In 1989, Gegong Apang, the Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh, caused many raised eyebrows with his statement, "Should we be compelled to introduce women's reservation, we might consider other alternatives, even turning to China." This declaration followed his earlier push for the implementation of a panchayati raj system in Arunachal Pradesh, departing from the traditional tribal council. However, his perspective underwent a significant shift when he became aware of the 30 percent reservation for women seats, which could potentially increase to 33 percent.
India frequently defies expectations with its counterintuitive realities. One might naturally assume that Kerala, renowned for its remarkable literacy rates among women, would lead in terms of female representation in legislation. Surprisingly, despite Kerala's impressive literacy rates, it falls behind Bihar when it comes to the presence of women in the legislative sphere. In the epilogue of the book, Nidhi says "Politics is an unusual career choice for an Indian woman. She steps into this field, so far a preserve of men, only if she is a politician's wife, sister or daughter. It's a rarity to see women with no political family background choosing politics as a career option. If they have done so and carved a niche for themselves, they have never made gender an overarching part of their political identity or rhetoric. Be it Indira Gandhi or Margaret Thatcher, women leaders have made it in a man's world without wearing gender on their sleeves".
From the grassroots politics of Mamata Banerjee to the challenging journey of Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh, these female leaders serve as inspiration to younger women. They have fought for their place and relevance on an equal footing with men, battling the confines of a patriarchal society. A common challenge they face is character assassination, a method often used to undermine their positions.
Renuka Chowdhury shared incidents dating back to 2018, illustrating what female politicians endure, something their male counterparts seldom face. These incidents include instances of sexism, like her being compared to Soorpanakha from the Ramayana by Modi. Speaking about such misogynistic comments, Renuka Chowdhury emphasized that many men in the country lack proper education, leading to the use of disrespectful language. They lack the knowledge and understanding of how to respect women. Jaya Bachchan also faced a derogatory comment from Naresh Agrawal who quit the Samajwadi Party because Jaya Bachchan was preferred over him for the nominations to the upper house of Parliament. He said "Mera ticket kaat kar nachne wali ko diya ja raha hai". In stark contrast, I'd like to highlight a notable and divergent case. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern created history when she addressed the Nelson Mandela Peace Summit alongside her partner, who lovingly held their daughter. This heartwarming moment was celebrated worldwide. However, in India, politicians often find themselves compelled to conceal their personal lives. The fear looms that these private matters could become fodder for opposition exploitation, showcasing the absence of a clear boundary in our political landscape between the personal and public realms.
Despite the challenges and adversities, there have been numerous women who carved out their own space in Indian politics. Politics can be ruthless, especially for women in India, but these determined women have overcome these challenges, driving positive change and standing up against injustice in their own unique ways.
The author of the book, Nidhi Sharma, a well-known journalist known for her coverage of politics, policy, and governance, in a conversation with Saurabh Dwivedi, admitted that she initially hesitated to include the stories of Indira Gandhi and Sucheta Kriplani in her book. These iconic figures have been extensively covered in previous works. However, in a book dedicated to Indian women in politics, it's essential to recognize these pioneers. Two chapters are dedicated to Indira and Sucheta. Although they touch on anecdotes that many are familiar with, they set the stage for a broader discussion and provide context for the female leaders of the future.
The first two chapters delve into the lives of Indira Gandhi and Sucheta Kriplani, whom Nidhi hails as pioneers of Indian Women's Politics. Delving into Indira Gandhi's life and work, Nidhi not only covers her infamous declaration of Emergency but also her childhood, her friendship with Shankar Dayal Ray, her possibly complex relationship with Frank Obedorf at Shanti Niketan, her tumultuous relationship with Feroz Gandhi, her apprenticeship under her father, and her remarkable journey to becoming India's first and only female prime minister. We get a lengthy sneak peek into Indira Gandhi's opposition to Mahatma Gandhi's idea of women's emancipation, emphasizing the desire not to be viewed as goddesses but as humans.
Throughout the book, anecdotes humanize political figures. For instance, during the tragic aftermath of Rajiv Gandhi's assassination, as his mortal remains were returned, there were others, including guards, who had also lost their lives. In a moment of profound grief, Sonia Gandhi, standing beside Rajiv's remains, noticed that the guard's coffin lacked any flowers. In response, she personally offered flowers, illustrating a poignant and humanizing episode that reveals the genuine emotions of these political figures. Such anecdotes shed light on the transition from being a private individual to becoming a prominent political figure, often shaped by life's experiences and the development of political awareness over time.
Offering a more comprehensive view of Jayalalithaa's life compared to the shallow representation in the film 'Thalaivi,' the book tells how Jayalalithaa shattered norms and succeeded in a male-dominated political landscape, all while lacking the so-called pedigree. It highlights Jayalalithaa's unique leadership style, portraying her as a benevolent autocrat and explaining how she earned the moniker Amma. Mayawati's rise to power is described with equal vigour, although some of the challenges she faced are softened in the narrative (Guest House assault).
The book reveals how an unsettling incident occurred when left-wing personnel spat on Mamata Banerjee's face. Instead of breaking her spirit, this event only strengthened her resolve to fight for change and make her mark in Indian politics. Notably, Nidhi Sharma managed to secure an interview with Mamata while she was in transit, waiting for her flight. During this time, Mamata was actively walking to meet her daily step target and agreed to the interview under the condition that Nidhi would join her during this walk, providing a unique and dynamic backdrop for their conversation.
Among the fascinating anecdotes in this book, one that stands out is the story of Sushma Swaraj. In 2019, she was eagerly anticipating a call to join Modi's cabinet, so much so that she had a saree ready in anticipation of the opportunity. Furthermore, Nidhi delves into the intriguing dynamics of sibling rivalry between Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley. Another one revolves around Mayawati. She was known for her scathing critique of the Indian media, often referring to it as 'Manuwadi media.' Due to mistreatment and the circulation of unfounded speculations among other unsubstantiated allegations, Mayawati chose to maintain her distance from the media.
In the preface of the book, Nidhi highlights a much-discussed topic in contemporary Indian politics: women's reservation in parliament. She underscores that while reservation is essential, it can only be effective when accompanied by a shift in societal mindset. Despite its substantial role in advocating for women's reservation, Congress allocated a mere 10 percent of seats to female candidates in the Punjab assembly election of 2022. However, in Uttar Pradesh in the same year, where the party anticipated a potential defeat, they allocated 40 percent of seats to women. This glaring inconsistency in their actions is brought into sharp focus.
This book gives due recognition to Pratibha Patil, a figure who is often underestimated, by delving into her substantial backstory. It sheds light on the challenges she faced during her presidential tenure despite her fulfilling political career and years as the governor of Rajasthan. The book also explores what made Pratibha Patil a compassionate president who commuted the death sentences of 23 petitioners. Additionally, it delves into the factors that prevented Pratibha from becoming Maharashtra's first chief minister.
The book recounts how Supriya Sule advocated for free sex reassignment or gender-affirming surgeries for transgender individuals, making Maharashtra the third state to offer such procedures after Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Given Supriya's sensitivity towards the LGBTQ community, it's no surprise that the NCP is the only party to have an LGBT cell.
Kavitha Kalvakuntla's story is told in the book, emphasizing how she utilized the dormant Bathukamma festival to connect with women and further the cause of a separate Telangana state.
The book describes the rationalization of schools led by Vasundhara Raje in Rajasthan, where 18,000 out of 82,000 schools were shut down to enhance the remaining ones with better infrastructure. Vasundhara, who inaugurated the Bhamashah Yojana to transparently transfer financial and non-financial benefits of governmental schemes to women recipients, is also critiqued for attracting significant industrial investment into Rajasthan, which led to a group of businesses influencing policymaking and administration.
Sheila Dikshit's remarkable 15-year tenure, where she transformed Delhi despite its intricate governance structure, is highlighted. It highlights her efforts to address Delhi's air quality issues by introducing CNG alternatives. Furthermore, it recounts her leadership during the Commonwealth Games, an event primarily associated with Suresh Kalmadi's scam, and how Sheila Dikshit worked diligently to complete the Commonwealth Village facility, despite challenges posed by heavy rain in Delhi in 2010.
Brinda Karat's inspiring journey, guided by Marxist principles, is explored. She's often seen in a green sari, adorned with a striking red bindi that spans her forehead, and her warm smile appears more inquisitive than condescending. The book sheds light on what motivated Karat to become a prominent advocate for gender issues, even within her own party, where she championed adequate representation for women in leadership positions.
Nidhi Sharma later shifts the spotlight to the Northeast, specifically focusing on Ampareen Lyngdoh. Meghalaya, a matrilineal society where women head households, and children carry their mother's family name, has traditionally posed challenges for women entering politics. Notably, there hasn't been a woman-led political party in the Northeast, even until 2022, the 75th year of Indian independence, when Nagaland sent its first woman MP to the Rajya Sabha. The book provides insight into the life and career of Ampareen Lyngdoh, a 57-year-old figure with a unique appearance, characterized by her distinctive short hair. She serves as a spoken MLA in the Shillong assembly constituency, embodying the complexities of Meghalaya's society. Her political journey began relatively late in 2008 when she won her first election, and she remained the sole woman in the assembly from 2008 to 2013. Despite facing harsh criticism from various quarters, Ampareen Lyngdoh has thrived in her constituency, thanks to her strong grassroots connections and the nurturing of her political career.
Kanimozhi's significant contribution to Tamil Nadu, where she played a pivotal role in establishing the transgender persons welfare board in 2008, is narrated. She also introduced the third gender option in college admission forms and initiated the issuance of transgender cards, which facilitate obtaining voter IDs, access to family courts, and passports.
The book is rich with a multitude of anecdotes and insights into the lives and careers of politicians beyond the ones I've touched upon here. There's a treasure trove of stories about prominent figures like Mayawati, Sonia Gandhi, Ambika Soni, Supriya Sule, Kanimozhi, Ampareen Lyngzdoh and 11 other women leaders waiting for you to discover when you delve into its pages.
Nidhi Sharma not only shares captivating stories about India's leading female political leaders but also offers a gateway to delve deeper into the intricate world of Indian politics. With detailed accounts of the defining moments that shaped the careers of these influential women, Nidhi provides a collection of biographies that stands out as a crucial contribution in an era of shrinking attention spans and waning reading habits, all observed with unwavering objectivity.
Book: She, The leader
Author: Nidhi Sharma
Publication: Aleph Book Company
Review by: Shivam Tomar