The headlines are euphoric. Mamata Banerjee, J Jayalalithaa, Mayawati and Sheila Dikshit, just four women now rule over 400 million Indians. Three cheers for gender justice. Yet, there is no skirting the big question: are they about to swing a new deal for India's women? Some would argue, don't hold your breath.
"They might not be game changers for other women," says Akhila Sivadas, executive director, Centre for Advocacy and Research. "But at least they have been able to come up in a highly competitive environment that is often hostile to women."
The four women chief ministers are pictures in contrast. In her elegant saris, Sheila Dikshit is the silver-haired patrician who calls journalists beta, especially when they are asking tough questions. The unyielding Mayawati rules Uttar Pradesh by diktat, transferring officials who displease her faster than you can say ‘statue'. Jayalalithaa encourages full ashtang namaskars by genuflecting party members. Only Mamata is the untried, untested chief minister who comes to power with zero ostentation and enormous expectation for single-handedly demolishing 34 years of unbroken Communist rule.
Mamata stands out for another reason: she has risen to power pretty much on her own, minus a political mentor or family backing. While Sheila Dikshit is the daughter-in-law of former cabinet minister Uma Shankar Dikshit, Jayalalithaa and Mayawati were mentored by powerful men, M G Rama-
chandran and Kanshi Ram. Add to these names, those of Congress party president Sonia Gandhi, leader of the Opposition Sushma Swaraj, Speaker Meira Kumar, President Pratibha Patil, and others in significant public positions from Syeda Hamid at the Planning Commission to Nirmala Seetharaman, BJP's measured spokesperson and you have a formidable array of women in positions of political power, unprecedented in the history of India.
"History and family ties have played their part but so has the character of these women," says historian Ramchandra Guha. Jayalalithaa and Mayawati have fought vicious male opponents at huge personal cost: Jayalalithaa had her sari torn off by DMK MLAs inside the Tamil Nadu assembly and Mayawati had to lock herself in a circuit house while Samajwadi Party goondas tried to break in.
Indian politics historically has been an all boys club, despite having a strong prime minister in Indira Gandhi (once described — as a compliment — as the ‘only man in the cabinet') for a total of nearly 15 years. Women continue to be severely handicapped: criminalisation of politics, the increasing role of big money and the continuing burden of domestic responsibility are impediments in the road to power. No wonder then, that most women in political life are single – either widows or never married. According to the UN's 2008 survey of women in politics, India's Parliament had only 9.1 per cent women, less than even the UAE's 22.5 per cent. This figure went up only a few notches with the 15th Lok Sabha delivering a record 59 women MPs.
Do the stats change when women are in charge? Alas, no. In the just concluded elections, Jayalalithaa's AIADMK contested 160 assembly seats but gave tickets to only 13 women — that works out to eight per cent representation, worse than the DMK's 11 per cent. In West Bengal, Mamata fielded 34 women, 14 per cent, in the 228 seats her party contested. The Left parties had 15.8 per cent.
But more than representation, does life change for women when women take charge? It is uncertain. Sheila Dikshit presides over a state known as the ‘rape capital of India'. Delhi fares poorly on another parameter: the female sex ratio. With just 866 females for every 1,000 males, Delhi is way below the national average of 914. It would be ridiculous to blame Dikshit for these problems, part of which lies in the city's geography, surrounded by a rural belt where the status of women seems stuck in the dark ages. But while Dikshit can be credited with many of Delhi's developmental successes, with power-sharing concepts like her Bhagidari Scheme and even announcing 50 cent reservation for women in the forthcoming municipal elections, her administration has failed to create, despite three terms in office, a social environment where women are safe.
The first Dalit chief minister of any state, Mayawati is now in her fourth term in Uttar Pradesh. Her political agenda includes social justice; her political acumen lies in the strength of her social engineering formula that brought Dalits and brahmins together. But, in her state, the female sex ratio is just 899 in the 0-6 year age group, female literacy at 59.3 per cent is well below the national average of 65.46 per cent and the infant mortality rate — for 2009 it was 67 for every 1,000 births — is one of the worst in India. To be fair, Mayawati presides over a state where human development indices have been rock bottom for decades. No change can be wrought overnight. Unfortunately for Mayawati, as she was celebrating four years in office, two of her MLAs were handed life sentences for the murder of an engineer and a dalit girl. Mayawati herself stands accused in the Taj corridor scam. Jayalalithaa might be the only chief minister in India to have been convicted of corruption, but her policies are clearly pro-women. Hours after being sworn in for the third time around, she had announced a slew of schemes promised in her manifesto: 20 kg free rice to those eligible, R 25,000 assistance to poor educated women plus four grams of free gold to buy thalis for their marriage, financial assistance raised from R 500 to R 1,000 for old age pensioners and an increase from three to six months maternity leave for state employees. Restoration of law and order is a priority and her appointment of highly regarded officials as her chief secretary and police commissioner have gone down well with the bureaucracy.
It's early days yet to judge the third coming of Jayalalithaa or the first of Mamata in terms of what this means to the women of their states. But the rise to power of this sisterhood, says Guha, "has to be set off against the continuing discrimination against women in society". Adds social activist Biraj Patnaik: "There is great symbolic value in having these women in power." Significantly, despite their ideological differences, this sorority remains united on one issue: the Women's Reservation Bill, passed in the Rajya Sabha but now stuck in the lower house.
It's tempting to see the rise of so many women at one point in time as a great victory for women everywhere. But women have a long way to go and many hurdles — female foeticide, dowry, malnutrition — to overcome. Women in positions of power at the national and state level might not immediately usher in a new deal for other women. Their achievements (and scandals) are perhaps benchmarked against their male competitors. But their presence could mean a good, hard knock at yet another glass ceiling.