Women in Indian politics: the Big Four

The Big Fat Indian Elections are finally over. The sloganeering and rhetoric has faded, and soon will follow the memory of hoary old promises trotted out every four years or so and then left to gather moss and mildew until the next election year. The public will have someone to blame for all its troubles, and the politicians will get back to blissfully ignoring everyone else. It’s a win-win situation – or a lose-lose one, depending on how you look at it – and for Indians, the whole process is comfortingly familiar, like a very old friend who, though somewhat annoying, is ultimately soothing in his refusal to change.


But there was something slightly different about this year’s elections – this year the landscape of Indian politics was dominated by women.


The woman hogging the headlines this year, of course, was Bahujan Samaj Party’s head honcho, Mayawati. The feisty, ambitious leader had set her sights on the Prime Minister’s chair, and she wields enormous influence on the populous state of Uttar Pradesh – so much so that her support can either make or break parties.


In West Bengal, it was Mamata Banerjee who loomed large. Scrappy and tenacious, Mamata works by striking fear into the hearts of all those who oppose her, and her penchant for controversies has served her well in the chaotic political sphere of Bengal.


On the other side of the country is J. Jayalalithaa, political leader and head of AIADMK. She is a part of the Third Front, has allied in the past with both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party and could be a vital pawn broker this year.


Finally, there’s the enigmatic matriarch of Congress, Sonia Gandhi. Sonia may have walked away form the Prime Ministership in the last elections, but no one doubts her control over the top job, or over one of the largest political parties of the nation.


The four women are a diverse bunch; varied in style and background, but matched in sheer energy and political savvy. In virulently casteist UP, Mayawati wears her Dalit status as a medal of honour. It is her ticket to popularity, and an inspiring testament to the heights that a woman, that too belonging to the lowest caste in Indian society, can reach it if she only has the vision and the strength of will. Mamata, too, bases her political identity on her earthy roots. She revels in being coarse and offensive, deals with all confrontations with the pugnacity that is her trademark, and claims to be the voice of the underprivileged. Her shrill ranting garners her immediate attention, which she uses to the maximum effect with her skill in manipulating the media. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Jayalalithaa, a convent school-educated high-caste Hindu with ties to a former life of glamour. Jayalalithaa, or ‘Amma’ as she is popularly called, trades on her popularity during her acting heydays with the movie-mad South. And Sonia, the charismatic inheritor of the Gandhi family legacy, has been credited with unifying and energising the Congress and providing much-needed direction to the once-floundering party.


But wait feminists! There isn’t cause for celebrations yet. The four women may be strong, independent individuals but there is no evidence that they would make good role models for the youth. Jayalalithaa has been jailed on corruption charges. Mamata Banerjee frequently switches her loyalties between parties. Mayawati survives by promoting divisive caste-based politics. And Sonia Gandhi banks on her ancestry to take the place of actual qualifications or abilities, an unfair channelling of dynasty politics on her part to come to power.


And despite the prominence of the four female leaders, women remain grossly under-represented in the political institutions of our country. Including party Chief Sonia Gandhi, only nine women figure in the list of 90 odd Lok Sabha candidates announced by the Congress so far. BSP has put up 500 candidates all over India, of which just 15 – the lowest number among all political parties – are women. The Trinamool Congress’s list of 27 candidates includes five women, and Jayalalitha’s AIADMK has only two women candidates out of 23. In fact, it is ironic that even in political parties headed by such dynamic women, the number of women candidates fielded are a tiny minority.


So until our female leaders use their power to protect their gender, and until the ordinary women of our country are provided equal opportunities to defend themselves and exert their influence, we cannot exult over the power of the Four in our Big Fat Indian Elections yet.


Joyeeta Biswas

[Image source:http://www.chennaionline.com/Columns/BytheBy/Feb09/Images/Amma01.jpg]