A day when many Indians will be remembering India’s first woman Prime Minister Indira Gandhi is the right day to ask if today’s political parties and voters are grooming its next generation of women leaders. After the Sonia Gandhi-Mayawati-Mamata Banerjee-Jayalalithaa layer of powerful, path-breaking women politicians, there seems to be absolutely no name that holds such promise for the future.
The gen-next of women politicians in India seem either too restricted, too low-profile, too complacent or just not groundbreaking enough. In fact, among the new generation of politicians in the country, it is mostly men who are being talked about.
To be sure, it is far tougher for women to pave their way in Indian politics – bogged down by inherent bigotry, biases and sexist stereotyping, all of which has created an extremely uneven playing field for decades.
After missing women among voters, workforce and population, we could be staring at the possibility of the missing woman leader in Indian politics.
The current crop of women politicians seems either uninspiring or uninspired, or just victims of their own images. Look at the ruling party – the BJP. Two of its biggest women leaders and Union ministers are Smriti Irani and Nirmala Sitharaman. The latter, in fact, holds the distinction of becoming the country’s first, full-time defence and finance minister.
Nirmala Sitharaman, however, is far from a political leader. She doesn’t have a mass base, has made little contribution to Indian politics and has become an unfortunate caricature of herself in her stint as finance minister.
Smriti Irani shows much promise and potential, but only in spurts. Her trajectory has been bumpy. She has proven her electoral prowess and grit by snatching Amethi away from the Gandhis, but her ministerial journey has been anything but flattering.
Priyanka Gandhi Vadra lives in her own bubble, choosing to waltz into politics whenever she fancies. She has shown no display of political astuteness or success at the hustings, and the only things going for her seem to be her last name and resemblance to Indira Gandhi.
There is barely any other name that comes to mind – a worrying sign.
And when they do come – Nusrat Jahan and Mimi Chakraborty, both of them are first-time MPs – you remember how they are trivialised. Nusrat’s religion takes precedence, and Mimi’s acting career or clothes do.
The generation that was
In the last three decades or so, women leaders may have been fewer in number but have held real sway in India’s politics.
Jayalalithaa ruled Tamil Nadu for nearly 15 years starting in 1991, and will always be remembered for being a solid and much-loved mass leader (she was called ‘Amma’) with her unique brand of welfare politics. Sheila Dikshit was a three-time chief minister of Delhi – a woman who had an iron grip on her administration and truly transformed the city. Sushma Swaraj was a feisty leader, a relentless fighter who went on to become a minister with a distinct touch (or tweet). She was among the most articulate, eloquent politicians India has seen. Agree or disagree with her politics (remember she said she would live like a ‘widow’ if Sonia Gandhi became PM?), there is little doubt she held her own in an aggressive BJP under both Vajpayee-Advani and Modi-Shah.
Sonia Gandhi may be a byproduct of dynasty, but there is little denying that she resurrected the Congress party at a time when it seemed to be at its lowest. Never mind that her son and former Congress president Rahul Gandhi actually managed to achieve the lowest two decades later. Sonia taught Congress the art of coalition politics.
Former Uttar Pradesh CM Mayawati and West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee are among the boldest and most defining political leaders India has seen. Mayawati gave a voice to the Dalit community, made Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) not just a social but electoral phenomenon. Her fortunes may have dipped in recent years but look closely, it is she who emerged as among the bigger gainers in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
Mamata Banerjee, a street fighter, has in many ways redefined the quintessential Indian politician. She pulled off what many thought was unachievable – putting an end to the over three-decades-long Left rule in West Bengal after creating a party from scratch. Today, she is among the few opposition leaders still holding ground in front of the ‘Modi wave’.
With Sushma, Sheila and Jayalalithaa gone, and Sonia, Mayawati and Mamata eras receding, which of its women politicians can India look forward to?
The unfortunate truth is that men in politics have it much easier, even among the younger crop. Rahul Gandhi got innumerable opportunities, despite turning out to be a fish trying to climb the political tree. Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav has made one bad decision after another but will continue to lead his party unchallenged, for now.
Look at the dynastic gen-next of politics – from Jagan Mohan Reddy to Sachin Pilot and now, Dushyant Chautala and Aaditya Thackeray – all in vogue and all, of course, men.
Rahul was always the first choice, Priyanka always the ‘back-up’. K.T. Rama Rao is more closely associated with his father K. Chandrashekar Rao’s legacy, not his sister K. Kavitha. Dimple Yadav is only the obedient ‘bahu‘, always playing a supporting role to husband Akhilesh. Stalin is the rightful claimant of M. Karunanidhi’s legacy in Tamil Nadu, not daughter Kanimozhi. Agatha Sangma, despite becoming Union minister at the age of just 29, plays second fiddle to brother and Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma. The list is long and examples aplenty.
Among the most famous quotes of Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first woman PM, is this one: “If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman”.
The men in Indian politics can keep paying lip service to the cause of women empowerment, but women need to take a cue from their older generation and emerge in their own right.