A ‘hyper’, outspoken and no-nonsense RI Director

At the outset his spouse Vidhya asks: Do you want him to be honest … “Well, I won’t give out any names,” jokes RI director Raju Subramanian. The banter between the couple, along with the camaraderie, is amply evident and fills their beautifully done up spacious flat with so much greenery in Mumbai. The plants and creepers are thanks to her. She points to the thriving mango saplings and says: “These will go to the Biodiversity Park of our club RC Deonar that was recently inaugurated by RIPE Gordon McInally.”

RI Director Raju Subramanian and Vidhya.
RI Director Raju Subramanian and Vidhya.

The reference to him being honest is obviously related to the acrimony, election complaints and challenges that took place recently for the RI director’s post in zone 4 and 7. Even RI President Gordon McInally had told Rotary News that the “elephant in the room is the election complaints from India,” when India is doing so well in Rotary.

Raju agrees that “interference in the election process by leaders at every level has to stop. I am very clear in my mind that I don’t have any candidates, I don’t propose to support anybody, and during my term as director, I’m going to be tough when a complaint comes in.” However high the position he/she might have or holds, “it will not deter me from placing the matter for consideration before the (RI) Board as this is harming the growth and image of Rotary in India.”

Public image is more than billboards and newspaper cuttings and different from publicity… public image has to be created in the minds of the people.

But outweighing the negatives, he says, are so many feathers in India’s cap. “We were at one point an asking country; today we are a giving country and No 2 in TRF-giving. It is no mean achievement to be ahead of Taiwan, Korea, Canada, UK, Australia and so many European countries. This is our one singular great achievement.”

Raju and Vidhya with (from L) son-in-law Rohit, daughters Rohita, Ashwita, son-in-law Ajay and grandson Nikhil.
Raju and Vidhya with (from L) son-in-law Rohit, daughters Rohita, Ashwita, son-in-law Ajay and grandson Nikhil.

Two, Indian Rotarians do the maximum number of global grants in the world; “if we do 50, the next country does only 5 or 6. We are far ahead in doing grants, which touch so many lives. So nobody can touch us on the service that we do. But the caveat — there has to be a clear financial transparency, which is lacking in some quarters. Let us not shove the truth under the carpet. We need to correct that; Bharat (Pandya) as a trustee, Anirudha (Roychowdhury) and I are going to work very hard to see that stewardship is brought in.” He concedes this too happens only in a minority of projects, “but there is no excuse. It shouldn’t happen at all.”

The bottom line is that Rotary is a “fantastic organisation which we can build further, adding new dimensions. Who else could have thought of eradicating polio, or saving lives in Zambia by eradicating malaria? The black spots should be converted into grey and moved out. But people should have the courage to speak their minds which is not happening. If I am wrong, correct me; I am also fallible. I’ll accept it, I have no ego. Ultimately, we’re in the business of service. But make it constructive criticism. Don’t speak behind people’s backs.”

Raju and Vidhya with son-in-law Rohit and daughter Rohita.
Raju and Vidhya with son-in-law Rohit and daughter Rohita.

Raju grew up in Mumbai, his father was in shipping industry. Initially he joined his uncle in a business; during the Emergency, as a law student attending courts, he witnessed cases pertaining to freedom of expression, speech, liberty, human rights, etc, “all argued in court by great lawyers such as Ram Jethmalani and others. I thought this is the profession to get into. You can do independent thinking and your mind will always be active as a lawyer.”

Graduating from the Government Law College, Mumbai, in 1976, he is a senior counsel practising basically civil and corporate law.

If I am wrong, correct me; I am also fallible. I’ll accept it, I have no ego. Ultimately, we’re in the business of service. But make it constructive criticism. Don’t speak behind people’s backs.

On why he joined Rotary, the director says that after their marriage in 1981, the couple shifted from his parents’ home in Bandra to Deonar, “where we had no connect, no friends.” Chandrakant Mirje was the DG of the district and wanted to start a new club. The young man was invited to a preliminary meeting and seized the opportunity to make new friends by becoming a charter member in 1986 of RC Deonar, now in its 36th year. “It was friendship that drew me into Rotary,” he says. Vidhya joined the club in 2001, after being an active member of Inner Wheel and district Inner Wheel chairman in 2018–19. She is now the club president and he is the sergeant-at-arms.

Raju was club president in 1996, and governor in 2009–10. How easy was that journey? “Frankly, I was not interested in becoming a governor, because the presidentship had taken a toll on my practice. But (TRF trustee vice-chair) Bharat Pandya and (PDG) Rahul Timbadia convinced me to take up district secretary and coordinator’s posts. I then realised there was potential for me to lead the district and hence filed for the governor’s post.”


As DG, he recognised those who do silent work; a prostitute and a transvestite were recognised at his conference, “well before DEI became the Rotary mantra.”

And then, “at the Hamburg convention, Bharat and (PRID) Kamal (Sanghvi) convinced me to file for director, saying I would do India good. I agreed making it clear that if I lose there will be no election complaint. I told them if I am destined to become a director, I will, but will leave it to the lord.”

If leaders at all levels, including the governors and senior leadership, stay away from elections, it would help in reducing conflicts, and create a better atmosphere for service.

But in the end, the election got vitiated; why, I ask him. “It got extremely vitiated, because of the involvement of senior leaders in our country.”

With TRF trustee vice-chair Bharat Pandya.
With TRF trustee vice-chair Bharat Pandya.

He chooses to go on record, “because that’s a fact! It even went up to the RI Board, and this is not good for Rotary in India because we do so much good work.”


Priorities during his term

On his priorities as director, Raju says: “Continuity; if something is good for the community, it should continue. Bharat started the Do chhammach kum, char kadam aagey initiative, essential as diabetes is exploding and heightened cholesterol is wreaking havoc in the 30–50 age group. To save lives, I propose to revive it.”

For the DGs and DGEs during his term, the message will be clear; “I don’t believe DGs should initiate district projects; clubs should do them and governors must support them as a guiding force.” The club leaders know best what that specific community needs, “so to impose something at a general level takes away the leadership of the club president, which will be disastrous because we have to build club-level leaders, for membership, projects and TRF. By cutting off that leadership, you harm rather than develop the organisation.”

He is still my husband and Raju, It’s strange when people now call him Sir. He is such a simple person, he doesn’t even like being called Sir!
Vidhya Raju

What DGs and DGEs can do is to have one impactful project to create public image, which is more than “bill boards and newspaper cuttings. Public image is different from publicity… public image has to be created in the minds of the people. I’m also telling governors to tell club presidents that instead of inviting them as chief guests, the clubs should invite social entrepreneurs, business leaders or politicians for their impactful projects. This will boost your CSR support and membership.”

Stern action against fake clubs and integrity in paying membership dues to RI after collecting money from members is an area that needs to be addressed. “I urge DGs to adopt humility, simplicity and gentleness, bidding goodbye to their egos,” he says, in another clear message. If leaders at all levels, including governors and the senior leadership, stay away from elections, it would help in reducing conflicts and create a better atmosphere for service,” he says.


Rotarians in India should also do much more work in prevention and treatment of TB and cervical cancer as there is a huge need for this, he adds.

On the use of CSR funds for service projects, Raju feels there is tremendous scope, but finds a handicap in the clause pertaining to CSR funds. “Recognition for CSR contribution needs to be looked into seriously to enable us to garner more CSR funds not just from ‘family companies,’ but also other large corporates.”

Today we are a giving country and No 2 in TRF-giving. It is no mean achievement to be ahead of Taiwan, Korea, Canada, UK, Australia and many European countries. This is our one singular great achievement.

On the qualities required to be a good Rotary leader, Raju puts on top of the list “ethics, integrity, character and a positive attitude. A leader must be caring, compassionate, have a vision and be trustworthy. Rotary leaders must showcase the organisation and not themselves. It should be service above self and not self above service.

His last word is on DEI — “it must and should happen but not happening because of the mindset in certain parts of our country. The gays, transgenders, are no different from us. They are all children of god… we have to involve them, respect and care for them.”


Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat and special arrangement

Vidhya speak

Did she resent Rotary taking away a lot of her husband’s time as he rose in the ranks, I ask Vidhya Raju. Her candid response: “Well, both yes and no, especially when the children were growing up. His profession as a lawyer took him away from Bombay a lot. When he travelled, we’d plan what we would do when he returns. But then he would either go away for Rotary events or more work.”

Raju and Vidhya with daughters Rohita, Ashwita and grandson Nikhil.
Raju and Vidhya with daughters Rohita, Ashwita and grandson Nikhil.

Both the young girls would want to eat out, “and then he’d come from Delhi and want to eat home food. But he’s a wonderful father… for him both his daughters mean the world. They are more important to him than even his profession.”

By training Vidhya is a special educator; “I gave up because the girls were young and also sometimes it was very depressing.”

When asked for her personal reaction at his getting the director’s post, she shrugs and says candidly: “He is still my husband and Raju. It’s strange when people now call him Sir, etc. It is evident sometimes that they want to please him and I feel why? He is such a simple person, he doesn’t even like being called Sir!”

She winks and adds: “Of course I’m very proud of him. But he is a person with black or white; he doesn’t see the grey.” Raju intervenes: “Ask her how many times I’ve been proved right? As lawyers we learn psychology in court. So when I meet a person, from the first handshake I know whether it is genuine or not.”

So would you call him a straight shooter, I prompt Vidhya. “Oh, he is too much of a lawyer; that’s the problem, he goes too deep into everything.” The husband adds, “I speak my mind, but before that I analyse and see if it is backed by facts and evidence. I am a stickler for rules. Competence alone should be the criteria for assignments. Not going by merit has hurt Rotary in the past.”

At a glance

Food: Basically, I’m a Southie, I love my South Indian food, but also Maharashtrian and Gujju food, provided it is less oily.

Cooking: Haha, if I cook nobody will eat. I don’t know which dal goes into rasam.

Religious: I believe in god, I don’t go to temples regularly because I believe I can see god everywhere and if I do a good act in the temple of service like Rotary, I don’t have to go to a temple. But I believe strongly in god and I do puja every day at home. I’ve gone to churches and mosques; I have no inhibitions in visiting any place of worship because I believe it’s the same lord called by whatever name.

Travel: I love travel, as for my favourite city, there are too many; but one of my favourite places is Kashmir. Its beauty is amazing.


Reading: (Laughs) Anything that pays me! I also read other stuff. Mind: Its mysteries and control by Swami Sivananda is one of my favourite books.


Favourite writer: Ayn Rand

Music: Love traditional classical music. Old Bollywood songs are my favourite.

Movies: I’m not a movie buff. (Vidhya: It’s better not to take him. He sleeps and then starts snoring. But we love to watch plays. Recently we went to Sound of Music. the Broadway play at the Nita Ambani Cultural Centre.)

Relax: (Vidhya: Please answer Raju, even I want to know!) Yes, I am a hyper guy… I dot the Is and cross the Ts. A perfectionist… after the Indore Institute (which he chaired), Bharat and I closed the accounts within 15 minutes of the institute’s closing, paid all the vendors and left within 30 minutes for the airport. But the problem is that I expect others also to be exactly like that, which doesn’t happen! (Vidhya: He is an A-plus personality).

Fitness: Walk in the morning; not very regularly!

Dream for the future: A healthy life ahead for me and my family. Would love to spend more time with my children and grandson, and travel to so many of our dream destinations. We will soon leave for Cambodia and Vietnam.

Continuing his legal practice: Monday to Thursday will be for work, unless something emergent comes up. Friday to Sunday will basically be for Rotary.

Sport: It used to be cricket initially. I appear for the BCCI. Love football and tennis. Used to play badminton in my younger days.

Women in Rotary: I feel they are phenomenal leaders. I had 23 women presidents when I was DG; two of them reluctant ones, and they proved to be the best in the group. Women in India, when given an opportunity, have done well. All of us must allow them to grow… in fact allow every Rotarian to grow irrespective of caste, creed, colour or gender.

Vidhya’s role: Amazing! Without her support I don’t think I could have come this far. I was at the CoL as vice-chair in April 22, when the complaint came against my election. She called me, read it and said: ‘Raju, I don’t think it’s worth continuing in this organisation. Let’s both resign. Look at the kind of allegations. They have stolen data and made false allegations.’ I could have filed a criminal complaint, my friends in the police department have appraised me of what happened but if I did that, I’d have harmed the organisation. She said you resign, but I said we will fight. The complaint has no substance. She understood and stood by me. She is my best critic. Many a time when you walk off the stage you know you have spoken well or not, but people will always say you were great, but she would always give a critical honest analysis. I could not have asked for more.

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