They are India’s best known women chief ministers and they have carried their parties to massive comeback wins, defying tradition and the odds. Mamata Banerjee and J Jayalalithaa are without a doubt the biggest individual winners of this election contest.
When one thinks of the two, it is mostly by their nicknames. Banerjee is Didi and Jaya is Amma.
But that’s where the similarities between the streetfighter from West Bengal and the matinee idol-leader from Tamil Nadu end.
Banerjee, in trademark white sari with blue border and rubber slippers, is the common man’s CM. The 61-year-old Trinamool Congress chief lives on Harish Chatterjee street, a low-income neighbourhood. She eats frugally — filling up on puffed rice, tea and biscuits — and has endless energy, covering over 100 rallies and two dozen padyatras during her campaign. She sleeps little and keeps her cellphone on 24X7.
“She holds three to four public meetings a day, walks seven to eight kilometers in the heat. She has a lot of inner strength,” says sister-in-law Kajari Banerjee.
The masses inspire her, adds brother Kartik. “Didi gets immense love from people, which drives her to work more.”
In stark contrast, AIADMK chief Jayalalithaa — the first CM to retain power in the southern state since 1984 — is regal in all she does. The 68-year-old former film star resides in Chennai’s affluent Poes Garden, also home to superstar Rajinikanth.
No trains or road journeys for her, she uses a chopper. During her month-long campaign, she addressed 15 public meetings. Amma is aloof. From party workers to senior colleagues, everyone bows to her. Rather than oratory, she depends on prepared text. She speaks seated behind a desk on an air-conditioned dais.
Banerjee, on the other hand, is a fiery orator, quick to lose her cool. Her brusque style and inability to handle criticism have alienated many urban voters. She sometimes comes across as insensitive: she accused a rape victim of lying and had a university professor arrested for sharing a cartoon of her by email.
The last few years have been tough on both.
Coming to power on the promise of ‘poriborton (change)’ after 34 years of Left rule, Banerjee’s government faced damaging scandals — the Saradha ponzi scam that wiped out crores of rupees in savings of poor Bengalis, and the Narada sting that showed her partymen accepting bribes. Her party was at the receiving end of people’s anger when a flyover collapsed in Kolkata recently, killing 27 people.
For Jaya, a 19-year-old disproportionate assets case has been her biggest headache. In 2014, she was disqualified from holding office after a Karnataka court convicted her. The high court later acquitted her, bringing her back as CM, but the matter is now pending in Supreme Court.