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Women at the top in Indian politics

Equal participation is still a dream for women in Indian politics

Image Credit: Illustrations Ramachandra Babu/©Gulf News
Sheila Dikshit, Mamata Banerjee and Sonia Gandhi
Gulf News

An interesting SMS is doing the rounds these days — Tai (sister) in President's House, Amma (mother) in the South, Didi (sister) in the East, Behenji (sister) in the North, Aunty in Delhi and Madam at the Centre — India is living on women power!

The message refers to President of India Pratibha Patil, and chief ministers, Jayalalitha of Tamil Nadu, Mamata Banerjee of West Bengal, Mayawati of Uttar Pradesh, Sheila Dikshit of New Delhi and Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi.

The landslide victory of Mamata and Jayalalitha in the recent assembly poll results has added to the triumph of women and clearly proved that the voters trust women leaders over men.

Other prominent women that instantly come to mind include Speaker of the Lok Sabha Meira Kumar, leader of the Opposition in Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj and Governor of Uttarakhand Margaret Alva.

After the first woman chief minister of Uttar Pradesh Sucheta Kripalani in the 1960s, followed by Nandini Satpathy of Orissa, Shashikala Kakodkar of Goa, Syeda Anwar Taimur of Assam and Janaki Ramachandran of Tamil Nadu, the list expanded.

Beginning in the 1990s others who held the fort as chief minister of state were Rajinder Kaur Bhattal, Punjab; Vasundhara Raje Scindia, Rajasthan; Uma Bharti, Madhya Pradesh; and Rabri Devi of Bihar. While some had a cakewalk, others made their foray into politics the hard way.

Interestingly, seldom witnessed anywhere in the world, few wives have contested elections in India at the behest of their politician husbands only to retain the seat. While the husband ran the show from behind-the-scenes, the ‘caretaker' wife would work as a rubber stamp. Rabri Devi is one example. As chief minister, she was never allowed to take independent decisions and was in fact a pawn in the hands of her husband Lalu Prasad.

But in absolute contrast to her was the indomitable Phoolan Devi, who refused to be kow-towed by anyone. Having made her way to politics, she lived life in her own way and refused to submit to any political party or politicians.

Though many others have had a brush with active politics in the past, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi remains the subcontinent's most powerful female politician ever. Once described as a ‘dumb doll', she was later complimented as the ‘only man in the cabinet' and became the epitome of power, ruling the nation for 15 years.

As India's only woman prime minister to date, she is known the world over for her charismatic personality.

Similarly, Pratibha Patil has created history. She is the first woman to hold the office of the President of India. Having fought her first election at the age of 27 in 1961, she has the distinction of not having lost a single election to date.

The political empowerment of women in politics is remarkable. In some cases it could be termed as a quirk of fate, but more or less, they have all fought against the odds to rise to the top echelons.

But considering politics as the ultimate bastion of power, it's surprising how the male psyche has given in to the rise of the opposite sex. And both their followers and critics have accepted and acknowledged women in powerful positions.

Political experts may remain skeptical citing the example of Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati, who seems to have belied a lot of expectations in the way she has run Uttar Pradesh in the last couple of years, but there's no doubting her strong Dalit following.

Mayawati may be known more for her flashy birthdays and a penchant for installing her own statues all over the state rather than ruling by statute, but none can take the credit from her for running the country's most populous and important state.

Similarly, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam's Jayalalitha showed fewer achievements during her stint as Tamil Nadu chief minister and was discussed more for her collection of sarees and wealth than her political force.

Now that she has sent the M. Karunanidhi clan packing in the state elections there is slight cynicism and her detractors have begun referring to her earlier high-handedness. But it would be unfair to forget her few positive traits. Jayalalitha did introduce schemes for the benefit of women, children and the underprivileged.

Another woman with a massive following is the indomitable Mamata Banerjee of Trinamool Congress. Known for her mercurial behaviour and tantrums in the political circles, she defeated the Communists and in one strong single stroke brought an end to the 34-years rule of the Left Front government in West Bengal. Whether she makes a difference to the lives of the people who have voted her to power will be seen in the coming years. Mamata is one of the most prominent examples of a woman who had no political godfather or mentor.

In this regard, Congress party veteran Sheila Dikshit has been fortunate. Married into a well-connected political family, she had the initial benefit due to family patronage, but later learnt and experienced the nuances of politics on the job. Her rise to stupendous heights has been due to her firm resolve and style of functioning.

Sheila has brought about a silent revolution, changing the way the Delhiites lived and breathed. Credit goes to her for introducing Compressed Natural Gas in the city and making Delhi greener than it ever was.

Corroborating the verity that women are more efficient under stressful conditions, a research study was done recently. It showed that women performed better than their male counterparts when it came to inter-personal skills and taking difficult decisions.

Why women are able to handle pressure well, the study said, is because of the fact that the Indian woman is conditioned to playing a number of roles at home itself. They are inherently predisposed to better governance because that's the role they play at home. From nurturing the family to looking after the children and elders, they make judicious decisions. In politics too these skills come to the fore.

A case in point is Congress Party president, Sonia Gandhi. Despite her foreign origin, she emerged as the head of a major party in the Indian Parliament. Although, she had political advantage because of marrying into the Nehru-Gandhi family, the manner in which she managed to hold the party together when it suffered stormy times is commendable. Her phenomenon is noteworthy.

But several decades after the Indian Constitution gave women the right to equality, their participation in politics on an equal footing still remains a dream.

It's surprising that the world's largest democracy presently has only 60 women representatives out of 544 members in the Lok Sabha, while there are 26 women MPs in the 242-member Rajya Sabha.

Why women have not been able to enter politics in large numbers could be because India remains a traditionally conservative society. And men can't accept seeing women of their house entering a largely male-dominated turf. They oversee the fact that women have managed to remote control their homes despite being quintessence of authority in the corridors of power.


MayawatiBorn on January 15, 1956, in New Delhi, Mayawati, is unmarried. According to her "She has no time for family life and romantic relationships." Not surprising, she is referred to as Behenji (sister).

Influenced by Dalit leader Kanshi Ram in 1977 who, in 1984, founded the Bahujan Samaj Party, Mayawati won her first Lok Sabha election in 1989 from Bijnor in Uttar Pradesh.

After three short tenures between 1995 and 2003, it is her fourth term in the office as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. At the age of 39, she was the youngest politician and the first Dalit woman to be elected chief minister.

In a largely male-dominated environment of politics in UP, Mayawati has clawed her way up and has no consideration for courtesies.

Numerous memorials of Dalit leaders have come up in the state during her tenure. She insists her own statues must have her holding her handbag, which has become her trademark.


SoniaConsidered one of the most powerful women in the world today, Sonia Gandhi entered politics quite reluctantly in 1996. Having faced stiff opposition from politicians of all hues, there was then skepticism from her own party due to her foreign origins.

She may not have had the political acumen, but has managed to quieten her dissenters, who now refer to her as Madam Gandhi. With her don't-mess-with-me attitude she controls the Congress party, even though technically, she does not hold any position in the government.

Often referred to as the ‘remote control' behind the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government, Sonia has come a long way and shown that she is made of hard Italian marble.

A political commentator rightly remarked that she had captured the enviable position of absolute power, but zero accountability.

Born on December 6, in Lusiana, Veneto in Italy, she occupies the best-known address — 10 Janpath, in New Delhi.


JayalalithaA style icon, Jayalalitha was one of the leading actresses in the South Indian film industry in the 1960s and 1970s.

Although nursing an ambition of becoming a lawyer, she unwillingly took up acting due to her family's financial condition, as her father died when she was two-years-old.

The actress, who worked with M G Ramachandran (MGR), called it a day in 1981 and the same year was inducted by him into the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and nominated to the Rajya Sabha in 1988.

She faced the rough and tumble of politics and emerged victorious on her own strength and conviction.

Although alienated by a faction of the party after MGRs death in 1987, Amma, as she is popularly known, won the Tamil Nadu legislative assembly elections in 1989.

Born on February 24, 1948, in Mysore, Karnataka, Jayalalitha has been chief minister three times - 1991, 2001 and 2011.


Pratibha PatilShe made history by becoming the first woman president of the country in 2007. Her election to the top post is in addition to other laurels. Holding the distinction of becoming the first woman president to fly the Sukhoi, a fighter aircraft, she also became the first governor of Rajasthan.

Born on December 19, 1934, in Nadgaon village of Jalgaon district, Maharashtra, she pursued her studies as a law student while holding her position as an MLA.

A practicing lawyer, she worked on various social issues, especially for the welfare of poor women.

Pratibha successfully contested her first election at the age of 27, having later served as a Member of Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha.

Referred to as Tai (a term of respect used for an elderly woman), she has always kept a low profile and actively espoused issues such as female foeticide and discrimination against female children.


MamataThe firebrand orator, known as Didi, Mamata Banerjee graduated with an honours degree in History, followed by a law degree from Kolkata.

Having joined politics in the 70s, she rose in the ranks to become the general secretary of the state Women Congress in 1976. Leading an austere lifestyle throughout, she took up the issues of small farmers and in 1984 became one of India’s youngest ever MP.

She set up Trinamool Congress (TMC) in 1998 after falling out with the Congress party. Mamata hit the headlines for holding a Samajwadi Party MP by the collar and dragging him out of the well of the Lok Sabha to prevent him from protesting against the Women’s Reservation Bill.

Born on January 5, 1955 in Birbhum, West Bengal, she became Railway Minister twice – in 1999, on joining the National Democratic Alliance government, and in 2009 on aligning with the United Progressive Alliance government.


SheilaDubbed by Delhiites as Aunty No.1, Sheila Dikshit was born in Kapurthala, Punjab on March 31, 1938. Daughter of an army officer, she married into the family of veteran freedom fighter and Congress leader Uma Shankar Dikshit.

Her association with politics started in 1969 and her foray into electoral politics came in 1984 when she won the Lok Sabha seat from Kannauj, Uttar Pradesh. She was inducted into Rajiv Gandhi’s cabinet in 1986.

After winning the prestigious Gole Market seat in 1998 and 2003, Sheila was elevated to the post of Chief Minister of Delhi. Her subsequent win in the Assembly elections in 2008 was a hat trick.

The woman with a grandmotherly smile understands the pulse of the people. Dealing with the nitty-gritty of things that make a difference, she is always able to balance her act right.

One of the best-dressed politician, she is impeccable in her silk and cotton sarees.


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