A well read scholar and accomplished diplomat, an artiste and a good singer, a dedicated social worker and a philanthropist, Arathi Krishna is a multifaceted personality who came into this world in interesting times – born at the right time in the right place to the right family, which incidentally has a strong political background. Now in the prime of her life, she has gone through an eventful girlhood, youth, married with children, and served as a key personality interfacing with the Indian-American community and its life in the US. Apart from a higher education from one of the premier US universities, a natural tendency for diplomacy and tact inbred through political exposure right from a young age has made her successful in whatever she endeavours to do. NRI Achievers brings you her story in the form of brief vignettes, followed by excerpts from an interview with her, where she tells you her mind in her own words. Read on …
Arathi Krishna was born on May 2, 1968 at Udupi, to Begane Ramiah – a congressman who harked from a village called Begane near Sringeri in the Chikmagalore district of Karnataka; and Seetha, so aptly named to be a companion to Rama – who hailed from village Kadthur in the Shimoga district of the same state. As is the case still today in Southern India, both bride and groom though distantly related, had never met prior to their wedding in 1967, when Ramiah was still in the final year of Law College. Seetha in time turned out to be the proverbial woman behind a man destined for success – advising him on all matters from the domestic to the intricacy of politics. Staying in the background, she backed her husband to the hilt from the time he started his law practice to the time he chose to enter politics, and was his unwavering aide in his efforts to lettering up the political pyramid to rise steadily and become a cabinet minister. In this process, Ramiah made a name for himself as a highly respected vokkaliga leader.
Arathi, apropos, also has a younger sibling, Anjan, a brother who came to this world six years after her. Though both children grew up in a politically charged setting, in retrospect it is but Arathi who has taken an interest for the rough and tumble of the politics of democracy – maybe because she has always had a yen for it. With a reason. Her tryst with destiny – that pushed her into close quarters with one of India’s great stateswomen – Indira Gandhi. Post emergency and the drubbing the congress received after her indiction by the Allahabad High Court in 1975 saw a multi-party patchwork coalition taking up the reins at the centre, but collapsing soon in 1979. Indira, who was keen to capture power once again, chose to fight the elections both from her traditional constituency and also from Chikmagalur in Karnataka – a ‘safe-seat’ that has traditionally been a congress party bastion, always sending congressmen to Parliament. Arathi’s father Ramiah, known for his oratorical and organisational skills, was Mrs Gandhi’s most logical choice for a constant companion during that gruelling campaign – and Arathi, 11 at that time, got the first taste of electioneering politics, as she accompanied her father on the campaign trail. Getting entranced with Mrs. Gandhi’s personality and growing very close to her was but a natural outcome. Mrs Gandhi too liked Arathi and told her: ‘you will have both beauty and brains when you grow up’ … even going so far as to suggest Arathi take up politics one day.
When NRI Achievers asked Arathi about similarities that came to mind between the Nehru-Indira equation and that of her father and herself seen through the same lens, she said: “Indiraji was a great inspiration to all of us, a larger than life figure especially for us youngsters. When my father used to travel with Indiraji when she came to Karnataka for campaigning, doing simultaneous translation from English to Kannada for the multitudes who used to come to listen to her, I too travelled with him as a young girl and also met Indiraji. However, I do not think it appropriate to make such comparisons between my family and hers. Every individual treads his or her own path to success. Indiraji is a role model for us.”
“But yes, she fascinated me and at that time, this mystery woman’s many qualities impressed me so much that I had begun to admire her for her immense acumen, intelligence, charm and especially her tact, not to mention her magnetism, charisma and ability to draw huge crowds. Also, since I had grown up in a political family in Karnataka, I have had the good fortune to observe my father and other political leaders very closely as I grew up and began to understand many things better. Maybe I had imbibed some of the good qualities of my father and others, and those qualities influenced my thinking at a young age. I have always been determined to do well in my life. Even after marriage, with the support of my husband, I initially lived alone in the US with my children, while at the same time completing my Masters from the George Mason University. I think all these myriad influences have had a great impact on my way of thinking and have brought me to this level.”
Now coming back to Arathi’s story, as a school kid she was nerdy, studious and law-abiding; while her younger sibling Anjan was very different in his attitude to life – boisterous, playful and easy-going – sometimes giving some anxious moments to his parents thanks to his somewhat wayward ways. Arathi, in contrast, performed well in her studies and was a model student. In 1980, when her father, then an MLA, had to move to Bengaluru to take up his assignment as a minister in the Gundu Rao cabinet – apropos the same year that Indira Gandhi returned to power – it was but inevitable that Arathi moved too. Though this presented a big obstacle for her – coming from a kannada-medium village school exclusively for girls – to move into the rhythm of a cosmopolitan co-ed school, took some adjustment. But she surmounted these obstacles with ease over time, and by the time she reached class X, she had become the best student, fluent in English, good in academics, and socially polite and friendly though not outright extrovert.
Also, it was in Bengaluru that Arathi experienced the first stirrings of her womanhood. Her outlook towards the opposite sex changed – she began looking at boys in a different light. Some restrictions entered her life, like contact sports became taboo.
And it was also a time her parents turned increasingly protective and possessive of her. Adolescence had begun … and the path to an adult life stood open. High school and the boards passed by like a whirlwind, and though her school record opened up doors to all best colleges including the professional ones, she chose to go the Arts way and her parents went along. She wanted to become either a civil servant or a politician or a model. In the end the intellect won over glamour – so a BA it was.
Her looks, demeanour and beauty meant she had no dearth of suitors who were keen to woo her. Admirers were many, but Arathi, coming as she does from an orthodox family, was firm in resisting any advances, so except for the most lovelorn, most took her hints and left her alone. Studies proceeded apace until her final year, when as chance and circumstance would have it, an alliance fructified, she got engaged – then married within two months – with barely two more months to go till her BA finals.
Talking about this, Arathi says: “I was 19 when I got married. My groom was Gopala Krishna, who had reverse-migrated back to India from the USA to start business in Bangalore, even though his entire family of close to 300 had all settled in US since 1954. I was in my final year at that time, and unlike many who drop out after marriage, I finished my exams after marriage and earned a creditable degree from the University. My next step took me to Mysore University, for a Masters in Political Science … after which I wanted to sit for the IAS exams. But all that was not meant to be – at least partly. Though I did complete my masters, my husband had developed a bad back and suffered from a slipped disc problem … the time too had its problems – doing business in the 1980s early 90s was not so conducive as it is now, and we decided to move back to America. I got into an MBA programme at California with the intention of helping him in business. With my affinity for languages, I learnt Spanish and French too.”
Krishna, not finding American advances in medicine to be of much help to his back problem, returned to India to find solace in yoga and spirituality, turning vegetarian and a teetotaller in the process. Speaking of family, Arathi shares: “My husband is a financial Advisor in Washington these days, and I have two children. My son Aniruddha runs his own business in the US and my daughter Aninditha is a doctor.”
While the children were at school and Krishna had turned to Yoga in India, Arathi chose to keep herself occupied and enrolled for a Masters in Public Policy at the George Mason University, while at the same time working there as a director of international programmes. Arathi talked to us about those times: “During the course of my studies at Mason U, as a director responsible for its international programmes, I helped in bridging linkages between the University with India. During my final semester, I sought some form of post-qualification employment with the Indian Embassy at Washington, and quite by chance got recruited as the social secretary at the mission by the DCM. It was a great opportunity – to be in touch with Indian affairs while being with the Embassy. Successive Ambassadors used to give me challenging jobs and I succeeded with almost all tasks entrusted to me by sheer dint of hard work, and yes, my close interaction with the Indian community did help a lot. Later on, I was appointed by our Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs to be the Community Development Officer at Washington that opened vistas for me – to travel around the length and breadth of America publicizing the schemes of our NRI ministry. It also brought me into contact with Indian community members from all over the US.”
“I do not claim to have done a lot for NRIs. I have, simply put, done the best I can to reach out to our Diaspora and make them come closer to our motherland. I have worked with NRIs and PIOs both in the US when I was part of India’s Washington Embassy, and later in India with the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs for a brief while. In the US, I was very close to Indian-American and NRI communities and networked with them all over the US. I strived to bring India closer to them and actively participated in the various outreach initiatives of the Indian government within the US. I also got ample recognition from the many Indian-American community organisations there.”
“On my return to India, I was with the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs in Delhi for a short while, before I finally chose to give it all up and take up a social service role in my home-state of Karnataka. While with MOIA, I did get the opportunity to interact with countless NRI and PIO communities from across the globe. And having been a part of the organising team for PBDs since 2007, I had no dearth of opportunities to interact with NRIs and PIOs in large numbers – from all over.”
When we asked her what influenced her choice to give up a career in external relations and turn inwards, she replied: “I have always wanted to do this – returning to my motherland and being useful to the poor and downtrodden in some way or the other. I was keen to take up an active role in social and political causes and wanted to contribute to the development of Karnataka, and India in general. When that desire got intense enough, I made up my mind and left. For achieving what I want, I made a small beginning in 2009. I started the Krishna Foundation to provide education opportunities for economically disadvantaged children and improve infrastructure facilities in rural schools. I have since taken up several such initiatives under this banner, particularly in and around my father’s constituency. I have also been meeting a large number of people from all walks of life in our rural belt and feel there is so much more that needs to be done to make their lives better and meaningful. Consequently, I am now getting to know the needs, requirements and desires, aspirations of my people – and am trying to figure out if this would warrant taking up a political role in order to contribute in their upliftment and progress.”
At this point we got a bit off-topic, regressing to tap into her American experience. We asked her to give us her analysis evolving India-USA relations and what the future may behold – in the context of the looming presidential elections in the US. She was quite emphatic about her readings when she said: “It is extremely important for India to keep working closely with the US. Our interactions have increased phenomenally over the years in a whole gamut of areas – and I am confident that this will continue under the NDA as well. Since the US denied Modiji a visa for several years, there were some apprehensions about the growth of India-US relations under his watch. But having identified development, security and Diaspora as his priorities, Modiji has in fact done more to strengthen India-US relationship. He has visited the US four times in two years, met President Obama seven times, and relations reached an all time high in 2016 when India was acknowledged a major US defence partner. This entitles India today to receive high technology like other close allies of the US. Though the nuclear liability issue is not yet fully resolved, progress is surely being made on that front as well. Preparatory work has begun on setting up new Westinghouse nuclear reactors in India. India-US relationship has never been this close and in a manner of saying, India is today akin to a non-NATO ally of the United States.”
On who would be the better person in the White House for relations with India to improve, she was unequivocal: “I am confident that whoever becomes the President of the US this November, he or she will continue to further the close strategic partnership that has evolved between India and the US. Especially so since there is strong bipartisan support in both the Congress and the Senate for this, and indeed among the people as well.
Asked how we as a Diaspora-focussed magazine could be of help in furthering India-Diaspora linkages, she opined: “A responsible journal with a commitment to the cause of overseas Indians can do much to energize the Indian community. It can enable them to dedicate themselves to India. One of the problems we experienced in Washington was the absence of a unified leadership in the Indian community. Several efforts were made to strengthen umbrella organizations with political interests like in the case of the Jewish community, but nothing much has come out of it so far. But a journal like NRI Achievers can surely be a tool to strengthen the unity among them on a continuing basis. The journal could work with the Embassies to identify issues and to provide background material. Community members can be encouraged to exchange views in the journal.”
Lastly, returning to where we digressed out of, we asked her whether being the daughter of a politician was an advantage when it comes to getting something extra in life – even if one were to have no great personal profile or intelligence. She responded with: “I do agree that being born into a political family helps initially. But we need not view this in a negative way, since there are several positive things one can learn from being born into one. And we should not forget that ultimately whatever be the family support, one has to prove oneself if one is to really succeed. One’s innate qualities, intelligence, the passion to serve people etc., make the difference between abject failure and grand success.”
On her plans now, whether she contemplates getting into the political arena, she had this to say: “After returning, I haven’t made any political moves as yet. But I did face positive pressure from both the Indian-American Communities and the Ministry as well to come back to Washington. I have taken these pressures as a compliment to me and my work there – another reason the Ministry is after me is continuity … the extent of connections and contacts, the spread of my networks are being considered a real asset. That is probably one reason why I was there for 12 years in a post where transfers every three years was the norm. Sometimes continuity is very important. Now, as far as entering politics is concerned, I do not reject that outright. But I haven’t decided. I will chose a time and place of my own when I want to do that. Yet, there is still lot to achieve. Here, I would like to quote Robert Frost: “… the woods are lovely, dark and deep … but I have promises to keep … and miles to go before I sleep …”