Women have had a hard time in Indian politics, with very few making the cut in state and central elections. But despite the dismal state of affairs, there is a new generation of women on the rise in Indian politics.
India has always been a bit of a paradox as far as women's role in politics is concerned. While personalities such as Mayawati, Mamata Bannerjee, Sonia Gandhi, Sushma Swaraj, and the late J. Jayalalithaa have towered over the political landscape, commanding followings that have been the envy of their male counterparts, the overall state of women’s participation in state and central elections, both in terms of candidates fielded and those winning elections, is dismal.
Today, women make up only 8 percent of the MLAs and MPs in the country, and that figure is unlikely to change significantly with the results of five state assembly elections due in a few days.
The much-touted Women’s Reservation Bill, tabled in 2008 with the aim of addressing such a glaring gap in our democracy, has all but faded into the background, still waiting to be passed by the Lok Sabha. The few women who make it very often have political families, either those they have been born into or ones they have married into, to thank for their rise.
While there certainly are a few who have made the climb through sheer guts and hard work alone, the scenario leaves a lot to be desired.
Against this backdrop, it is encouraging to see a new generation of women politicians in India rising up, eager and determined to make their mark in the face of relentless 24/7 media coverage and merciless social media trolls, not to mention apathetic male peers.
Once in the political limelight, their past counts little, the present becomes very demanding, and the future is filled with mystery, for as we all know, even a week is a long time in politics. Trouble can erupt from any corner, and the electorate can be really unforgiving.
Among those that are carving a place for themselves is Anupriya Patel, Union Minister of State for Family and Health. She is a 37-year-old representing Mirzapur, Uttar Pradesh, on the Apna Dal symbol, a party formed by her late father. She is considered a strong pro-Modi voice among OBCs in UP.
Belonging to the Kurmi caste, her party is now wracked with controversy, as her mother has expelled her and taken over. She has retained her position in the cabinet as Kurmis are the deciding factor in 40 seats in eastern UP, which is going to polls now. Her fate may hinge on her party’s performance.
Thirty nine-year-old Dimple Yadav, meanwhile, is another key woman politician in India’s most populous state. The wife of UP CM Akhilesh Singh Yadav found her way into Parliament in 2012, when she stood for an LS bypoll and her family made sure that no one dared contest against the first-timer; she won unanimously. The MP and mother of three is now contesting the UP assembly polls. She was charged in a disproportionate assets case, along with other members of her family, before her entry into politics. Her first attempt at the hustings was in 2009, when she lost to the Congress’ Raj Babbar.
Her sister-in-law, Aparna Yadav, is a first-timer and has her father-in-law Mulayam Singh Yadav’s support after a split in the first family of UP.
An emerging and ambitious leader, Aparna is Mulayam’s younger son Prateek Singh’s wife. Hers is a high profile contest in Lucknow Cantonment against Rita Bahuguna Joshi, who switched from the Congress recently to contest on a BJP ticket. She has been watching the family drama between her father-in-law and brother-in-law, and received brownie points after Mulayam canvassed for her.
Outside of the poll-bound states, Maharashtra is home to more than a few such rising stars. Thirty seven-year-old Poonam Mahajan, BJP MP from Mumbai North Central, is a prime example. Her father, Pramod Mahajan, was, at his peak, the right-hand man of former PM Atal Behari Vajpayee. After Mahajan was tragically shot dead by his own brother in 2006, Poonam decided to take up the mantle, despite the presence of a male heir in her brother, Rahul Mahajan. She upset Congress’ Priya Dutt in a high-profile contest in 2014. Incidentally, she is the first woman to become the president of the Basketball Federation of India.
Pankaja and Pritam Munde have both endeavoured to carry forward their father’s political legacy. They came into the limelight after their father, a Union minister, was killed in a road accident in Delhi within a few weeks of the Modi government taking over. Gopinath Munde belonged to the Vanzari community, and was the party’s tallest OBC leader in the state. It is no secret that there was a demand in some quarters that Pankaja take over as Maharashtra CM even as Devendra Fadnavis was being named.
Pankaja, 37, was blooded early as she was BJP youth wing president in Maharashtra. Subsequently, she stood for the Maharashtra assembly and became a minister, a post she still holds despite allegations of corruption against her. She is well known for the point-by-point rebuttal she gave to her critics, stating that she was being targeted for bringing in transparency in her department.
Pritam stood in the Lok Sabha byelections after her father’s death. The 34-year-old was elected from Beed in 2014, winning by a record margin of 6.96 lakh votes, which broke all previous electoral records.
On the opposition benches, meanwhile, is Supriya Sule-Pawar, heir to Nationalist Congress Party strongman Sharad Pawar. The 47-year-old is an MP from Baramati, a seat held previously by her father. A grassroots politician, she has several campaigns to her credit, including one on female foetus abortion. A formidable activist, she is definitely someone to watch out for.
Further south, M.K. Kanimozhi has emerged as the DMK’s conscience keeper, and may well replace her warring brothers M.K. Stalin, DMK working president, and elder sibling M.K. Azhagiri, a former Union minister, in the scheme of things within the party. Kanimozhi had spent time in jail in the infamous 2G scam, the principal accused being her partymate and then Union telecom minister A. Raja. She is a poet in her free time, and is a serious politician. She is known to be a networker like her nonagenarian father and DMK patriarch M. Karunanidhi.
Another key rising woman politician is Union minister Smriti Zubin Irani. The feisty television artiste of the Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi fame was a Modi-baiter in the BJP before she turned his supporter. She contested against Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi in his pocket borough of Amethi in a hard-fought contest, which the Gandhi scion won by a considerably reduced margin. Her work at the grassroots level in Amethi has made the Congress take notice.
She had joined the BJP in 2003, and a year later contested unsuccessfully against Kapil Sibal in Delhi in the Lok Sabha elections. In the Modi government after being nominated to the Rajya Sabha, she was Union HRD minister, and generated as much controversy as possible, with even her own educational qualifications coming into question. She was in the limelight every day as HRD Minister, but after a reshuffle, she has been entrusted with the ministry of textiles.
These are just a few of the many notable women on the rise in Indian politics. There are many others, such as Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra, who is yet to take a major political step but nevertheless enjoys the perks of power as the daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter of three legendary prime ministers of India. While she has currently given way to her brother Rahul, she dabbles in her mother Sonia’s constituency Rae Bareilly, and the possibility of a future entry into politics cannot be ignored.
The latest entrant to the power pack is late Tamil Nadu CM J. Jayalalithaa’s niece Deepa Jayakumar, who has formed her own party to take on her aunt’s aide Sasikala Natarajan, who, despite currently serving time in prison and being disqualified from holding public office for the next ten years, still holds the reigns to an extent with the post-Jayalalithaa AIADMK. We will have to wait till assembly elections in Tamil Nadu or the 2019 Lok Sabha polls to see how far she can go.
Another notable, Irom Sharmila, who fasted for 16 years for the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in her home state of Manipur, is now attempting to further her cause by making a mark on the electoral stage. Her fledgling party, the People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance, is contesting a few seats in the poll-bound state, just to test the political waters, and she herself is contesting against sitting Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh.