SEISMIC SHIFT

A dalit weaver’s son has replaced a Harvard-educated banker at India’s finance ministry

Quartz india
Quartz india

He first made headlines when he rode a bicycle to the Indian parliament in April 2015.

Arjun Ram Meghwal, a lawmaker from the northern state of Rajasthan had then said that he was doing this for the environment.

“It was (the) prime minister’s call to people to switch to cycles that inspired me… This is my way of cutting down on carbon emissions even though India is not a major polluter,” Meghwal told the Mint newspaper in July 2015. He also said that he even sleeps under moonlight once a month to save electricity.

Yesterday (July 5), Meghwal was appointed minister of state for finance following a cabinet reshuffle by the Narendra Modi government. He replaces Jayant Sinha, from whom he couldn’t be more different in terms of education and work and social experience.

Sinha is the son of former finance minister Yashwant Sinha, and a Harvard-educated investment banker. He has worked for global consultancies such as McKinsey.

For Meghwal, often spotted with a green and saffron turban, the ride into the cabinet has been a classic rags-to-riches story.

From weaving to bureaucracy

Meghwal, who belongs to a dalit community, was born into a family of weavers in Kishmideshar village of Rajasthan’s Bikaner district. He was married off as a child—a practice rampant in his state—when he was in class 8. He has four children, two daughters and two sons.

Dalit, which means oppressed, is an umbrella term for communities that were traditionally considered untouchable. Even today, they face severe social discrimination in India, even though untouchability itself is now banned in the country.

Meghwal completed his schooling from Jawahar Jain Secondary School at Bheenasar in Bikaner even as he helped his father in weaving. He then studied the arts at Sri Dungar College, Bikaner. After graduation, he pursued a degree in law from the same college. He also completed an MBA later.

His first job was as a telephone operator at the Indian post and telegraph department. After Meghwal began working, he tried to crack the Rajasthan State Administrative Services exams and succeeded after two failed attempts.

He was then promoted to the prestigious Indian Administrative Services (IAS) and went on to become a district collector of Churu, Rajasthan.

There has been no looking back ever since.

The political journey

Meghwal first contested and won the Lok Sabha elections in 2009 as a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate. He has since then been on various parliamentary committees, including those on defence, science & technology, and environment & forests.

A singer of bhajans—religious hymns—and an instrumentalist, Meghwal calls himself a “social worker” and “farmer” on his website.

Since his 2014 re-election, Meghwal has maintained 98% attendance in parliament—the highest among all ministers sworn in on July 5—and asked 336 questions. He also moved 16 private members’ bills. He has also been the BJP’s chief whip in the Lok Sabha, responsible for the attendance of party’s lawmakers.

Over the past few years, Meghwal has also been actively crusading against the land deals of Robert Vadra, son-in-law of Congress party president Sonia Gandhi. Vadra is now reportedly being investigated for money laundering in connection with a land deal in Bikaner.

Meghwal himself has often stirred up controversies in the past seven years.

For instance, in 2013, he introduced an anti-homosexuality bill in the Lok Sabha after the Delhi high court de-criminalised gay sex. “The main point of my bill is that the honourable Delhi high court’s decision is not in accordance with Indian culture,” Meghwal had then said.

As Meghwal takes charge as India’s junior finance minister, Sinha, who has had a successful tenure till now, will move to the civil aviation ministry. Sinha spearheaded the government’s plan to revamp India’s ailing public sector banks and launched a Rs40,000-crore fund for infrastructure.

That may have also made it easier for Meghwal to simply step in and continue with the work that Sinha started two years ago.

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