Elections in India are fascinating as they throw up interesting possibilities. As the nation votes to elect a new set of representatives in parliament, three of the country’s top women political leaders — J Jayalalithaa, Mamata Banerjee and Mayawati– have expressed the desire to become prime minister. Visible in the media more for their imperious style and so-called tantrums, the three “power women” actually share a few significant characteristics.
Jayalalithaa and Mamata are current chief ministers of Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, while Mayawati is a former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. They lead parties with mass base and represent states more populous and electorally more important than “frontrunner” Narendra Modi’s Gujarat.
More importantly, they do not belong to any political dynasty. And they are single.
Their ambition to lead the country does not look out of place or irrelevant when seen in the backdrop of the changes Indian politics has undergone over the last two decades, including the falling gap between male and female voters. Over the years a number of strong regional parties — parties with a mass base in one state — have risen. This transformation of the political landscape defined by diversity, as Sumantra Bose, professor of comparative politics at London School of Economics, points out, has rendered obsolete the notion of a single, commanding nationwide leader, as Jawaharlal Nehru was in the 1950s and Indira Gandhi, who was the first woman prime minister of India (1966-1984), save for three years in between (1977-80) when she was out power.
Also, this transformation has come at a time when the gap between male and female voters is closing rapidly. According to the Election Commission, the gap between male and female voters has been falling steadily since 1962 and was the lowest in the last 2009 parliamentary polls. An analysis by the commission showed that in 16 of the 20 states that went to the polls after 2010, women’s voting percentage was higher than men’s. Recent surveys conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies reveal an emerging trend of greater preference among women voters for parties headed by women. The surveys also note women voters are inclined in favour of Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu and Mayawati in UP.
Women voters are projected to play a decisive role in determining the outcome in the 2014 general election.
Given such a context, each of the three leaders’ projection of herself in a national role is significant. But then the logical question is what makes them capable of playing a national role with much higher responsibilities. What’s their national agenda? And how are they positioned in the current race?
The Tamil Nadu chief minister broadcast her aspiration for a national role in a post-poll scenario when she addressed a rally last month from a dais modelled on the parliament building. Jayalalithaa is a three-time chief minister, who returned to power two years ago. A consummate politician, the AIADMK leader is also known as a “skilled” administrator. Under her leadership Tamil Nadu has become one of India’s biggest manufacturing hub, especially of automobile.
Economist Jessica Seddon sums up the Tamil Nadu strongwoman saying she embodies three of the most important trends in Indian regional politics. “She is imperial in style, technocratic in her administrative approach and populist in her politics,” Seddon told the Financial Times.
In her party manifesto for the Lok Sabha polls, Jayalalithaa promises a “determined, bold and strong leadership” and a government which “performs”. She says she would uphold secularism, boost manufacturing and go for a universal public distribution system in place of the UPA’s food security scheme. The party also promises to pass the Women’s Reservation Bill and extend the state government’s populist schemes to the rest of the country.
Jayalalithaa has been asking for a greater say in India’s foreign policy formulation. “The foreign policy of the country should not hurt the interests of the states in the country,” notes the AIADMK manifesto.
She promises to check Chinese aggression and Pakistan-backed militancy, work for a permanent seat for India in the UN Security Council. It will also work to retrieve Katchatheevu islet, ceded to Sri Lanka in the mid-70s.
Tamil Nadu this time is seeing a four-cornered contest. The realization of her ambition solely depends on her party’s performance in the 40 (39 in Tamil Nadu and 1 in Puducherry) seats.
Similarly, in West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee has pitched for a national role. “After the elections, Trinamul will emerge as the third largest party in the country…The next government in Delhi will be a Trinamul-led one,” she pompusly claims.
Mamata Banerjee has a clean image, known for her home-spun lifestyle. Although the law and order situation has not been a happy one during her three-year rule, she has succeeded in stabilising the situation in the Maoist-dominated areas of Jangalmahal, as well as in the Darjeeling hills, which had been rocked by a statehood agitation.
But the most problematic is the state’s ailing economy. Banerjee has not been able to get special funds from the Centre to tide over the situation. That has made the Trinamool Congress leader adopt a belligerent posture. “We would like to see a re-negotiation of the federal equation in Delhi,” says Sugato Bose, professor of history at Harvard University and party candidate in Jadavpur constituency.
The Bengal chief minister’s national agenda includes upholding secularism, national security and seeing a corruption-free and transparent government.
Like her Tamil Nadu counterpart, Banerjee wants a say in foreign policy making. The Trinamool manifesto says foreign policy should be guided by the “self-interest of our nation”. This assertion is significant given her opposition to sharing the Teesta waters with Bangladesh. “Earlier, we used to accept the Centre’s policy on external affairs and defence…But, this time, we have seen so many scams in the defence sector,” adds she.
For the first time, Trinamool is fighting the elections without an ally. There is a four-cornered contest and it is not known who would cut into whose votes. Banerjee is however upbeat and says her party would win almost all the 42 seats.
In Uttar Pradesh, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) supremo and former chief minister Mayawati laid bare her prime ministerial ambition at a press conference in Lucknow saying she would want to form a government at the Centre. “Our target in this Lok Sabha election is to become the balance of power at the Centre. If we achieve that, we would want to form our own government with the help of like-minded and secular allies,” she said.
Traditionally, the BSP does not issue a manifesto. The BSP is faced mainly with a four-cornered contest in the state. the party is expected to do well in view of the polarised political situation in the wake of the recent Muzaffarnagar riots and the ruling Samajwadi party’s alleged involvement, and Narendra Modi contesting from Varanasi.
The predictions of a fractured mandate this year have facilitated the desires of heads of many regional parties. Jayalalitha, Mamata and Mayawati are no exceptions. However, there is nothing extraordinary in their governance records which can stand them apart from other leaders having similar aspirations.
More importantly, as women, are the three leaders bringing anything special to politics? Although their success has an empowering effect, they are not ushering in a different quality to the political game to be real change agents.