment issues. In fact, taking tips from her father, Sule focused on the growth of self help groups (SHGs) across the state. She is the chairman of the Yashaswini Women’s Group, which has emerged as a successful SHG in Maharashtra.

Simultaneously, she brought together members of all political parties to jointly tackle malnutrition in tribal-dominated areas. She also lobbied for the state government to improve facilities for residential schools for tribal students. The Maharashtra government immediately responded positively.

Meanwhile, Sule forayed into the competitive and money-making education sector, opening the state-of-the-art Pawar Public School in Mumbai’s suburb Bhandup.

Despite the pursuit of her social agenda, Sule did not abandon friends from the corporate world. A close associate from one of India’s leading business houses says Sule wears both the “Bharat” and “India” hats with felicity.

In the 2009 general election, Supriya was named the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) candidate for Pawar’s bastion Baramati. Pawar himself moved, rather reluctantly, to the Mhada Lok Sabha seat in Sholapur district. Sule cashed in on her father’s work in Baramati — which is extensive — but also took the trouble to tour the constituency intensively.

Everything was going just fine until the Indian Premier League (IPL) controversy blew up. Sule had to come to the defence of her husband following media reports that he held a 10 per cent stake, through a power of attorney from his father, in IPL telecasting agency Multi Screen Media (formerly Sony Entertainment Television).

She said her husband had inherited the stake from his father. “His father was chairman of Sony for years, from 1992. The whole world knows it. It is not a hidden secret. He is 84 years old and has been unwell for a long time and that is why he [her husband] got it but only as a proxy. Nothing else,” she said.

There were also claims that Sadanand Sule had a role in securing the IPL television rights via an $80 million “facilitation fee” allegedly given to sports management company World Sports Group (WSG). His wife insists he had nothing to do with this or any other IPL-related controversy. Sule said “Nothing, no, nothing. I cross my heart and say this. My husband has nothing to do with the teams in IPL. Yes, my family loves cricket like all Indians, and as all of you do, we enjoy the game; that is where the buck stops.”

It turns out that she may have been protesting too much. Claims that neither she nor her family had any financial dealings with the IPL were disproved when a leading English daily revealed that she and her father owned a minority 16.22 per cent in a realtor called City Corp, which bid for the Pune IPL cricket team.

Once that was revealed, Sule said she had nothing to do with the decision, it was City Corp’s board of directors that had allowed its Managing Director Aniruddha Deshpande to bid for the team in his individual capacity. This in itself is strange. It is unclear why is a board resolution required for an individual to bid for IPL — unless the bidder was using the company’s balance sheet to strengthen his case. Either way, it is clear that Sule’s emphatic disclaimers cannot be taken at face value.

In one of her speeches, she had said, “have lost faith in politicians and the system, but not hope.” Since last week, that seems to be one of the few credible statements she’s made.

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First Published: Fri, June 11 2010. 00:25 IST