Women in Politics in India

Asia Foundation Blog Post
Photo by Karl Grobl
Mandakini Devasher Surie, the Asia Foundation's India Program Officer, just wrote a great post on the ascendancy of women to several prominent political positions in the recent Indian elections.  Most notable, of course, is Mamata Banerjee's successful campaign to become the first female chief minister of West Bengal, ending 34 years of Communist rule.  She comes from a lower middle class family, lives with her mother, wears saris with bathroom slippers, and is a stunning orator whose rallying cry is "Ma, Mati o Manush" (mother, land and people).

Banerjee's feisty and emotional politics have captured international attention, but equally notable is J. Jayalalithaa's win in Tamil Nadu. A famous Tamil film star, she transitioned into a successful political career and is now serving her third term as chief minister of the state.  She has been dogged by charges of corruption and extravagant living (including the rumor she once took 48 suitcases for a 3 day trip to Delhi, which seems so ridiculously extravagant that it's probably not true, despite being published by BBC).

Mayayati's Statues
In terms of other gossip about prominent female Indian politicians, Mayawati, in her fourth term as Uttar Pradesh's chief minister and a noted Dalit leader, is in the center of a storm of controversy over the construction of over 50 statues of herself, her political mentors, and elephants (her party's symbol).  Critics charge that the money would be better spent actually helping the people of Uttar Pradesh (one of India's poorest states).  

What's interesting to me is that we're seeing women from a variety of backgrounds coming to prominence in Indian politics.  Mayawati comes from a disadvantaged background, Banerjee a lower-middle class background, and although Jayalalithaa comes from a good family, her career started outside the world of politics.  Sonia Gandhi, president of the Indian National Congress and currently considered one of the world's leading female political leaders, was drawn into politics after the assassination of her husband, Rajiv Gandhi.  Rajiv's mother, of course, is none other than Indira Gandhi.  Indira, despite several missteps in office, is still recognized as one of the most important politicians in Indian history.  Yet would she have been elected if she wasn't Nehru's daughter?  Perhaps not.  Would Sonia Gandhi have become involved in politics if she wasn't the daughter-in-law and wife of two assassinated Indian prime ministers?  Most definitely not.  Although India has a history of electing women to prominent positions, it's nice to see that today's female leaders are making their own way.  Which may be why their idiosyncratic, strong personalities often place them at the center of controversy.