‘If I say something, you’ll say I have foot-in-the-mouth disease’:Mahesh Sharma

Posted on: November 27, 2016


Culture minister Mahesh Sharma does some practised hop and skip around Sonia Sarkar’s questions
The minister meets each of his visitors, embraces some, laughs aloud now and then (often at his own jokes), narrates a story or two — and keeps an eye on me. I am waiting for Mahesh Sharma in his office in Delhi’s Transport Bhawan, and can hear the culture and tourism minister say — in a particularly loud voice — that he is soon going to get busy with the Prime Minister.

He has just declined an invitation to preside over a function. For that is the day when he has to be present with the Prime Minister at another event, he explains. “I’ll be there all day,” he tells the visitor, and then looks at me. “On that day, I have to focus on that event, and on nothing else. You know, he is such a perfectionist,” he says.

It is interesting to watch him from the sidelines. The member of Parliament from Gautam Budh Nagar, or Noida, in Uttar Pradesh is discussing an event with a group of men from the Gujjar community; it’s about laying the foundation stone of an archaeological institute in Greater Noida, which falls in his constituency.

“Don’t forget to add the Kashmir angle to this,” he tells his aides in Hindi while discussing the event.

Elections are round the corner in UP, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader is invoking nationalism. Kashmir and the Indian Army are subjects that the minister likes to hold forth on. He tells his visitors how Gujjars — Muslim shepherds of Kashmir — have helped the army by keeping an eye on infiltrators from Pakistan.

“Soniaji, aap jitne bhi badi editor ho jaayen, yeh general knowledge kahin nahi milega (however big a journalist you may become, you won’t get this bit of general knowledge anywhere),” he tells me.

“You know, Gujjars in Kashmir played a major role as informers for the army in our two wars against Pakistan in 1965 and 1999 (Kargil),” he adds.

Clearly, for the BJP, it’s important to keep the nationalist flag flying — and the memory of Uri alive, the September 18 incident in which 19 Indian soldiers were killed by Pakistani terrorists. In the run-up to the UP polls, the party
has placed huge billboards across various towns in the state, lauding the army’s surgical strikes which followed the Uri attack.

‘‘All national television channels were showing everything about the surgical strikes. These were not visible in UP alone. If people want to link them with the elections, let them,” he says.

His ministry is contemplating steps which may or may not be linked with the polls, depending on how you view them. Sharma announced a Ramayana museum project for Ayodhya. The town is also expected to be a part of the Ramayana circuit, one of three religious circuits to be promoted by his tourism ministry.

The BJP’s Rajya Sabha MP, Vinay Katiyar, who has been making disgruntled sounds of late, called the Ramayana project a pre-poll “lollipop”. Is that right, Mr Sharma?

“No, it’s purely tourism. We have been working on this for the past one year. We want to take tourism to new heights,” the 58-year-old minister maintains.

Sharma is an uncharacteristically reticent man, meeting journalists at any rate. He is chary of the media, which has often been critical of him. And that’s mainly because he courts controversy every time he opens his mouth. Not too long ago, he had addressed the visiting New Zealand Prime Minister, John Key, as McCullum — the former skipper of the Kiwi cricket team.

Last year, he had the media zero in on him when he said that night outs for girls were not a part of Indian culture. Then again, he urged women foreign tourists not to wear short skirts if they wanted to stave off harassment.

Why does he make such comments, I ask him.

“That’s my subject, my ministry is like that,” he replies.

The hemline of skirts comes under the culture and tourism ministries?

“See, I clarified immediately [after the comment was made],” he adds. “Suppose you say that I abused you. Then someone asks me if I abused you, and I said, no, I did not. Then that chapter should be closed there.”

But he agrees to explain his stand once more. “I never said that girls should not do nights out. Whatever statement I made in the past, people made controversies out of them. I am not an expert in facing the media. I am a doctor by profession,” he says with a smile on his face.

Some would, however, say that Sharma suffers from a foot-in-mouth syndrome, I point out. “This could be somebody’s nature,” he admits.

It’s clear that Sharma is measuring his words. On some issues, he prefers not to comment. He will not react to Maharashtra Navnirman Sena leader Raj Thackeray’s demand that Karan Johar pay the army’s welfare fund Rs 5 crore as “penance” for signing up a Pakistani actor in his last film.

“Why should I comment on that,” Sharma asks. “If I say something, you will again say, I have a foot-in-mouth disease,” he says.

He won’t comment on self-styled cow vigilantes or gau rakshaks who have lynched Dalits for allegedly skinning dead cows. I prod him a little bit, and he responds. “No human being should be lynched — it’s to be condemned and stopped,” he says.

In that case, how is it that he paid homage to Ravin Sisodia, who was accused of lynching Mohammed Akhlaque in Dadri in 2015 for allegedly storing beef?

“You know, people have polluted minds,” Sharma says. “I am the member of Parliament from that area. Except me, nobody has the right to visit those places. And remember, he was an accused, not a convict. Also, there was a stress situation between locals and the police after his death. I went there to ease the tension.”

He points out that he also met Akhlaque’s family after he was killed. “I also got his injured son operated in my hospital,” he says, referring to Noida’s Kailash Hospital, which he owns. “I gave consent to his surgery at midnight. So as the MP, I did the right thing,” says Sharma, who had earlier called Akhlaque’s murder an accident.

As a minister, Sharma has often been in the eye of raging storms. It was reported in July that his ministry was grading writers and artistes in the country as “promising”, “outstanding” and “waiting”. His ministry is also pushing for the Rs 5-crore Kashi to Kashgar road project, proposed by the Archaeological Survey of India. This project seeks to retrace an ancient route that Buddhist missionaries took from Kashi to Kashgar in China’s Uyghur region.

Sharma has also come under periodic fire for replacing heads of government-run cultural institutes with people said to be handpicked by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). He, however, insists that there is no concerted move to “saffronise” these institutes.

“Whenever a new Prime Minister comes, he has a vision on how these institutes should work. When I am entrusted with this responsibility by the PM, I ensure that all these organisations work for the cause for which they have been created. Their job is to showcase India’s rich heritage and culture for the country and the world,” he says.

And that didn’t happen earlier? “I won’t comment on how they worked earlier. But I don’t have a vision about throwing out the Left. All the institutes required some changes, so I made them,” he holds.

Sharma’s links with the RSS are known — and he is proud of them. “The RSS instilled the idea of ‘nation first’ in me.” He came in contact with the RSS just before he joined Delhi University’s University College of Medical Sciences.

Sharma says he always wanted to be a doctor. “When I was eight or nine, somebody in my village said that was a 25 paise coin inside a squirrel’s head. To know if that was true, I killed a squirrel,” he recounts.

“There were people who buried their children in the village. I, along with my friends, dug them out to study them. I
always had a medical bent of mind,” he says.

Sharma opens up — and he may well have put the foot back where it belongs with these gory details — only when he speaks about his childhood. But on matters of policy and governance, he has clearly decided that he is going to be circumspect when the media is around.

He says as much to a visitor who wants to discuss a proposal for a heritage reality show involving school children.
“I think, every child should know about the country’s rich heritage and culture. They should have a ‘country first’ feeling,” he tells her. “But when I say this, the media will write, dekho, bhagwakaran kar rahe hai (he is trying to saffronise them),” Sharma tells her, pointing to me.

It’s not easy being Mahesh Sharma. And it’s certainly not easy being a mediaperson with him.


1960s: Sharma spends his early years in Alwar, Rajasthan. While he is still in school, the family moves to Delhi and at 14, Sharma gets involved with the RSS. Joins ABVP eventually; completes the rest of his education
1983: Starts his career as a general physician in Noida. Later, establishes Kailash Healthcare Limited, a chain of hospitals in Uttar Pradesh
2009: Contests the 15th Lok Sabha elections on BJP ticket from Gautam Budh Nagar and loses. But in 2012, gets into the UP Assembly
2014: A week before Lok Sabha polls, the Congress candidate for Gautam Budh Nagar — Ramesh Chand Tomar — crosses over to the BJP. This tips the scales in Sharma’s favour. He wins and is inducted into the Union Cabinet
Given the portfolios of culture, tourism and civil aviation. Hogs headlines with his remarks about the late A.P.J. Abdul Kalam — that he was a great man “despite being a Muslim” — and the need for a “cultural cleansing” of the country
2016: Announces bonanza of nine airports for UP. Manages to get the ministry to agree to build a second airport near Delhi, in Jewar. (Kailash Hospital in Jewar started functioning in 2015)
A day later, loses crown of junior civil aviation minister in Cabinet reshuffle. Bureaucrats describe him as a “big talker” always trying to hog the limelight



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  • ranginee09: It is clear, justice eludes many but to imprison a man for his humanitarian deeds in a civilised society leaves an permanent blotch in our criminal ju
  • ranginee09: The article points-out a very pertinent social ill. Social ostracisation in childhood may have unwanted results later in life. A child victim is not a
  • Seeker and her search: Thanks for reading, Anne. Yes, I know what you are saying.
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