Narendra Modi has always projected himself as the über mensch, complete with a 56-inch chest. His doppelgänger Amit Shah is now a mini Modi issuing full-throated challenges to all rivals.
So, it is somewhat ironic that the biggest challenge to the patriarchs of the Sangh comes from three women politicians — four-term chief minister of Uttar Pradesh Mayawati; Mamata Banerjee, who literally uprooted the monopoly of the Left in West Bengal and has been chief minister since 2011; and political debutante, Congress general secretary (eastern Uttar Pradesh), Priyanka Gandhi.
With general elections barely weeks away, these three very different women are making life difficult for Modi and Shah.
Mamata Banerjee is a unique woman politician in India — she is not a daughter, wife or companion of a male politician. Banerjee has been a street fighter, once sustaining a skull fracture which left her hospitalised for months in her fight with the Left.
Modi and Shah repeatedly call her an “anarchist” and don’t quite know how to take her on.
Didi (sister), as Banerjee is called, got the better of them when they sent in the 40-member-strong CBI unit to question her police chief. The agitprop Didi immediately went on a dharna (protest) and before that the Kolkata police had already detained the CBI officials.
Shah and Modi want the BJP to grow in Bengal as they realise that the party has reached saturation point growth in northern India.
The BJP is eyeing the 42 Lok Sabha seats in Bengal and has played the audacious gamble of setting the northeast on fire with the Citizenship Bill in the hope of harvesting the Hindu vote in Bengal.
Didi is determined not to allow the BJP to grow in Bengal and actually prefers the Left to be her immediate opposition.
Didi’s fierceness is matched by “behenji” (sister), as Mayawati prefers to be known. Having sewn up an historic alliance with arch-rival and fellow regional heavyweight, Samajwadi Party Chief Akhilesh Yadav, behenji recently made her twitter debut.
Behenji is currently viscerally opposed to both the BJP and Congress, saying that they are “Nagnath and saapnath” (snakes). Mayawati also nurses prime ministerial ambitions and would be the first Dalit woman to occupy the office if her dreams come true.
While the Modi government has been trying to use CBI cases against her, Mayawati is not deterred. Her audacious tie-up with arch-rival Yadav has the potential to stop the BJP from attaining full majority and is the stuff of Shah’s nightmares.
Mayawati has been a stern administrator in the functioning anarchy that Uttar Pradesh is. She was particularly tough on law and order and under Yogi Adityanath’s chronic misrule. The lower castes, however, remember her term in office.
Mayawati is near obsessive when it comes to cleanliness and Lucknow is dotted with her statues alongside Bahujan Samaj Party founder Kanshiram.
Behenji sees no contradiction in building statues to herself saying it is a symbol of Dalit pride and assertion.
Priyanka Gandhi entered active politics, in part because of behenji’s obduracy in making any concessions to the Congress in the Uttar Pradesh alliance. Yadav was open to giving the Congress more than the allotted two seats (Amethi and Raebareli), but behenji refused to budge.
The Gandhi siblings were left with no choice but to fight for their political space in Uttar Pradesh. Priyanka’s entry is significant because, reeling from the 2014 defeat, the Congress had no funds and no plan.
It is still to be seen if “behen” (sister) Priyanka electrifies the voters, but she has given the Congress a crucial edge in headlines which matters in the big fight of the general elections.
Priyanka has ambushed Modi and Shah by showing up for husband Robert Vadra’s questioning by the Enforcement Directorate and has had non-stop coverage of her Uttar Pradesh trip.
Whether the optics translate into votes — a hard ask in weeks — she has certainly made the near-extinct Congress worker in Uttar Pradesh enthused. And, Modi will find that she gives as good as she gets when he gets into personal attack mode.
Didi, behenji and behen have certainly made the big fight more interesting.