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NRI New York attorney, MP in India has double life

An Indian MP's double life
Madhu Yaskhi has a foot in two worlds - in rural India, where he serves as an MPand in Manhattan, where he runs a busy law practice

Jan. 26, 2006
The Star

One in an occasional series from India by the Star's Prithi Yelaja, on the extraordinary relationship that binds this continent to the world's largest democracy.

Madhu Yaskhi is the only NRI, or non-resident Indian, among the 544 MPs in India's Parliament. He also runs a corporate and immigration law practice in New York.

HYDERABAD, India-By day, Madhu Yaskhi is the consummate politician, attending to constituents - mostly poor farmers - in Nizamabad, a rural riding about 160 kilometres from here, where he is a member of Parliament for the ruling Congress Party.

In the middle of the night, he takes calls from clients of his busy corporate and immigration law practice back in Manhattan.

With a foot in both worlds and what seems like a 24-hour work schedule, Yaskhi barely has time to sleep.

At 45, he is the only NRI, or non-resident Indian, among the 544 MPs of the Lok Sabha - the House of the People. He faced a tough fight to get elected in 2004, starting with his own party. Some senior Congress Party leaders opposed his candidacy, saying that as a non-resident he had no concept of the issues facing India. Some threatened to quit if he landed on the ballot.

In the end, the decision to let him stand as a candidate came from the top - from Italian-born Congress Leader Sonia Gandhi, herself once an outsider grafted onto Indian politics.

Yaskhi fit perfectly the profile of the new generation of young politicians whom Gandhi is trying to recruit, whose interests lie in the betterment of the people rather than lining their own pockets, a too-common accusation in this democracy of more than 1 billion people.

In a crowd, Yaskhi is hard to miss. He's always surrounded by people jostling to meet him, a bodyguard armed with a semi-automatic rifle hovering nearby to make sure no one gets too close.

"Coming back to India was always part of the plan. Entering politics was not," says Yaskhi as we drive through Hyderabad's streets on the way to the posh Banjara Hills neighbourhood where he lives with his physician wife, two young daughters and mother.

The Delhi University-educated Yaskhi was born in Hyderabad and moved to the United States in 1989.

As an MP, he gets a salary considered high by Indian standards - just under $3,800 per year - but also enjoys perks such as unlimited railway passes and 40 free air trips a year with a companion; a daily allowance while Parliament is in session; a constituency allowance and office expenses; a subsidized, furnished home in New Delhi with free utilities; and medical and pension benefits.

Still, it doesn't compare to the comfortable lifestyle he and his wife, an endocrinologist, enjoyed in the United States.

"Money in life is not everything. I wanted to give something back to my homeland," he says.

A 2003 article on the front page of The New York Times, about the suicide of 52 farmers near Nizamabad, changed his life. The farmers had killed themselves because poor rainfall meant they could not harvest enough to feed their families or pay the hefty rents collected by landowners.

The story was an eyeopener, a stark contrast to the constant hype about India's booming economy, says Yaskhi, who is fluent in Hindi and Telegu as well as English.


`India is on the cusp of great things. We're lucky to be here to help realize them'

It stirred a long-dormant feeling that he should return to India to try to make a difference. Moved by the farmers' plight, he flew to India to meet with their surviving family members, and gave each struggling family about $260 of his own money to help compensate for their loss of a breadwinner.

Though he didn't want publicity, his generosity made the national news in India and caught the attention of local Congress Party organizers, who were seeking a candidate to run in Nizamabad, a district in central Andhra Pradesh state that had 1.5 million registered voters in 2004. They approached Yaskhi. His wife, Shuchee, whom he wed in an arranged marriage in 1991, initially was adamantly against the idea.

"I knew it would be such a huge time commitment and would take him away from our family," she says. "But if you want to see change in the world, you can't always expect someone else to make the sacrifice to see that happen."

As a latecomer to the election campaign, Yaskhi had less than two weeks to make a splash. He campaigned nearly day and night, with Shuchee by his side. They travelled to the villages - the constituency is 70 per cent rural - and, no matter how unhygienic the conditions, graciously ate and drank whatever was offered in hospitality.

In the end, he trounced the Telegu Desham Party candidate by a margin of 139,000 votes.

Adapting to life as an MP has been a steep learning curve for Yaskhi. His focus has been on better health and education, particularly for girls and women, who in Nizamabad toil long hours in hazardous conditions rolling tobacco for bedis - Indian cigarettes.

The workers, aged as young as 2 up to 60, tend to suffer from respiratory problems. Yaskhi is pushing for better health care and basic education for girls so they have other occupational options and alternative employment for older workers.

To fit in better, he has traded in business suits for simple yet elegant cotton shirts. The armed bodyguard is mainly to protect him against the Communist extremists present in the region, he says.

His hectic schedule means he is rarely home. In addition to travelling to his constituency, there are frequent trips to New Delhi, where he sits on half-a-dozen parliamentary committees.

With a 10 1/2-hour time difference, he also maintains his New York law practice - and indeed counts on it to significantly augment his income.

Shuchee practises medicine at the Apollo Hospital, part of a chain that is aggressively recruiting foreign patients for what's been dubbed "medical tourism."

The couple have drivers for their cars as well as several servants to help care for their home and children.

They have surprised New York friends who believed they couldn't hack life in India and predicted they'd be back in the Big Apple within a year.

That hasn't happened.

Though he misses spending time with his daughters, Komali, 11, and Gagna, 5, Yaskhi says being involved in shaping India's future was the right choice, and a permanent one.

"India is on the cusp of great things," he says. "We're lucky to be here to help realize them."

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Madhu Yaskhi, New York attorney and his Dr. Wife returned to India to serve children and the poor people of India and elected MP