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The madness is the method

You don’t have to be ‘crazy’ to succeed in Indian politics; but if you are a woman, it sure helps. Sadly, with the exception of Sheila Dixit, chief minister of Delhi thrice over now, our women CMs haven’t exactly been ringing endorsements for girl power.

entertainment Updated: May 21, 2011 19:32 IST
Seema Goswami

By now you must have had your fill of all those jokes doing the rounds after India elected two new women chief ministers. ‘The three most important states in India are now ruled by mad women’. ‘It is no coincidence that Behenji, Amma and Didi add up to BAD’. And so on and on and on.

But while the sexist undercurrents of these remarks are only too evident, there is no denying that there is a nugget of truth in all these witticisms floating around. Sadly, with the exception of Sheila Dixit, chief minister of Delhi thrice over now, our women CMs haven’t exactly been ringing endorsements for girl power.

Take Mayawati, for instance, chief minister of India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh. She rules by statue rather than statute, spending obscene amounts of money erecting vast edifices to herself all over the state without the slightest trace of embarrassment. And her net worth has increased a thousand-fold in that period, by way of what she coyly describes as ‘contributions’ from her loyal party base.

Even if you put allegations of graft and corruption aside, Behenji’s imperial style of functioning is truly shaming. Farmers agitating for their land rights are subjected to abuse and torture. Bureaucrats live in mortal fear of being shunted out if they displease Mayawati in any way. And sycophants rule the roost, as the CM’s megalomania gets increasingly out of control.

We tend to forget this now – given our pre-occupation with the astonishing level of corruption in the DMK – but Jayalalithaa wasn’t much better during her own stint as Tamil Nadu chief minister. Despite her ladylike demeanour and impeccable manners, she was hardly a shining beacon of rectitude in public life.

Nor is there any missing the hint of hysteria beneath the cultured, convent-school voice, which threatens to bubble forth to the surface at the slightest hint of reversal. And, as the BJP learnt the hard way, Jayalalithaa is also the princess of unpredictability, capable of blowing hot and then turning cold with surprising speed and startling regularity.

That same mercurial temperament was also evident in that other stormy petrel of Indian politics, Uma Bharti, once the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh. Bharti was never afraid of speaking her mind, whatever the consequences. She took on the tallest leaders of her party without worrying about how it would affect her political prospects. She raged, she laughed, she cried, she shouted; and she never gave a damn about just how crazy she was coming off.

Uma Bharti was going to be true to herself, no matter how damaged that self may become in the process. And you have to admit that there was something terribly brave about that terrifying lack of self-censorship.

And now we have the same devil-may-care attitude in another state chief minister: Mamata Banerjee. And sure enough, she is also dismissed by the commentariat as a hysterical harridan who has no control over her emotions, who lives by her heart rather than her head. After all, how else do you account for the insanity of her position on Singur, her sheer bloody mindedness when it came to Nandigram?

But you know what? It is just this stroke of madness, that touch of insanity, which allows these women to succeed in Indian politics. It is their special brand of ‘crazy’ that allows them to deal with the slings and arrows of a world that is ranged against them.

Jayalalithaa wouldn’t have made it in Tamil Nadu politics after the death of her mentor, MGR, without a healthy dose of insanity to shore up her spirits. After all, which sane woman could endure all the calumnies directed at her, not to mention the physical attacks on her as she stood beside MGR’s dead body at his funeral, laying claim to his political legacy.

As she said in an interview afterwards to Sunday magazine, where I then worked, “I am a lady so I cannot show you all the places where I have been pinched and hurt.” And yet, she stood her ground. It was a kind of madness. But a remarkable madness for all that.

Think of a young Mayawati, growing up as a Dalit girl in the feudal, upper-class dominated world of Uttar Pradesh. It took a crazy leap of the imagination to even think that she could become the leader of her people and chief minister one day. And it is that ‘mad’ self-belief that helped her get there in the end.

The same is true of Mamata. Consider all that she has had to endure at the hands of the Left Front regime in West Bengal. Her workers have been attacked physically, shot at, and at times, even killed. She herself has been lathi-charged so brutally that she ended up in hospital with a brain injury.

Which woman in her right mind would have continued to battle on after all that? Yes, it took a special sort of ‘madness’ to go on with the fight, and to believe that in the end she would triumph – as, indeed, she did. So, yes, maybe all those jokesters are right when they say that India’s most important states are now ruled by ‘mad’ women. But let’s also admit that there is method in that madness – and that there is much to admire in that.

Follow Seema on Twitter at twitter.com/seemagoswami

- From HT Brunch, May 22

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