A few days ago, the states of Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu and Kerala elected to power those who are expected to lead them over the next five years. In both Bengal as well as Tamil Nadu – both large states with substantial representation in Parliament – the two lady Chief Ministers got re-elected. They are Mamata Banerjee in Bengal and Jayaram Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu. Interestingly, both of them are unmarried and appear unlikely at this stage in their lives to ever enter into the matrimonial state. Both have total control over their respective parties – Mamata over the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and Jayalithaa over the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK).
Their Ministers are terrified of both the Chief Ministers and speak only when they are asked to speak, standing in line before their lady bosses in the manner of school children facing a headmistress. It has been a difficult climb to power for both Mamata as well as Japalalithaa, but both are easily the most popular politicians in their respective states, with a charisma so strong that even the BJP, led by Narendra Modi, tasted defeat during the May 2016 state assembly polls. Their victories have made both ladies a formidable force at the national level, and next year, if psephologists are correct and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) led by Mayawati comes to power in Uttar Pradesh with its two hundred million population, the three will form a formidable triumvirate. Should their successes in state assembly polls get replicated during the 2019 national elections, the three together may well be in the position to jointly decide who will be the Prime Minister, assuming the BJP is not able to get a majority on its own and falls short by a three-figure margin of the 272 seats needed to assume power at the centre.
Mayawati too is the sole decision-maker in her party, which she took over after the death of BSP founder Kanshi Ram, who worked tirelessly for four decades to fashion the “Dalits” (or the most socially disadvantaged in Indian society) into a formidable political force. The three ladies had been overshadowed by another formidable lady politician, Sonia Gandhi, who has been the President of the Congress Party for the past seventeen years. However, Sonia’s power even within her party diminished after the defeat of the party in the 2014 national elections, where it won 44 seats or less than 10% of the total strength of the Lok Sabha (House of the People). It is expected that her son Rahul will very soon take over as President of the All India Congress Committee, the apex body within the Congress Party.
The problem he faces is that during the ten years that his mother was in effect the Supreme Leader of the Government of India, the young heir to the leadership of the then ruling party refused to accept any responsibility in government, despite Prime Minister Manmohan Singh several times beseeching Rahul to “honour” him by joining the Council of Ministers headed by the gentlemanly Sikh who was born in what is now part of Pakistan. This has given rise to the view that Rahul Gandhi is afraid of responsibility.
It is a reflection of the state of politics in India that women clearly have found it more difficult to ascend in politics in India, except at the level of rural representational institutions (or panchayats), where a third of the seats are reserved for them. Efforts have been ongoing to extend such a reservation to the state assemblies and to Parliament, but so far this has not materialized. The reason is (perhaps deliberate) evolving of a structure that would mean the rotation of constituencies with every election, creating a level of instability that would be toxic to the representational process. A better way would be to reduce the number of constituencies but retain the same overall totals by making one third of Parliamentary constituencies having double member concept, with the second seat going to the woman candidate who has secured the most votes among the lay candidates.
In case a lady candidate has got the highest number of votes in the constituency, then both the seats within the constituency would be held by women, thereby boosting their representation in Parliament and in the state assemblies beyond one-third. The ruling coalition in Kerala, where the Chief Minister and all senior ministers are male, lost to the two Communist Parties in the election, while in Assam, a similar fate awaited another Chief Minister, Tarun Gogoi, who however had completed his third five-year term and who consequently was looking a bit jaded (he is in his eighties) to voters in the state.
In Tamil Nadu, it has been the norm for voters to throw out the incumbent government, but in this case, Jayalalithaa won, assisted by the fact that her adversary in the Chief Ministerial sweepstakes was 93 years old. Interestingly, in Kerala, the most effective campaigner for the Communist Party of India Marxist (CPM) was V S Achuthanandan, who is a spry 91. Had his party chosen him to be the Chief Minister of Kerala, he would have been the oldest person to hold such an office, but the CPM chose the 70-year old party organisation dynamo, Pinarayi Vijayan, to hold the post.
In neither Assam nor Kerala are there any signs of a lady taking over any of the major parties, but politics in India is developing dynamically as unpredictable as the weather, and hence this is not impossible in the future. So it may be said that Woman Power has reached from the village and town level to that of the state, but not yet at the national level. The only lady Prime Minister was Indira Gandhi, and the reason why she was chosen for the job was her birth certificate. She was the only child of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and the Congress Party leaders regarded it as natural to entrust a member of the family to the top job. In contrast, Mayawati, Mamata and Jayalalithaa have won leadership positions on their own, without any assistance from lineage. Should the BJP do badly in 2019 and a coalition government get formed as in 1996 or 2004, although lady leaders will be decisive in choosing the PM, it is unlikely that they will select one of themselves for the post. Almost certainly, should Narendra Modi have to switch roles from Prime Minister to Leader of the Opposition, his replacement will almost certainly be another man, thereby indicating the distance still to be covered by Woman Power in politics in India.
—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.