Feature, Verve Magazine, June 2012
Absolute Power (text by Sitanshi Talati-Parikh, except for the text on Shabana Azmi).

Role models all, they rule over their chosen domains. Their undying passion for excellence continues to propel them ahead. their clarity of vision ensures that they remain in tune with the times and their acts of will inspire other women to rewrite their destinies. Verve zooms in on 15 iconic influentials who always push the envelope with their dynamic beliefs to impact the world around them….







Nita Ambani has garnered recognition in her own right: the Dhirubhai Ambani International School (of which she is a founder-chairperson), has become one of the premier schools of the city – the preferred choice of celebrities even. She juggles many roles professionally, being actively involved in Project Drishti, a social initiative taken by Reliance Industries (RIL) and the National Association for the Blind; while remaining co-owner of the Mumbai Indians cricket team. “Unfortunately for me, I have realised that unless I go into the details of everything I never succeed,” she said definitively as a Verve cover girl – referring to managing all her projects. “Power to me is a responsibility – a means of creating new value and building institutions that serve a larger purpose for society.”

shobhana BHARTIA

From being the daughter of industrialist KK Birla to becoming the first woman chief executive of a national newspaper when she joined the Hindustan Times in 1986, to finding an active place in the Rajya Sabha introducing The Child Marriage (Abolition) and Miscellaneous Provisions Bill in 2006, Shobhana Bhartia only grows from strength to strength. Under her leadership, HT Media became a publicly-listed conglomerate – and its newspaper Mint (in collaboration with the Wall Street Journal) has found a large readership. Currently chairperson and editorial director of the Hindustan Times Group, Bhartia features on the Forbes Power List 2012, Indian Express Power List 2012 and the Forbes list of the richest Indians. She also manages to find time to work out and stay fit…every day.

sonia GANDHI

True power is something you can’t necessarily see or quantify. It’s one that allows you to ‘wear teflon’ as Pritish Nandy once said for Sonia Gandhi. But while we are talking lists, suffice to say that Sonia Gandhi jumps over the first lady of USA, Michelle Obama, in the Forbes list of 100 Most Powerful Women in the World (2011). She is the powerhouse that enables the Congress to steam ahead. She keeps the peace in the party, brokers interventions and truces between ministers, manages the allies, and encourages Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to act. In her trademark simplicity – of speech, decorum and attire – she masks a firm grip on circumstance, determination to control the future, and resolute attitude towards turbulence – evidenced by her recent trademark silence towards the resurgence of the Bofors scandal her husband Rajiv Gandhi was embroiled in. And when it comes to leadership, if her mother-in-law led from the front, the younger Gandhi has found a successful formula to lead and implement from behind the scenes – one that people may mock, but continue to succumb to.

barkha DUTT

Barkha Dutt has faced fire – both on field and off it. Somehow, like a crab, she clings on and manages to come out stronger each time. Recently, she strongly supported the Anna Hazare campaign against corruption – in her popular show, The Buck Stops Here on NDTV. The fact that she doesn’t balk at bringing up controversial topics and subjects – sometimes bordering on the sensational – and that her subjects are always people with power, has viewers glued to the telly when she hosts a show. In January, she had on board controversial writer Salman Rushdie and free-wheeling American talk-show host Oprah Winfrey. With awards under her belt – including a Padma Shri – it’s no surprise that she has been promoted to Group Editor at NDTV. And in a move that celebrates her professional success, she is to be president of NDTV’s Editorial Board, that’s been set up in a bid to work towards independent journalism and credible reporting. Whether sold on Dutt’s style of journalism or not, everyone has a say about it. As she said to Verve, “I have learnt that I can evoke strong opinions; I prefer it that way to be evoking middling ones for sure. That would make me feel bland!”


The first elected female chief minister of Tamil Nadu’s calm porcelain composure hides a steely will and iron fist. Politics in India can get messy and combustive – and being able to steamroll the opposition is a particularly useful trait to have. Jayalalithaa’s yay or nay with the opposition alliance will assist in defeating the UPA in the next general elections, particularly after her party, AIADMK’s resounding victory in last year’s Assembly elections – bringing her back as chief minister for the third time. Not to be missed was her recent intervention with regards to the Kudankulam nuclear power plant, which helped end the anti-nuclear protests without bloodshed and made a policy decision to allocate all of the power from the plant for the use of the State to relieve the power shortage. The politician, who has remained a film actress and continues to moonlight as a producer, can also voice an opinion over national policy if she so chooses – as noted during India’s vote at the United Nations over Sri Lanka, displaying a desire to stand up for ethnic Tamils and wielding authoritative control over her territory. Also known for her freely distributing mixers, grinders and electric fans to women to free them of daily drudgery.

shabana AZMI

The veteran theatre, television and Hindi cinema actor, who staunchly supported the recent Anna Hazare anti-corruption campaign and has been known to champion several social causes, was awarded the Padma Bhushan for her work in the field of cinema. A member of the Rajya Sabha, the Upper House of Indian Parliament, she was honoured by the City of New York for her contribution to cinema and her involvement with the movie industry here, becoming the first Indian actor to receive this honour. She has won five National Awards so far and along with Bengali screen legend Kanan Devi, is the youngest recipient of the Dadasaheb Phalke Award which she received in April 2011 at the age of 60. Most recently, she has made the Mumbai coastline into a personal project, restoring and reviving the city’s prominent beaches.

firuza PARIKH

She is a pioneer in assisted reproduction techniques – doctoring South East Asia’s first ICSI baby in 1994, helping conceive the first pregnancy by LASER Assisted Hatching in 1999 and pioneering the Cumulous Aided Transfer (CAT) technique – but Parikh became a household name in 2012 for authoring a book comprising scientific papers, The Complete Guide to Getting Pregnant, launched by Aamir Khan and attended by friends, Nita and Mukesh Ambani and Shobhaa De, among the Who’s Who of Mumbai society. The fact that her roster of patients extends far and wide – including Kashmir and LOC and that she is trusted by dignitaries and premiers is only embellished by a cosmetic conglomerate’s award (Science and Innovation category), which she received this year.

parmeshwar GODREJ

As long as her parties continue, there can be no other lady of leisure who will wield absolute power in the social circles as Parmeshwar Godrej. In January she hosted an exclusive dinner for American television powerhouse Oprah Winfrey at her home on the latter’s visit to India. But weighing in on the sway of her name isn’t all about hosting that perfect party for the celebrated guest. She also believes in giving back to society by using her clout – she brought AIDS into focus by garnering support from many Indian and international dignitaries including Richard Gere. Godrej has worked for social awareness through the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon 2011 and has undertaken a number of efforts on AIDS awareness and prevention on World Aids Day last year. The First Lady of France, Carla Bruni also wants to work with Mumbai’s social heavyweight on sensitising people about the disease. Godrej is now raising awareness about the lung disorder IPF (Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis), which she also suffers from. She may be chic under the beret, Hervé Léger or not, but this is one lady with a mission.


Says Cherie Blair about Kiran Mazumdar Shaw: “Kiran is the prime example of the Indian woman being empowered. Her story in itself is an inspirational one. All women are not the same in the world of men, but you do see that women have certain skills which lend themselves to the 21st century, when how strong you are physically isn’t necessarily the key to your success. It’s much more about how open you are to new ideas, how flexible you are; how savvy you are with using the new technology.” This sums up how the chairman and managing director of Bengaluru-based biotechnology company Biocon Limited, recently named among Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World, functions. Power lists can’t seem to let go of the rapid thinker who is adaptable and willing to experiment. She has been featured in the Forbes list of the world’s 100 most powerful women, the Financial Times’ top 50 Women in Business and is a member of the board of the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, Hyder-abad. As her company continues to win awards, she determinedly heralds it into a remarkable future.

chanda KOCHHAR

She’s a list-maker, over and over again. The managing director and CEO of ICICI Bank who also heads the bank’s corporate centre is the second Indian in the Forbes Most Powerful Women list. From her position at number 92 in 2010, she shot up to number 43 last year and has consistently figured in Fortune’s list of Most Powerful Women in Business since 2005. 2011 also saw her feature in Business Today’s list of the ‘Most Powerful Women – Hall of Fame’ and ‘The 50 Most Influential People in Global Finance’ list of Bloomberg Markets.

At a time when her predecessor and mentor at ICICI had set a standard for aggressive growth, she took up the challenge to subvert the norms…successfully. She has been quoted saying in Forbes India, “One, if there is a challenge, your shoulder ought to become broader and your back straighter. Confidence is important. Two, you have to be the sponge that absorbs stress. Else, it passes down to the team and they cannot function efficiently.”

The recipient of the Padma Bhushan, TiE Stree Shakti Award and the first woman to receive the Business Leader of the Year award by The Economic Times, Kochhar has marked her place in economic history and in women’s leadership.

zia MODY

In a male-dominated society, where a top female lawyer would be an anomaly, Zia Mody proved herself better than everyone else. Another Forbes power-lister (50 Asian Businesswomen), she is on the calling list of multinationals and billionaires like Sunil Mittal and Kumar Birla and on the board of HSBC, Asia-Pacific – for her reputation and prowess as an M&A (mergers and acquisitions) expert. Over the past year, the Cambridge (England) and Harvard (USA) alumnus has played an advisory role in Anil Agarwal’s Vedanta Resources’ $8.7 billion acquisition of a majority stake in Cairn India and BP’s $7.2 billion deal with Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries. The Indian legal consultant worked at Baker & McKenzie in New York before returning home to India in 1984 to start her own practice – rather than be relegated to a junior position in another law firm. The Mumbai-born daughter of India’s former attorney general Soli Sorabjee, fights gender bias when hiring for her firm – which comprises nearly 50 per cent women – and believes that her own support system, including that of her family and in-laws allows
her to work extensive hours…often 16 hours a days. In a Harvard Law Bulletin, Mody says, “I was one of the very few women who were trying to take up for the gender at that time. People are much more willing to give women a chance today and wait for them to perform.”

naina lal KIDWAI

Women like Naina Lal Kidwai make running a bank seem effortless. While being the group general manager and country head of HSBC India, the first Indian woman holding a Harvard MBA also serves various other roles, including being a non-executive director on the board of Nestlé SA, chairwoman of City of London’s Advisory Council for India, global advisor of the Harvard Business School and is also on the governing board of NCAER, audit advisory board of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India and on the national executive committee of CII and FICCI. Someone who once found herself lost in an American supermarket is particularly successful in navigating the futures of companies.



She is described as mercurial, dictatorial and eccentric. She can hire and fire at will, claim no part in the allegations of misrule and walk away from flaming heat unscathed. The first woman chief minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee – better known as Didi – has hit the headlines once again. Not just for being in Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World, but for forcing the resignation of Dinesh Trivedi for attempting to boldly modernise the railways, and for arresting a professor, Ambikesh Mahapatra, for allegedly circulating ‘defamatory’ cartoons of her. Banerjee, who managed to oust the Left Front in West Bengal after 34 years of uninterrupted rule, resigns, withdraws resignations, changes alliances, stages rallies and protests unexpectedly and at will – making her not only the most unreliable, but also the most powerful ally. There was also that meeting with Hillary Clinton. She won’t allow herself to be outplayed. She also remains untouched – in the mire of scams – by the lure of financial gains, as evidenced by her austere lifestyle, traditional Bengali cotton sari sans adornments of any kind.

vinita BALI

She may have started her career with Voltas Ltd. – a Tata Group company that launched the famous soft-drink concentrate, Rasna, but the success of that launch was only the beginning, as her career has spanned some of the biggest conglomerates, including Cadbury India (where she gained traction in roles not just in India, but also in the UK, Nigeria and South Africa) and Coca-Cola. From vice-president of marketing for Latin America, relocating to Chile as president of the Andrean Division with sales in excess of USD 1 billion, she found herself in 2001 as the corporate officer of the Coca-Cola Company and vice-president of corporate strategy reporting directly to the chairman. It’s no surprise then that she works from “anywhere and everywhere” – the market, the car, the airport. A fixed office is not high on the list of workplaces for the managing director of Britannia Industries Limited and a Forbes power-lister (Asia’s 50 Power Businesswomen).

shobhaa DE

She may do saris, social dos, book launches and what have you, but Shobhaa De will remain the ultimate social writing patriarch. A pithy observer and commentator, brash, unafraid and opinionated; the quality of her columns in the dailies keeps her in regular spotlight, but it is her fiction that made her a household name at a time when no other woman would step into her racy writing shoes. An active speaker, panelist and festival attendee, she was also a part of the Karachi Literature Festival, earlier this year.