Kamal Sanghvi: Please let us into your thought process on how you came down to this theme: Serve to change lives?
Shekhar Mehta: The final decision was fast but behind the essence of this theme there is 30 years of work. It was no secret that in my theme there would be the word ‘service’. Everybody knew that. But then when I sat down with the RI staff to discuss and finalise the theme, they told me that in the word ‘service’ there is no call to action. The solution was simple — we changed it to ‘serve’.
If you give me a choice where to speak, I don’t like speaking at a district conference or assembly, but I love to speak at a gathering of club presidents.
Now let me tell you about the word ‘change’. A few months ago, at a brainstorming session in Kolkata, where you were also there, (as well as the Editor!), somebody suggested that the word ‘change’ should be there… and at Evanston we agreed in 15 minutes that the theme should be ‘Serve to change lives’!
KS: What is the significance of the palm and the globe in your theme logo?
SM: In my opening speech at the International Assembly, I mentioned Swami Vivekananda who has said that don’t always receive, you have to also give. And when we give, we stretch out our palm as it is depicted in the theme logo. And the globe denotes giving to the entire world. Hence a palm and the globe in the visual of the theme.
KS: How much of a role did Rashi play in your main speech at the IA?
SM: Oh, she is my biggest critic but she is a constructive critic and nothing escapes her eagle eye… she always tells me what is missing. This was one of the most important speeches I would make in Rotary so naturally there was a lot of back and forth with Rashi. Normally I give dictation but this time I wrote the speech in long hand because dictation was not working… and Rashi said let’s do it.
KS: The President-elect’s handwritten speech will be auctioned at an event later!
You are a great votary of multidistrict PETS. Why hold multidistrict pets?
SM: Well, this was an American concept and till recently I didn’t think much of it. But if you give me a choice where to speak, I don’t like speaking at a district conference or assembly, but the one place I love to speak is at a gathering of club presidents. Because it is the presidents who will take action on our talk and projects. And I’d like to meet as many presidents as possible. The only way to do that is at MD PETS.
We are very good at talking among ourselves; in Whatsapp groups and FB pages. But the outside world doesn’t know what we do. So Rotary days will showcase what we do.
In America, in the month of March (2021), you will be amazed to know that in 30 days I was supposed to be covering 24 cities, addressing 9,000 presidents! Now I am speaking to them online and have said there will be no taped messages. I still want to speak to each of them online, as right now that is the best way to connect.
KS: Today the buzzword in Rotary is diversity, equity and inclusion of women in Rotary. I’d like to ask Rashi about her views on this and how will she influence Shekhar to include more women in Rotary.
Rashi: Including women in Rotary when it happened was a fantastic thing to happen in this organisation. And Jennifer becoming an RI President after Shekhar is a great step forward. I am certain that Shekhar will bring more women into Rotary as this is certainly one of his focus areas.
KS: The advice, not a mandate, at the last RI board meet was that all the governors have at 30 per cent of women in different posts in the clubs and the district. All efforts should be made to encourage women. Is this a step in the right direction?
Rashi: I am not a great fan of reservation and when I hear about all women’s clubs, without undermining the effort which brings more women into Rotary of course, I must say that we should have the right balance of men and women. Diversity also means that we get the right balance, and not go for single gender clubs.
KS: Shekhar, there are six women in your life… your mother, two sisters, wife, daughter and daughter-in-law. Who do you love the most?
SM: I love all the mothers in this group… my mother, my son’s mother, my grandson’s and my nieces’ mother!
KS: Tell us a little about holding ‘Rotary days’ that you have been advocating.
SM: In India I expect at least 1,000 Rotary days to be observed during the coming Rotary year. The idea behind it is that we do so much work that makes such a big difference in people’s lives. We are very good at only talking among ourselves; in our Whatsapp groups, on our FB pages, etc. But the outside world doesn’t know who we are or what we do. So Rotary days will showcase what we do, take up a few projects, invite at least 30 per cent of non-Rotarians, and put up details about these on social media platforms. You can select your Rotary day… be it the world heart day, world literacy day or just decide on any day and do it. Just imagine the kind of public image it will build up for Rotary.
KS: So, governors please take this message to your presidents. I would like to call them Rotary service days. Shekhar and Rashi, what is the one fantastic moment in your journey of reaching the pinnacle of Rotary International?
SM: Too many moments to choose a favourite… our Rotary journey has given us so many outstanding moments.
Rashi. Various moments, as he said, but one thing I enjoyed the most was when he was working for Rotaractors for one year.
KS: If we consider rapid digitalisation, where do you think Rotary will be in the next five years?
SM: Hybrid. Absolutely. Our lives are going to be hybrid. There are such good things in the digital or virtual world that we certainly don’t want to miss. But the charm of physical meetings remains.… woh zoom pe milna bhi kya milna hei? (Appreciative applause from audience.)
Rashi is my biggest critic but she is a constructive critic and nothing escapes her eagle eye… she always tells me what is missing.
KS: Now that the world is battling with the Covid pandemic, what will or should be Rotarians’ priority?
SM: Our new task is to tackle Covid but our battle with polio still continues and will continue till we rid the entire world of polio. So what should we be talking about… Covid or polio? We have to do both. Covid is the new necessity but polio is our DNA. Let us not take our eye off polio at any time. And we are also going to be involved in Covid vaccination; the government is definitely going to require help and support from our organisation. Our Member of Parliament, Vivek Tankha is going to talk to the government offering Rotary’s help in the massive vaccination drive that India will have to undertake. (The IA happened in Jan, 2021, and since then Rotarians in India have been closely involved in Covid vaccination.)
KS: In a lighter vein, when you move to Evanston, who will do the cooking, cleaning and the dishes?
SM: I will invite guests on the condition that I will invite you for lunch or dinner but you will have to wash the dishes.
KS: Ok, on a serious note, I know that you always plan well in advance, at least 3–4 years. So what after the RI presidency?
SM: If I can break my mind’s shackles I would like to join politics. In Rotary, we spend so much time and energy and are thrilled if we do a project worth ₹1 crore. In government, the projects undertaken are so much bigger. The amount is not important but the number of people that the government can reach is phenomenal. Politics is nothing negative, service is a component of politics; I believe honest and fair people should join politics.
KS: Your favourite song?
SM: They are different; mine is jhilmil sitaro ka angan hoga, rimjhim barasta sawan hoga.
Rashi: Rahe na rahe hum, mehka karengey, bankey kali, bankey saba, baghe wafa mei.