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The female gaze

With so many women now in power as CMs and party leaders — and also a President — we look at how they bring the female point of view into a male-dominated world.

india Updated: May 21, 2011 23:25 IST

There's Amma in the south, Didi in the east, Bahenji in the North, Aunty in Delhi, Madam at the Centre and Tai in Rashtrapati Bhavan. Furiously doing the rounds, this SMS, perhaps signals to a shift taking place in Indian polity, long obsessed with "son-rises" but now willing to place its faith in women. The SMS, of course, refers to Jayalalithaa, Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati, Sheila Dikshit, Sonia Gandhi and Pratibha Patil. In the world's largest democracy, women head five parties: the Congress, Trinamool, BSP, AIADMK and the PDP. Let's not forget Lok Sabha speaker Meira Kumar, Leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj and governors Margaret Alva, Kamala Beniwal and Urmila Singh. Unlike the past, when Indira Gandhi, the first woman prime minister, was referred to as "the only man in the cabinet" owing to her assertive, almost masculine style, today's leaders display their femininity at key political moments. Being feminine needn't necessarily mean being soft. Ask Banerjee, who upstaged the Left, or Jayalalithaa, who rules with an iron hand and a velvet glove. Presenting, Indian politics' very own Steel Magnolias.

Mamata banerjee, Chief Minister West Bengal

Female power moment:
Mamata has never fitted the stereotypical genteel Bengali woman image. Despite misogynist remarks (CPM(M) MP Anil Biswas compared her to a sexworker of Sonagachi; later he apologised) about Mamata throughout her political career, her 'elder sister' image led her to rally and then bear the maximum brunt of the caning by CPI(M) cadres on August 16, 1990.

Style of functioning:
Her motto Maa, Mati, Manush (Mother, Soil, Man) recalls her brand of earthy femininity. She is officially Didi (sister) not only for her family, but also for her party colleagues. She holds core meetings at her home, where most of the times she serves tea. “Just after the Netai killings, she went to Midnapore at night. She waited up until everyone got food and a place to rest,” says a senior colleague. The subtext — she cares.

Showing her mettle: But Mamata is known to be firm. She spares no time in expelling party leaders over the slightest anti-party activity. When names of three of her party leaders came up in the land scam in Rajarhat, she was prompt in expelling them. In press conferences, she has often said that she is above narrow gender considerations.

Female Gaze : Apart from pushing for Women's Reservation Bill, she also incorporated a fair share of women in her party ranks and file.

Power dressing: Mamata Banerjee's simplicity in dressing is her power. "She never wore a sari which is worth more than Rs 500," says a party colleague. She wore her trademark cotton sari with a blue border to her swearing-in as Chief Minister.

Sonia gandhi, Congress president

Female power moment: No one in Indian politics has done what she did: refused Prime Ministership (in 2004) and listened to her "inner voice." She also quit and sought re-election to the Lok Sabha when questions were raised that she was liable for disqualification for holding an office of profit as chairperson of the National Advisory Council.

Style of functioning: A combination of radicalism, pragmatism and overcautiousness. She reworked the party's go-it-alone policy by forging a coalition. She put the past behind her to reach out to NCP's Sharad Pawar who had made her foreign origins an issue. But in organisational matters, the vast inputs she gets from different sources often delays her decisions.

Showing her mettle: Gandhi took on Narendra Modi by calling him "maut ke saudagar" (merchant of death) for allegedly instigating the 2002 communal riots in the state.

Female gaze: The defining moment for UPA-II was when she stood firm on seeing to it that the Rajya Sabha passed the Women's Reservation Bill. (It remains to be passed by the Lok Sabha).

Power dressing: Silks in winter, handloom cottons in summer. Pearl earnings on special occasions.

Pratibha Patil, President of India

Female power moment: Patil made history by becoming the first woman president of the country in 2007. But her election to the top post isn't the only first she has scored. She was also the first woman governor of Rajasthan from where she moved up to Rashtrapati Bhavan. She also created history by becoming the first woman president to fly the Sukhoi, a fighter aircraft. Clearly, Patil's small build encapsulates a steely resolve: to live up to any challenge and job.
style of functioning: By keeping a low profile, she has been able to lend a human touch to issues and has the capacity to strike a rapport be it with Queen Elizabeth in London or with her Chilean counterpart Michelle Bachelet.

Showing her mettle: Rashtrapati Bhavan has become more proactive in her tenure towards building a movement for ecofriendly and sustainable habitat that she now wants to take it other areas.

Female gaze: Generally low key but she has been actively espousing gender issues as her cause — such as female foeticide, discrimination against the girl child.

Power dressing: Patil's pallu-covered head and full-sleeved blouse reinforces her homeliness. But she did wear combat uniform to fly the Sukhoi.

Sheila Dikshit, Chief Minister Delhi

Female power moment:
When Rajiv Gandhi called her and asked her to contest Lok Sabha polls. Before that she used to help father-in-law Uma Shankar Dikshit in his political dealings. Dikshit won her maiden Lok Sabha election from Kannauj, Uttar Pradesh, and was inducted into Rajiv's cabinet in 1986.

Style of functioning:
Known to take colleagues and other stakeholders into confidence while taking a decision. At a lunch or a tea party, she ensures everyone's plates are full. "She addresses youngsters as beta or beti and calls elders, ji," says a close confidant.

Showing her mettle:
When fast running electricity metres threatened to turn into a public campaign, she made private distribution companies attend to every single complaint. On the other hand, she send out the message that electronic meters were very sensitive and unlike old metres could not be tampered with.

Female gaze: Welfare of women and children, pensions for widows and the Laadli Scheme for the girl child have been close to her heart.

Power dressing: Dikshit dresses with simplicity — light coloured cotton sarees with a shawl over her shoulders and hair neatly tied in a bun.

J Jayalalithaa, Chief Minister Tamil Nadu

Female power moment:
Five years in the opposition appear to have made Amma mellow. She has come a long way since 2001, when, after she assumed office, political foe M Karunanidhi was dragged out of his bedroom and bundled into a police vehicle, before being jailed.

Style of functioning:
A polyglot who can speak Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada, her no-nonsense style of functioning helps her as an administrator. Jayalalithaa meticulously writes out press statements which display grammar, spelling and punctuation skills that a good editor would find difficult to find fault with.

Showing her mettle:
In the run up to the assembly polls last year, she visited Madurai,
considered MK Alagiri's lair, despite threats to her life. “I am not afraid of those threats. I treat such death threats as invitations,” she had roared.Within days of becoming CM, she is gunning after Alagiri's “henchmen” who led his cash for votes scheme.

Female gaze: Among the seven files Jayalalithaa cleared the day she took office was one doubling
marriage assistance for poor girls from Rs 25,000 to Rs 50,000. In 1991, she signed an order abolishing cheap liquor that was wrecking families.

Power dressing: The former actress wears capes over bullet-proof jackets, a legacy of the days when she was on the LTTE's hitlist.


Mayawati, Chief Minister Uttar Pradesh

Female power point: "Kanshi Ram ka mission Adhoora; karegi Behen Mayawati poora." These slogans raised since the time the BSP supremo anointed her his heir, has been part of the Mayawati aura — a Dalit, and a woman, who has clawed her way up in the largely male dominated environment of UP politics.

Style of functioning: The feminine trait was pronounced in the first phase of her political career when would tell women supporters “not to not open your door if your husband comes back home drunk.” But over the years, she has shown to neither believe in political courtesies nor in developing long term political relationship outside her own party.

Showing her mettle: She has built her own life size statues and that of other Dalit icons despite criticism. She dared to get Rahul Gandhi arrested when he came to meet agitating farmers at Bhatta Parsaul.

Female gaze: Though she did announce some schemes for the welfare of the girl child, BSP is perhaps India's only political party without a women's wing. She rarely responds to issues like women's quota or the number of women in her government.

Power dressing: Shimmering clothes, diamonds during birthdays; dull beiges on other days, long overcoats for her posters.

Sushma Swaraj, Leader of Opposition

Female power point: When Advani announced Swaraj would succeed him as Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha in December 2009, she beat her ambitious male colleagues for the top slot. As the first among the equals in her party, she became an instant Prime Minister candidate-probable in the male-dominated BJP.

Style of functioning: She doesn't rub the egos of senior male leaders the wrong way. Whether it is Jaswant Singh, Yashwant Sinha, or Murli Manohar Joshi, Swaraj lets them take the limelight on key issues. She doesn't neglect newcomers, ensuring they get opportunities to be heard in Parliament.

Showing her mettle: In 1999, she contested against Sonia Gandhi, from Bellary constituency in Karnataka, that had been voting Congress since Independence. Her high-pitched campaign (she even learnt Kannada) came to an end with her expected loss. But while Sonia Gandhi polled 51.7 per cent, Swaraj didn't lag too far behind with 44.7 percent.

Female gaze: She convinced party leaders that BJP must support the government's Women's Reservation Bill in its original form and not get trapped into endlessly waiting for an ideal bill that would satisfy all sections of Parliament.

Power dressing: Maintains her Bharatiya nari image with bindis, saris and sindoor on her forehead.