Women Leaders in India

Women Leaders: From Dynasty to Legitimacy


An analysis of the role of women leaders in Indian politics reveals a paradox. On the one hand, India, both in the past and at present, continues to have a number of powerful women in top political positions, well-known nationally and internationally for their strong personalities and, in some cases, efficient governance. On the other hand, the number of women in politics—in national political parties and in Parliament—continues to be woefully few. It is also alleged that the former have been able to reach top political positions mainly because they are either the daughters, or wives, of well-known political leaders. While dynastic succession of women is not absent in other parts of the world, two features seem to characterise South Asia. The first is ’emergency dynastic succession’ as a result of assassination or a military coup, which brought leaders such as Bandaranayake, Benazir Bhutto, Corazon Aquino or Aung San Suu Kyi to power in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Philippines and Myanmar, respectively, gave their husbands/fathers dramatic martyrdom and provided them legitimacy (Richter, 1990: 528). The second is the dynastic continuation of a family, including its women members, over a number of generations rather than in a single instance, exerting family control over a political party, the Congress party in India providing a good example.

However, in recent years, this picture is undergoing a gradual change and an analysis of the emergence, role and impact of women political leaders reveals a more complex and nuanced picture. While the number who enter politics and reach the pinnacle remains very low, two developments point to the increasingly important role of women leaders in politics. First, the rise of political parties led by women such as Mayawati, Mamata Banerjee or Jayalalithaa, that have captured power in their own states; second, as leaders of these parties these women leaders today also occupy the national stage as regional allies that can determine the life of the central coalition in a fragmented, multi-party system. Against this backdrop, this chapter, analysing the political careers of some important women leaders, argues that while dynasty and family connections remain important variables determining entry and functioning of the large majority of women leaders in politics, a handful of women leaders have been able to enter politics on their own and emerge as independent and strong women leaders in their own right.

A perusal of the existing literature suggests there are two angles from which the role of women leaders can be examined. First, whether women leaders work differently and bring in different skills from their male counterparts and, second, to examine their role in politics and record while in office. As gender is a socially constructed category, there are stereotypical images about women and men in public life, their leadership characteristics, their relative strengths and weaknesses. Many feminists point to the ‘moral capital’ argument which suggests that women are less corrupt than their male counterparts; less likely to act opportunistically from self-interest; more likely to exhibit softer behaviour on social issues; score more highly on ‘integrity tests’; take stronger stances on ethical issues with resulting benefits to the democratic governance of society. Celebrating this difference they hold that women need not, and must not, change when they enter public life, a strategy that gives them an initial advantage. However, scholars belonging to the post-modern, Southern and Black feminisms criticise the gender-as-difference argument and point to the tremendous diversity in politics across the Indian subcontinent due to differences in identities based on region, religion, caste and class, which come together to create gender inequality in a number of ways (Spary, 2007: 263) The feminine category, they feel, is homogenised in accounts of white middle-class women which does not provide space to the experiences of marginalised groups in society. Thus, one can argue that there are as many differences among women as between men and women, which have been lost in the internalisation of differences between genders that is part of the daily discourse on them.

Here we based on the second argument, focuses on the emergence and role of women political leaders in order to understand their impact on national politics and governance, though it recognises that the gender argument cannot be completely set aside, as women face many hurdles in their careers. Accordingly, it examines the paths through which women leaders enter politics, the hurdles they encounter, and the reasons for their small number despite sixty years of democratic politics during which women have enjoyed equal legal rights and a growing feminist movement that has tried to address the question of gender equality in public and private life. Against this backdrop, examining the mode of entry, style of functioning and achievements/failures of some important women leaders, the chapter discusses whether they work differently, are more honest, efficient and committed, than their male counterparts and whether, through hard work, they have been able to achieve an independent status and legitimacy’ from the electorate.

Classificatory framework: Understanding women leaders

With the gradual emergence of a variety of women leaders, a classification helps us understand their role and impact on national politics. One method of classifying women leaders is the path they have used to reach the top, based on which three types of women leaders can be identified: dynastic succession, institutional climbers and proxy leaders. The first consist of those who have emerged through dynastic succession, having succeeded their fathers/ husbands, good examples being Indira Gandhi or Sonia Gandhi, who inherited control of the Congress. But, increasingly, this category is visible in parties other than the Congress.

The second category consists of those who have climbed the institutional ladder and reached the top on their own, good examples being Mamata Banerjee or Uma Bharati. Leaders such as Jayalalithaa, Mayawati or Sheila Dikshit—chief ministers but with a national image—fall in-between, i.e. they had the initial advantage of being associated or related to a male leader, but have climbed the ladder of success due to their own hard work; ‘transactional’ career politicians who have overcome the dynastic marker (Spary, 2007: 253-77). The third group consists of proxy women who have occupied positions of power but have earned little respect or legitimacy, a good example being Rabri Devi, although we do find many examples in the Hindi heartland, elected as Panchs or Sarpanchs but, in reality, it is their husbands who take decisions and control resources (Pai, 1998).

Another method of classifying women leaders is on the basis of caste as upper-caste women find it easier to enter national politics while those at the bottom suffer the double disadvantage of gender and caste. Most women who have had the advantage of dynastic succession are from the upper caste: Indira Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi and Jayalalithaa. Mayawati is the only example of a Dalit woman who has climbed the political ladder to emerge as a strong women leader. Political parties often select women leaders to establish credentials as a party of the lower castes. Some good examples are Meira Kumar, the Speaker of the Lok Sabha; and Selja Kumari, a cabinet minister in the present UPA government. Two backward-caste women leaders are Uma Bharati and Rabri Devi, with the latter already mentioned as a proxy leader.

Low presence of women in national politics

Despite women having become prime ministers and chief ministers, as Table 1 reveals, the number of women in the national Parliament remains low, the average over 15 Lok Sabhas being a meagre 560 members, or 7.08 per cent. The number of women leaders in political parties is also dismal. Two reasons have been proffered for this state of affairs: political parties are reluctant to give tickets to women as their ability to win is considered low (Omvedt, 2005). This is despite the fact that four political parties with a national presence are headed by women: the Congress by Sonia Gandhi; the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) by Mayawati; the Trinamool Congress (TMC) by Mamata Banerjee; and the All India Anna Dravida Munetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) by Jayalalithaa The principal opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has a number of women leaders such as Sushma Swaraj, Uma Bharati and Vasundhararaje Scindia-the latter two have been chief ministers of MP and Rajasthan, respectively-but the number of

seats it offers to women is low. In the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, major national parties offered a total of 110 seats to women: Congress, 45; BJP, 30; BSP, 20; Communist Party of India (CPI), 2; LIT (M), 8; and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), 5. The winning percentage was above 25 per cent in all cases, except the BSP and the CPI (Spary, 2007). A study of the 2004 parliamentary elections shows that a major factor in women’s low winning percentage was at the political party level; the ‘success rate’ of the women who actually contested was 12.4 per cent compared to 9.8 per cent for men (Deshpande, 2004).

A second reason often pointed out is the failure of the Lok Sabha to pass the Constitutional Amendment Bill seeking to provide 33 per cent reservation to women in Parliament. The Bill was drafted and introduced in the Lok Sabha as the 81st Constitutional Amendment Bill in September 1996 during the tenure of the United Front Government, but could not be passed. Subsequently, it was introduced a number of times as the 84th Constitutional Amendment Bill by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Government, but could not be passed. In 2004, the UFA government included the Bill in its Common Minimum Programme, but it was only in 2008 that it was introduced in the Rajya Sabha where, amidst much din and shouting, it was passed on 9 March 2010, but it still needs to be passed by the Lok Sabha (The Hindu, 2010). The major source of opposition has been members of parties representing the backward castes such as the Samajwadi Party (SP), who argue that a quota should be kept aside for backward, minority and Dalit women without which it would allow the entry of more upper-caste/class women, most of whom are wives/sisters/daughters of members. But women members feel that it is gender bias as, over the years, the debate has been bitter, and they have faced violent abuse and been caricatured as ‘bal-cutti memsahibs’ (short-haired memsahibs) or the ‘biwi’ (wives) brigades, and their agendas described as divisive for the country (Rai, 1999).

Feminist scholars have also questioned the usefulness of quotas for women in Parliament.4 Invoking Nancy Fraser, Shirin Rai articulates the feeling of many that political representation would be a strategy of ‘recognition’ rather than ‘redistribution’, thus limiting its transformative potential (Rai, 1999). The Bill has provoked serious debate in the country as to whether quotas are the best way forward to bring women into politics. Many argue that increased attention to improving female education, sex ratio, food security, the issues of divorce, adoption and share in family property, the gender-sensitive training of the police, bureaucracy and judiciary would create the conditions needed for women to enter politics.

Context of participation

Equally important, the context within which women leaders emerge and participate has historically not been very conducive. During the anti-colonial struggle women did participate and were encouraged to do so, strengthening their legal rights and educational attainments. But it was largely upper-caste/middle-class women who participated, encouraged by their own families. This did not affect attitudes towards the traditional gender hierarchy; the enemy was not patriarchy, but foreign domination (Forbes, 2000). Consequently, in the post-Independence period, despite a liberal attitude towards the participation of women in politics, it remained low. It was only in the 1970s, especially in the light of the Report, Towards Equality, produced by the Committee on the Status of Women that attention was drawn towards the need for greater involvement. The women’s movement attempted to empower women, but it remained fragmented along ideological lines, with few movements and most of them on specific issues such as dowry, alcohol, violence and economic opportunities, rather than gender equality. Since the 1990s, the Hindutva movement has attempted to mobilise women, but along conservative lines. Political parties have set up women’s wings that have appropriated women without giving them much space in the higher echelons.

Nevertheless, since the 1980s, a number of developments have introduced some change. Democratisation and rising levels of politicisation, particularly in the Hindi heartland; improved literacy levels; decline of the Congress Party and the emergence of regional, backward caste and Dalit-based parties; and improved levels of growth in some states, have provided new avenues to women 5 Since the mid-1990s, six states in India, including the national capital region, have been governed by women and at least three women leaders of regional/state parties have acquired national status and been instrumental in supporting/maintaining national governments: Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati and Jayalalithaa. The entry of Sonia Gandhi into national politics, prior to the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, was because Congressmen, afraid of the declining position of the Congress, were keen to obtain support by using the name of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.


Role and impact

We now turn to an analysis of the methods of functioning and governance by some women leaders in India. Our investigation is based on the few existing studies on women leaders, media accounts and the public image of their honesty, administrative ability, capacity for political mobilisation, and the management of political parties.

Both Indira Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi owed their entry into politics because of their dynastic position. Subsequently, their paths have been quite different. Indira Gandhi, recognised as strong women leader, nationally and internationally, was made the prime minister by the Congress ‘syndicate’ which felt that the party would benefit from her image as Nehru’s daughter during a period when the party was facing a number of problems. Famously described by them as ‘goongi gudiya’ (dumb doll), within a few years she was able to obtain control over the party, emerge as a strong leader and deal successfully with a number of crises: the defeat of the Congress in eight states in 1967; the Congress split in 1969, which led to the formation of the Congress (I) that obtained a parliamentary majority in 1972, based on the 20-point programme; introduction of the Green Revolution, which effectively dealt with the food crisis; and withstanding pressure from the US to introduce changes in foreign and domestic policies.7 She has been described as a popular plebiscitary leader, i.e. one who could appeal directly to the people and not through her party or government. However, she has faced much criticism for an authoritarian style of functioning, imposing the Emergency and trying to centralise and personalise power, which also weakened the Congress party (Hart, 1976).

Her daughter-in-law, Sonia Gandhi, who today controls the Congress, is admired on some accounts as an Italian who has adjusted to Indian life and customs and who revived an almost defunct party in the late 1990s (Kidwai, 2009). Nevertheless, she has faced criticism over the Bofors scandal, for poor administrative capacity, policy paralysis in UPA-II, and preserving the party as a family-holding by promoting her son, Rahul Gandhi, as her heir. A study argues that, unable to earn her status as a leader in her own right, ‘dynastic charisma’ has been used as a ‘cover’ for image-building and creating ‘celebrification in politiсs’, although such manipulated attempts have limited impact as they become routinised (Chakravorti, 1999: 2842). Despite this, with her control over the Congress Party she may continue to derive support, considering the leadership vacuum in contemporary Indian politics and the emergence of Hindu fundamentalism which threatens the secular, liberal and socialist trends (ibid.: 2843). This category is not limited to Indira Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi, both of whom have enjoyed independent control of the Congress and have achievements to their credit. A younger generation of educated and capable wives and daughters are entering ‘feudal’ political parties, which are under the control of a patriarchal figure. Good examples are the Samajwadi Party (SP), Akali Dal, NCP and the DMK, in which wives/daughters play a subordinate role.

In contrast, the seminal achievements and honest image of Sheila Dikshit, the doughty Chief Minister of Delhi, has overshadowed the fact that she is the daughter-in-law of Congress leader Uma Shankar Dikshit. During her three terms in office she has dealt effectively with factionalism within the party; been able to expand the Delhi Metro; provide a new bus transport system under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission QNNURM); and improved roads, flyovers and other conveniences for the citizens, which have earned her much support. The rise and success of Jayalalithaa, a former film actress, is a more complicated story. While her association with popular film hero MGR enabled her to become leader of the AIADMK and the chief minister for two terms (1991-96 and 2001-06), she has also been described as a beautiful woman, a ruthless and authoritarian leader and an able administrator (Banerjee, 2004: 291). Beginning with a difficult apprenticeship under MGR, when she learned to survive in a largely male political arena, she successfully competed with V. Janaki, the widow of MGR, for control of the AIADMK, and has withstood attempts by the DMK patriarch Karunanidhi and his partymen to malign her image and misbehave with her in the Assembly. Popularly called amma, or mother, she has worked hard using an elaborate system of patronage and established herself as an independent leader (ibid.). But she still draws on MGR’s charismatic, Robin Hood figure which is portrayed in her campaigns. Despite corruption charges and an opulent lifestyle, she is equated with a modern day ‘Tamiltaay’ a uniquely Tamil ideal which appeals to men and women, combining the varied female attributes of mother, desirable woman, virginal goddess, while also personifying the Tamil language itself (Banerjee, 2004).

Despite being a Dalit woman, Mayawati has overcome tremendous opposition to become the chief minister of UP, a conservative state where Brahmin men have long enjoyed power. Selected and mentored by Kanshi Ram, when he brought her into the All India Backward and Minority Communities Employees’ Federation (BAMCEF) in the mid-1980s, many felt a woman would not be able to handle the rough and tumble of Dalit politics. In the mid-1990s, hired goons of the SP, it is alleged, made an attempt on her life and person in the well-known guest house incident, but she emerged stronger from this episode (Bose, 2012). Although the BSP was established by Kanshi Ram, building a strong organisation and achieving a majority in 2007 has been her achievement. Despite her authoritarian control over the party, the cadres respect and like their Behenji. In the mid-1990s, when she became chief minister for the first time, Mayawati emerged as a role-model for Dalit women in Uttar Pradesh (Pai, 1998). During her term as chief minister from 2007 to 2012, instead of her Dalit-oriented agenda she attempted to develop backward regions and all disadvantaged sections. Nevertheless, there is also trenchant criticism that Mayawati has failed the Dalit movement by compromising with upper-caste groups/parties and is a very corrupt politician whose family members have amassed fortunes (The Indian Express, 2012).

Uma Bharati, the fiery sadhavi with oratorical skills and religious training, has sacrificed everything for her political career and is recognised as a leader of the BJP. As a sadhavi, she does not have the usual image of a woman politician; owing to her loyalty to the Sangh Parivar and Hindutva ideology, only conservative Hindu women support her, but her greatest asset is that she is perceived as a backward-caste leader. She has a number of undeniable achievements: member of the Lok Sabha for five consecutive terms, no mean achievement with no family connections and in a party not very congenial to women leaders; ministerial positions at the Centre; and vice-president of the Madhya Pradesh unit of the BJP. However, as a maverick leader, she has often challenged party rules, leading to her expulsion in 2005, forming a party of her own and eventually returning to the BJP (Frontline, 2005). Although viewed as honest, Bharati’s record as the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh was undistinguished, leading to her replacement. She is one of the most articulate and aggressive leaders of the BJP who made her mark, not as an administrator, but by leading the party’s Hindutva campaign.

Mamata Banerjee also rose without any family connections, through sheer grit and determination, to become a recognised regional and national leader. She has a number of achievements to her credit: she was elected five times to the Lok Sabha from the South Kolkata constituency; she was a Youth Congress leader in West Bengal; she formed her own party—the TMC—which is positioned as both anti-Congress and anti-Left, an ally of both the NDA and United Progressive Alliance-II (UPA-II); she was appointed railway minister in both governments. However, the most seminal achievement has been defeating the Communists who were in power for almost 30 years, a feat that could not be achieved by the Congress opposition (Banerjee, 2004). Like Jayalalithaa—a colourful and unorthodox women leader with huge public bases, flamboyant personality and ‘populist appeal’ —Banerjee does not conform to public standards of feminine behaviour; she does not only have a reputation for unpredictability, ruthlessness, and a volatile temper, but also a mastery of the timing of public gestures, the manipulation of public sentiment, sycophantic loyalty from followers and complete control over the party. In contrast, her public image is clean; she is viewed as honest and supported by the poorer sections, especially women, although she has used both ‘assertive and paternalist populism’ to build her constituency and gain power . Unmarried and from a modest, lower middle-class family, she still dresses in inexpensive khadi sarees and slippers and lives frugally in her old house in a congested south Kolkata area. But Banerjee has displayed little capacity to effectively govern West Bengal. Rather, she is a ‘street fighter’ ready to gherao (ambush) political leaders, join marches and sit-ins on the streets even as chief minister, for social and political causes. Her followers compare her to the goddess Durga and a tigress for the twin qualities of female courage and intolerance for injustice, which voters find rare in politicians.

Rabri Devi, in contrast to the other women leaders studied, has commanded little respect from voters as chief minister of Bihar, except or behaving as a model wife. Put into the office by her husband Laloo Prasad Yadav, a charismatic, backward caste

leader who was arrested in a fodder scam in 1997, she held the post for three successive periods: July 1997-February 1999- March !999-2000; March 2000-05 (Sinha, 2012). Rabri Devi was able to draw on her husband’s popularity and the elaborate patronage system established by him for the Yadav community. It limited her strength and ability to deal with the bureaucracy and party workers; she lost the respect of the electorate and disappeared from the political scene after the defeat of the RJD in 2005 (Spary, 2007).

Our analysis shows that, although India is a functioning democracy and has experienced considerable democratisation over the last few decades, the number of women leaders in national politics remains abysmally low. Both historical factors, which point towards slow change in patriarchal attitudes towards women and poor development of women’s agency after Independence, have been responsible. Consequently, dynastic succession or family connections remain an important avenue through which women leaders have emerged. This trend is true not only of women leaders soon after Independence, but a younger generation of better-educated women—wives and daughters of established male leaders—who have, in recent years, entered Parliament and established themselves in national/state parties. Subsequently, only a few have been able to gain recognition as independent leaders; most remain in the shadow of their husbands or fathers. One reason for this is the larger phenomenon of dynastic or feudal parties in which entire families under a patriarchal figure, including women members who have a subordinate role, are involved.

The brief perusal of the functioning of some women leaders who have reached the top shows that there is no one model which fits all women leaders; rather, there are considerable differences among them on all four counts discussed. Women leaders in India are as corrupt, or as honest, as their male counterparts. Mayawati, Jayalalithaa and Sonia Gandhi are perceived by the electorate as having amassed fortunes for their family members and court cases have been filed against the first two. On the other hand, both Mamata Banerjee and Uma Bharati are viewed as honest. Some women leaders have proved highly capable in political mobilisation, establishing their own parties, maintaining a strong control over them and capturing power.

But rule by these women leaders is not always better; they have not hesitated to use authoritarian and confrontational methods, or corrupt means to achieve power, or implement desired policies. They have also proved adept at shifting support from one coalition to another, of holding at ransom the central coalition and legislation in Parliament. Hence, leadership roles are transgendered and having more women may make no difference.

All the women leaders studied, including those who rose through dynastic succession, faced many obstacles and hardships and it took time and effort on their part to gain recognition as national leaders. Gender affects authority and women leaders—with a few exceptions such as Indira Gandhi—and commands less legitimacy, authority and respect from the electorate. Hindu imagery and stereotypes are invoked; they are seen as mother-figures, or behenji, or didi. There are different expectations from men and women, which put the latter at a distinct disadvantage making it necessary for them to work harder and prove themselves as efficient and capable in politics, even more so when in power. Failure in the case of women leads to fingers pointed at gender, but not in the case of men.

All this suggests that it is difficult for women to enter and build a career in politics in India. At the same time, in recent decades, significant changes have taken place in the states—rise in women’s literacy, social movements, faster economic growth in many states, and reservation of seats for women in panchayats-which have provided a more fertile ground for women leaders in politics. In this situation, a small number of women leaders have emerged and, through sheer hard work and determination, achieved status, respect and recognition on their own. Nevertheless, this trend remains exceptional and difficult for other women to emulate. The shift from dynasty to legitimacy for women leaders has barely begun. Clearly, change is required at two levels. First, attitudes to women must change together with improvement in their economic position so that they acquire the potential to compete with men. Second, internal reforms of parties must take place so that they do not remain family concerns in which women are expected to be subordinate members with little voice of their own.

Women Leaders: From Dynasty to Legitimacy
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