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In her defence

Despite securing top positions in male-dominated Indian politics, women leaders can’t play by conventional rules. They must be rule-breakers to succeed. Sagarika Ghose writes.

india Updated: Jan 11, 2012 12:29 IST
Sagarika Ghose
Sagarika Ghose

Respect the Trinamool Congress, or else, warns the Ma Durga of West Bengal. Accept that Tamil Nadu operates according to its own enlightened self-interest, advises Puratchi Thalaivi of the AIADMK.

Divide Uttar Pradesh immediately and don’t even think of claiming my Dalit votebank, declares the Dalit ki beti. Mamata Banerjee, Jayalalithaa and Mayawati today are the face of Indian women in politics. They along with Sonia Gandhi exercise total control over their parties, paradoxically both as distant as well as grassroots leaders. They are autocratic. They are lonely at the top and they are one-woman shows. Each wields a unique eccentricity in order to rule and control. India’s women politicians cultivate a designer madness, a well thought out insanity, to force their presence and personality in the brutally male-dominated world of Indian politics.

Gandhi perhaps does not quite fit the norm of calculated unpredictability but she too is sui generis: a distant figure of authority who often does not follow ‘normal’ political behaviour.

Women politicians are dominant in 2012. Gandhi has returned from her illness and has hit the campaign trail, looking to revive the Congress and re-assert her authority. Banerjee almost controls the UPA government at the Centre with her veto power. Jayalalithaa has also questioned central policies like the Food Security Act and believes she can dictate terms to the Centre. Mayawati is the dominant figure of the forthcoming UP elections, convinced that she can win on her own steam.

Each woman has traversed a rocky road, enduring public humiliation, failures and a uniformly hostile media. None are particularly enamoured by gender or women’s issues or even their identity as ‘women’ except perhaps Gandhi and her pet Women’s Reservation Bill and Jayalalithaa’s Cradle Baby scheme for girl children, which has also been criticised by activists for pandering to gender bias. But the BSP rarely gives tickets to women, Banerjee, who fought shoulder-to-shoulder with men on the streets against the Left for three decades, has hardly had time to spare for gender-related concerns and the Congress’ top ministers and coterie are all male. Succession of the Congress dynasty has passed smoothly to the male child. India’s women politicians have rarely had much truck with gender.

Perhaps they can’t afford to. Banerjee, a born mass leader, has fought, kicked and screamed her way up to power. Beaten, abused in foul language by the oh-so-civilised bhadralok Left, thrown out of the Congress, she has fought for her life and continues to fight. Her victory over the Left was hers alone, now she fears being squeezed out by a combination of Left and Congress, determined that the so-called ‘hysterical woman’ in the crumpled sari is not going to be an easy pushover for the cabals of scheming babus. Fight she must, and fight she will, call her mad or incapable of delivering governance. Banerjee knows that the day she stops being the kali of the footpath, the footpath will no longer be hers.

Mayawati will fight too. The screaming harridan at Kanshi Ram’s side, has already surpassed him in charisma. The media, dominated as it is by upper caste male editors, has made a constant caricature of her birthday parties, her pink salwar kameezes and her handbags. The corruption rackets surrounding her party was justified by one of her volunteers to me once at one of her rallies. “Tell me madam,” a Bahujan Volunteer Force member once asked, “will Ratan Tata or Rahul Bajaj ever donate money to the Bahujan Samaj Party?”

Almost killed in the Lucknow Guest House incident, the target of violent threats, Mayawati now fears for her life. Sacking ministers one after the other, known for transferring officers at whim, building gigantic monuments to herself, cracking down to near police-State levels during the Ayodhya title suit verdict, Mayawati can ensure that the government machinery works when she wants it to. Her enemies may call her eccentric but she’s a shrewd politician who has been in poll mode for far longer than her opponents, who thinks dreams and breathes politics, who knows that the minute she ceases to be a mad empress, her kingdom will be snatched away from under her nose. In ‘madness’ lies relevance and political leverage.

It may seem far fetched to compare Gandhi and Jayalalithaa yet both entered politics through a process described by Ali A Mazrui as “female accession to male martyrdom”, a process by which across South Asia, wives and daughters and close associates inherit the martyrdom of a powerful male politician and step into the dead man’s shoes. Sonia and Jayalalithaa almost never give interviews, are never seen to let their guard down, are absolute authorities in their own parties and view their political enemies as forces who are to be battled against every waking minute. Both have been humiliated in public, never given credit for their achievements. No wonder they view politics as mortal combat, a do-or-die contest and no wonder they have built personality cults centred around fear and servility.

‘Amma’, ‘Behenji’, ‘Didi’ and ‘Madam’ are always known by female family honorifics. No male politician is ever known as ‘Bhaiyya’ or ‘Papa’. The woman politician is caricatured from the outset, every failure magnified, every success glossed over, retreating further into her own particular ‘abnormal’ ruling style. Sushma Swaraj and Sheila Dikshit are perhaps the least caricatured of women netas, one perhaps because her identity is ‘safely’ subsumed in her party, the other protected by seniority and ‘family elder’ image.Shakti is an unpredictable goddess. Stop being unpredictable, and you lose your advantage. The woman in Indian politics cannot play by conventional political rules. She must be a rule breaker in order to succeed and endure. Shock and awe have to be her stock in trade.

Sagarika Ghose is Deputy Editor, CNN-IBN

The views expressed by the author are personal