Goddesses of politics


by Jayita Mukhopadhyay

The Statesman/ANN


India is a land of improbable diversities and inexplicable contradictions. For the past 60 years, we have had a secular, republican constitutional framework at work with all the trappings of a modern and functional democracy. Yet our political culture and practices continue to be enmeshed in such primordial sentiments as religion, caste, community and deification of popular leaders.

The Bill that proposes 33 per cent reservation for women in Parliament and state assemblies is awaiting the Lok Sabha’s approval. If the political parties succeed in breaking the logjam and the Bill is approved, it is expected to make women more visible in the political arena. But unfortunately till now, very few women politicians have been able to carve a niche for themselves in Indian politics. Still more bewildering is the fact that most of them seem to be the product of a weird personality cult, an anomaly of our democratic system. Sonia Gandhi, Mayawati and Mamata Banerjee, the three most prominent female faces in the political spectrum, enjoy the status of demi-goddesses in the eyes of their followers. In a patriarchal social set-up, the political parties also display the same gender bias. This often relegates women leaders to such positions where they handle relatively minor issues. As this blocks their ascent to the decision-making position, women leaders find in personality cults the only way to reach the higher echelons of political authority.

Charisma is their key to electoral success. Their collective image is not that of intelligent, professional politicians capable of taking rational decisions, but of super humans with extraordinary qualities to emancipate their followers from injustice and oppression and lead them towards well-being and prosperity.

The concept of charismatic authority was popularised by the noted sociologist, Max Weber. It was identified as one of the three forms of authority, the other two being traditional and rational-legal. A tribal chief, a village headman or a patriarchal head of a large extended family’s claim to authority is based on tradition. In modern states, those in power exercise authority by virtue of the fact that their power and position have legal sanction. Charismatic authority has been defined by Weber as "power legitimised on the basis of a leader’s exceptional personal qualities or the demonstration of extraordinary insight and accomplishment, which inspire loyalty and obedience from followers". But charisma may be shortlived as the popular perception about a leader’s ability may change abruptly if and when he or she fails to fulfill the expectations of the followers.

Do the three goddesses of Indian politics also face the possibility of diminishing return to their charismatic appeal? Sonia Gandhi’s ascendancy to the leadership of the Congress in 1998 through the ouster of the democratically-elected leader, Sitaram Kesri, was solely premised on the fact that only she could be the rightful inheritor of the cult of leadership associated with the dynasty. It was felt in Congress circles that only a person belonging to the Nehru-Gandhi family, even if she was a videshi bahu, with no political experience or acumen till then, could have the charisma to command an all-India appeal that could restore order among squabbling Congressmen and resuscitate a rapidly decaying party. Sonia has been considerably successful in reviving the political fortunes of the Congress and the aura of the Gandhi family associated with her is the secret of her success. It can hardly be claimed that she has brightened the possibility of women in politics to move to the higher levels of decision-making unless they have illustrious male relatives with prominent political credentials. The party’s support base is dwindling and it manages to stay in power through a complex and risky game of keeping its regional allies in good humour.

The Uttar Pradesh chief minister and the self-styled Dalit queen, Mayawati, was catapulted to prominence by the Dalit leader Kanshi Ram. She nurtures a personality cult, thereby creating a culture of sycophancy, without which she may be unable to retain power. Her penchant for erecting her own statues and those of other Dalit leaders and even of elephants, the symbol or her Bahujan Samaj Party, are perhaps attempts to bolster her iconic status among the historically oppressed and marginalised Dalits. Critics have described her actions as signs of narcissism and megalomania; it may actually be a clever ploy to project herself as the messiah of the hungry and dispossessed Dalits. Undeterred even by court objections, she proceeds to raise a special police force for protecting the statues and her followers felicitate her by presenting a garland made of hundreds of Rs 1000 notes. There are indications that her appeal is on the decline. There has been no substantial improvement in the standard of living of the Dalits during her dispensation.

Bengal’s stormy petrel, Mamata Banerjee, has made inroads into the Red bastion, riding high on her charismatic appeal as a passionate leader who has the grit and determination to take on the organised might of the CPI-M. Her image is that of a feisty leader who is prepared to take risks even at the cost of personal safety. Her populist style of conducting violent street protests, her frugal lifestyle and her fiery speeches have somehow impressed the poor farmers and the urban lower middle class, increasingly marginalised by the Left’s neo-liberal agenda. As Kolkata’s roads were cleared of hawkers to impress foreign investors, slums demolished to make room for modern housing and shopping complexes and agricultural land grabbed in Nandigram and Singur to set up a chemical hub and car factory, the dispossessed found in Mamata a "deliverer". Her detractors branded her as "mad", "impulsive" and "irrational" primarily for switching her political affiliation at the Centre ~ from the BJP-led NDA to the Congress-led UPA-II. This was done to get a firmer foothold against the Left in Bengal. Nevertheless, her burgeoning supporters consider her to be a phenomenon in Indian politics, someone whose charisma is of her own making and is not linked either to dynasty or to the backing of a male mentor. Mamata, on her part, has displayed the political sagacity to undergo what Weber called a process of "routinisation of charisma", with the focus on institutionalism. She has strengthened her party’s base by inducting new leaders, so that it does not remain a one-woman show.

The noted American feminist thinker, Gloria Steinem, once observed: "A pedestal is as much a prison as any small, confined space." Charismatic leadership is not only shortlived but fraught with danger. For the leader, it creates a compulsion to satisfy the masses through populist measures. Charisma can restrict the scope for taking hard decisions which may cause short-term irritants but may prove to be beneficial in the long run. As more women are poised to enter the political fray, leaders would serve the cause of women’s empowerment better by displaying rational faculties, professionalism and administrative competence instead of trying to whip up popular sentiment by projecting super human capabilities of bringing about miraculous prosperity.


The writer is Lecturer, Department of Political Science, Women’s Christian College, Kolkata

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