The 1990s witnessed the rise and consolidation of two women politicians ~ Mamata Banerjee and Sheila Dikshit. Both subsequently became Chief Ministers, one of West Bengal and the other of Delhi. The rise of Mamata Banerjee was spectacular. She first received national attention when she along with other Congress workers, stopped Jayaprakash Narayan’s car in Kolkata during the “movement”. In 1984 she hogged the limelights when she was hailed as a “giant slayer”. She had defeated the CPI-M stalwart, Somnath Chatterjee, underlining the contrast between a ‘bourgeois’ Mamata and a ‘proletarian’ Somnath. Mamata rose from a slum with no tap water. Somnath Chatterjee lived in a palatial bungalow with 16 bedrooms and 16 dogs. Mamata’s next milestone was when she organized a protest, as leader of the Youth Congress on 21 July 1993. The demand was for the issue of voter identity cards for conduct of free and fair elections in the West Bengal ,which she alleged was denied by the CPI-M regime. During that protest, 13 Congress workers were killed in police firing and Mamata herself was injured. Thus was her position as a voice of protest established in West Bengal with a massive following among women and the youth. The 21st of July is observed as Martyrs’ Day and Citizen’s Rights Day. After having lost the contest for the post of the Congress president in West Bengal to Somen Mitra, she left the Congress in 1998 and founded the Trinamul Congress. The Congress opposed her vehemently and she had to fight on two fronts ~ against the Congress on one hand and the entrenched network of the Left Front on the other . Her rise to power was not smooth and there was even an attempt to kill her.
Sheila Dixit was the longestserving woman Chief Minister of any state with three consecutive terms since 1998 as Delhi’s Chief Minister. She belonged to an urban elite family, was married to an IAS officer, and was a housewife. Her political identity was restricted to being the daughter-in-law of Uma Shankar Dikshit, a Nehru loyalist. After her husband’s death she made forays into the political arena and was elected from Kannauj in Uttar Pradesh in 1984. She served as the Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs and then in the Prime Minister’s Office in Rajiv Gandhi’s cabinet. She withdrew from politics with the withdrawal of the Gandhi family after Rajiv’s assassination in 1991. Her second innings began with Sonia Gandhi assuming the mantle of the party. She sailed through smoothly because of her close proximity with the party’s first family. She also inherited favourable circumstances when Delhi was transforming itself into a world class city with the completion of the Metro and the 2010 Commonwealth Games. The latter was, however, marred by corruption charges and adverse publicity when the BBC graphically reported Delhi’s lack of preparedness and sluggishness while hosting an international event.
In contrast, Mamata waited for 18 years after 1993 to become the Chief Minister of West Bengal. In between, in 2004, the strength of Trinamul was reduced to just one member in the Lok Sabha and that lone member was Mamata herself. In the Vajpayee government, she was in charge of the Railways and Coal and Mines. As the railway minister, she was often compared with the legendary Ghani Khan Choudhary whose contribution to expanding the network in Malda is fondly remembered even today.
The contrast in the political careers of the two women Chief Ministers is striking. Mamata rose to power after years of struggle and hardship, eventually earning a space for herself in Indian politics. She singularly built the organizational base of Trinamul, in itself a rare achievement. She has a firm support base and many detractors as well. In the recent Lok Sabha elections, she has suffered a setback having lost 18 seats, but her voteshare has risen by 4 per cent, a splendid feat for an incumbent chief minister. The BJP gained not at the cost of Trinamul, but at the expense of the Congress and the Left front. Her future in Bengal politicsl remains important considering the present situation when the Congress is in disarray. In contrast, Sheila Dikshit, after losing to Arvind Kejriwal in 2013 did not have much to show, first as the leader of the Congress in Uttar Pradesh and then in Delhi. In the latter, the Congress lost all the seven parliamentary seats in the Lok Sabha elections.
Mamata is an exception among women leaders not only in India but in entire Asia. In crafting a political role without a mentor or help from a male member of the family, she has demonstrated that a woman can make it to the top by her vision and grit. Therein lies the importance of Mamata Banerjee. All other successful women leaders ~ Indira Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, Jayalalitha and Mayawati ~ have had their mentors or belonged to influential political families. It is no different in our neighbouring countries. Benazir Bhutto rose in the shadow of her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. In Sri Lanka, the world’s first woman President, Sirimavao Bandranaike, was the widow of Solomon Bandranaike who was the country’s Prime Minister. Her daughter, Chandrika Kumaratunga, was groomed by her mother to take on the political mantle. In fact, Sirimavao even served as Prime Minister filling the vacant office when Mrs Kumaratunga assumed office as President. In Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina and Begum Khaleda Zia, both Prime Ministers, gained political prominence after the death of their father and husband, respectively.
Aung San Sui Kyi of Myanmar is the daughter of the influential leader Aung San. In the Philippines, the assassination of the Benigno Aquino made his widow Corazano Aquino join politics and subsequently become President. In Indonesia, Megawati Sukranoputri could become President as she was Sukarno’s daughter. One common factor in most of these cases is that after the death of a male member, the father or husband as the case may be, the women leaders captured power or became politically influential largely as a result of a sympathy wave in their favour and not because of their individual achievements or struggle.
Mamata has also demonstrated that to ensure enduring success, it is important to involve the larger and neglected segments of society and address their issues of livelihood. On the contrary, Sheila Dikshit’s success, bereft of her own political base, proved that like many other women politicians in post-Independent India, she too inherited a political office thanks to family connections and personal loyalty. She is an example of leaders who are imposed from above rather than having risen from the grassroots.