One has an abiding interest in books and letters, one is a whiz with the brush and canvas and one has more than a passing interest in diamond jewellery and designer salwar-kameezes. They could not be more different from each other, except for one fact — all of them seem to invoke a fanatical loyalty among their followers. I am talking, of course, of J Jayalalithaa, Mamata Banerjee and Mayawati. The three titans will, if all goes according to current trends, make or break the fortunes of the person who aspires to the throne in Delhi.
All three are long-distance runners who have realised the need to consolidate their own turf even when they were part of coalition governments at the Centre. And it is not as though they were easy coalition partners. But what they cleverly did, I feel, was to have used their clout at the Centre to gather strength in their own states. Mayawati fell out of favour in Uttar Pradesh and so did Jayalalithaa but the wheel of fortune has turned in favour of all three ladies.
The big three have vastly different styles of working. Jayalalithaa rules with an iron hand from her Poes Garden residence, making forays out for work in her heavily fortified SUV clad in her characteristic cape. The faithful throng around and are lucky to get a glimpse of her from the darkened windows of the Jayamobile. So craven are her devotees, for there is no other word for them, that I learnt that many had tattooed her image inside their eyelids so that they could see Amma in their dreams. But, to protect her turf, she has made sure that the mid-day meal scheme, subsidised food for the poor and many other such entitlements are provided with great efficiency in her state. If I were to choose a model of development, I would plump for Tamil Nadu, where despite whoever is in power, the bureaucracy works like a well-oiled machine. If she comes up trumps in the state, which has 39 seats, no one is going to be able to ignore her.
Mayawati too has been quietly staying out of the limelight and going back to her core supporters, the Dalits. She seems to be attempting another consolidation of the sort she achieved when she stormed to power in the state. Her supporters too, like those of Jayalalithaa, are fiercely loyal to their Behenji despite her penchant for ‘crore-malas’ on her birthdays, and pink icing on her cakes to match her clothes. Her wealth, again like that of the empress of Fort St George, is legendary but seems to be something her supporters believe she deserves for having given them a sense of pride. She could well come in with a substantial number of MPs and again tilt the balance of power at the Centre.
While both Jayalalithaa and Mayawati are temperamental, the one who takes the cake is Mamata Banerjee. Any criticism of her policies is seen as a personal attack on Didi and her ministers and supporters immediately race to her defence. It was almost comical to see an otherwise sober TMC MP Derek O’Brien holding up his arms to say that those of Narendra Modi were dripping with blood, a counter punch to Modi having said that Didi was close to the infamous Saradha group. A short circuit in her room immediately becomes a conspiracy to murder her. Yet, she invokes an admiration and loyalty that is hard to match, even though she displays her over-the-top emotions almost on a daily basis. West Bengal has 42 seats and with the Left in no position to challenge her, she is likely to notch up an impressive victory. This again puts her in a position of bargaining strength with the next government. All three women are far too crafty to go in for a federal front, unless they were leading from the front, so to speak.
This means that whoever hopes to rule in Delhi will be at the mercy of these fiery leaders. As of now, Mamata has let off several fusillades against Modi but if he were within striking distance of Delhi, she might well change her mind. Jayalalithaa too has attacked Modi but again is not likely to pass up an opportunity to stick it to rival DMK if he were to make her an offer she could not refuse. Though all three women claim to play the politics of principle, they are absolutely hardnosed when it comes to bargaining for goodies from the Centre. Unless a single party gets a substantial number of seats, the next government is likely to be at the mercy of these divas. This will mean much airdashing to Lucknow, Kolkata and Chennai to placate their hurt sentiments on a routine basis. Even the gentle Manmohan Singh found himself at sea when handling their tantrums. If the next prime minister is more feisty, and it would seem that will be so, we are in for a royal fight from time to time.
I cannot think of a single nation where women are marginalised in almost all spheres but the very running of the country depends on women so much. But then, as I am sure you will agree, these are just some of the great ironies of Indian politics. So it might be just vote for one, and get three or at least two more, but not for free.