Sunday January 15, 2012
Ruling in male-centric society
By Coomi Kapoor
At least half a dozen women have carved their own place politically in India where females still play a subservient role to their men.
BEING a male-centric society, it should come as no surprise that Indian politics has very few women leaders. Indira Gandhi became the prime minister of the world’s largest democracy way back in the 1966. Yet, it did not enhance the prospects of women growing in a profession which to this day remains the preserve of men. Despite a near parity in the population, women continue to be poorly represented in federal and provincial legislative chambers.
There were well-known historical factors behind the poor participation of women in public affairs. Even though they enjoyed equal rights, by tradition they have remained home-bound, playing a subservient role to their men folk. Indeed, even after a recent legislation which mandated one-third seats for women in village councils, their husbands or fathers continue to remote-control them.
However, breaking the mould, as it were, there were at least some half a dozen women who had carved their own place in the political arena.
Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of the former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, took control of the Congress Party when its fortunes were down in the dumps. Since then, she has performed a fairly decent job of holding the disparate elements that constitute the Congress Party together.
But the more interesting is the story of the other three leading women politicians. All of them had to struggle hard to succeed in a very hostile environment and it is coincidental that all three now head governments in their home states.
J. Jayalalithaa is the boss of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhgam and the Chief Minister of the southern State of Tamil Nadu. A former leading lady of Tamil cinema, she learnt politics at the feet of her male co-star and chief mentor, the late MG Ramachandran. Upon MGR’s death in 1987, his long-time companion, Jayalalithaa, took charge of the AIADMK.
As the leader of the Opposition in the Tamil Nadu assembly, the ruling party members pulled her saree and even hit her on the forehead with a mike. She vowed never to return to the assembly until she was elected chief minister. And in 1991, she duly took over as chief minister for the first time. Last year, she became chief minister for the third time.
A convent-educated politician, Jayalalithaa keeps her flock on a tight leash, with senior leaders prostrating in public before her. An able administrator, she is more than a match for her male rivals in the Opposition. However, in her previous stint, she had come under a cloud following allegations of corruption. She is now facing trial under a disproportionate assets case.
The story of the other woman chief minister is no less interesting. Mamata Banerjee, 56, joined the youth wing of the Congress Party while still in college. She rose quickly to head the women’s wing of the West Bengal Congress.
However, it was in the 1984 parliamentary poll that her first big moment came when she defeated the Marxist veteran, Somnath Chatterjee, in the latter’s own bastion. She has not looked back since.
In 1997, she left the Congress Party to float her own Trinamool Congress. Last year, she achieved the extraordinary feat of ending the 34-year-old uninterrupted rule of the Marxists in the State, winning a two-thirds majority in the assembly election in partnership with the Congress Party.
Coming from a lower middle-class background, Mamata is always dressed in her trademark crumpled cotton saree and V-shaped rubber chappals. Though highly emotional and unpredictable, her reputation for being honest has been her major strength. Resisting the muscle power of the Marxist rivals, she earned the label of a street-fighter.
Mamata has come to wield a virtual veto over the central government. As the single largest ally of the Congress Party in the ruling United Progressive Alliance, she forced the Government to drop the move to allow Foreign Direct Investment in multi-brand retail. She also blocked the imposition of a model ombudsman law on the States. Earlier, she had nixed the Government’s agreement with Bangladesh for the sharing of the waters of the river Teesta on the ground that it would harm the interests of West Bengal.
But without doubt, the most extraordinary is the story of the Bahujan Samaj Party leader and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati. Born in a low-caste family, her father was a telephone linesman. After getting a Bachelor’s degree, she became a teacher in a primary school.
The turning point in her life was when she came in contact with Kanshi Ram in the late 70s. The late founder of the BSP chose her as his second-in-command and concentrated his energies in winning power through the ballot box in Uttar Pradesh.
In 1993, when she was barely 39, she became the chief minister of the largest State which sends 80 out of 543 members to the Lok Sabha. After the death of Kanshi Ram a couple of years ago, when everyone feared that the BSP would disintegrate, it was to her credit that she further consolidated it. In 2007, the BSP won a simple majority in Uttar Pradesh on its own and earned the right to rule the state for full five years.
An unconventional politician, Mayawati has ridden rough shod over established mores and conventions, razing public parks to build monuments for herself and her late mentor by erecting her own and Kanshi Ram’s stone idols along with stone figures of elephants, the election symbol of the BSP. Also, she has paid scant attention to charges of humongous corruption. Most ironically, the daughter of a class-IV employee, has become the richest chief minister in the country as per the return filed with the election authorities.
The middle class morality does not affect her captive Dalit (low-caste or scheduled caste) vote-bank. Dalits have her vote since the first time they can walk with their heads held high in a society which had traditionally suppressed them.
Yet, in the on-going election campaign for the Uttar Pradesh Assembly, Mayawati’s corruption is not a big issue. She is making a strong bid to retain power, though, by all accounts, it is going to be a hung verdict.
Meanwhile, by sheer coincidence, all three women chief ministers are unmarried. Being sole leaders of their respective parties, all three enjoy the unstinted support of their followers.
Surprisingly, there are hardly any other women leaders even at the second and third rungs of these parties, though they rely on the overwhelming support of women-voters to win.