By Tanya Vasundharan Dec. 13, 2016
Jayalalithaa's death signals the end of an historic era, where a small group of powerful women called the shots. Where will the next generation of women leaders emerge from?
It’s 2011 in Kolkata. All around me there’s a furious buzzing about the upcoming state elections, and every day in college I’m asked, “Kake vote debe? Didi na Dada?” (Who will you vote for, Sister or Brother?) There’s a lot of optimism in the air. No, nobody is entirely convinced by Mamata Banerjee’s promise of poriborton, but they are fed up of the 34-year reign of “Dada”, the Left front in Bengal.
Everyone also seems to find it heartening to see a “self-made” woman make it to the front lines of our political system without a male patron.
My boyfriend at the time is the son of a former CPM member, and his friends tell us they’re sure they’ll win. They sneer at Mamata’s melodramatic antics, her fake PhD, her accent when she speaks English. Not far from his house is the party office. Whenever we pass it I can’t spot a single woman, only old men on plastic red chairs. I don’t know much, but I think maybe it’s about time to get these men’s bums off those seats.
Eventually, Mamata Banerjee did come to power as the first woman chief minister of West Bengal… and will go down in history for a high-octane, but mixed, legacy. Just the way we now remember Jayalalithaa. Much has been done on social media to balance out her authoritarian rule and apparent oversight of atrocities against Dalits and other minorities with her pro-poor stance, and insistence on 69 percent quotas for minorities in education and employment.
But her death is also an occasion to reflect on an historic era in Indian politics, where a small group of really powerful women called the shots at the national and state level. An era we might be witnessing the end of.
Every single one of our major “cult of personality” female figures is either gone or in trouble. Jayalalithaa is buried next to her mentor MG Ramachandran. Mamata has lost any shred of credibility: She has been laughed at and her mental health has been called into question after her claims of derailing an army coup attempt. Mayawati, who is no longer qualified as “BSP Supremo”, might have been the favourite candidate for UP chief minister in an India Today opinion poll in October, but might end up a runner-up to the BJP. Sonia Gandhi has been in and out of hospital and has all but faded from the scene. Sushma Swaraj, taking a break from resolving people’s passport and visa woes on Twitter, has just undergone a kidney transplant.
A litany of woes accompanies the women who do actually make it to the top.
Where do we turn for the next emergence of female leadership? It’s not as if things have ever been easy for women in the political arena. This analysis has a few sobering thoughts: “The participation of women in the Lok Sabha has, in fact, never exceeded 12 per cent since Independence.” Even in the Upper House, women’s participation has been a constant 7 per cent (barring the 1991 election, when it peaked at 15.5 per cent.) In the 2014 election, women MPs occupied only 61 of 543 seats –a little over 11 per cent. And while parties with women leaders saw an increase in support from women voters in the 2014 general elections, the Women’s Reservation Bill (2008) is still pending in Parliament.
A litany of woes accompanies the women who do actually make it to the top. The Caravan magazine recently interviewed several women leaders, who, unsurprisingly, spoke of sexual harassment and consistent underestimation by male colleagues. The sexist shit male politicians say is legion. As women legislators climb the ranks they’re expected to be increasingly submissive, which nudges politicians like Irani towards “cutthroat patriarchal politics that pits women against each other”. There is no better example of this than Maneka Gandhi, with her insistence that a marital rape law is irrelevant in an Indian context and her undermining of the extent of the country’s rape problem.
So if the oldies are on the outs, must we return to the never-ending and ever-boring chatter of Priyanka Gandhi throwing herself into public life? (We really ought to cut her some slack.) Barring Smriti Irani, we have the odd Supriya Sule or the Yadav bahus, but not one of them seems able to muster the kind of clout of the Mayas and the Jayas. Neither do they inspire confidence of being the master puppeteer that Sonia once was.
Maybe the answer lies in scoping out local women leaders, who might one day play a national role: People like Chhavi Rajawat, sarpanch of Soda, Rajasthan, who is expected to initiate smaller policy changes. Women’s participation in grassroots movements has been impressive lately: Take the 2015 protests led by Pembilai Orumai, a women’s labour union of tea-growers which demanded higher wages from plantation owners in Munnar. In Manipur, they played a particularly crucial role in protests against new bills which had inadequate protection measures for tribals. As always, dissent is an indicator of popular mood. Civil rights activist Irom Sharmila famously broke her 16-year anti-AFSPA hunger strike last year and announced in October that she’ll contest the next Manipur elections (though it’s uncertain how much support she’ll have.)
So here we are, hurtling towards 2017 and hoping the gender gap in Indian politics shrinks rather than expands. Here’s some naïve wishful thinking: Perhaps what the next generation of female leaders in this country really needs is a leg-up from their cohorts who are already in some position of power.
They’ve all battled sexism. So instead of being isolationists, neurotically protective of their positions and closed to any trust, maybe women politicians should think harder about being enablers to other women leaders. As the Didis and the Ammas fade, we’ll realise that we don’t need mythical goddesses occupying the seats of power. What we need are women leaders who make political spaces more accessible for other women.
Tanya Vasundharan is a writer and editor from Kolkata. She writes for The Ladies Finger and spends a lot of time watching films and wondering whether she should translate her grandmother's cookbooks.