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These women hold their own in a man's world


Veteran political journalist Kalyani Shankar has closely watched Indian democracy for more than three decades now. Her recent book, Pandora’s Daughters, explored the emergence of eight women leaders in India in a male-dominated society. In an interview to KS Narayanan, she explains how women leaders are inaccessible; control with an iron hand and do not promote other women leaders. Excerpts from the interview:
K S NARAYANAN | Issue Dated: December 29, 2013, New Delhi
Tags : Kalyani Shankar | Sonia Gandhi | Mamata Banerjee |

At a time when editors are writing their autobiographies, you have authored Pandora’s Daughters. Is it in some way show that you’re a reporter-editor?
I don’t think I am worth any autobiography. My profession is journalism. I am a reporter. What I see I have written.

What does Pandora’s daughter symbolise?

All of these leaders have come up during the 1980s and 1990s. Eight leaders, except the former President Pratibha Devisingh Patil, are of recent origin. Why have they come up? It is because there is a space. Women have actually emerged in a patriarchal society. Why? Because they are able to do it. Even our profession (the media) is totally male dominated.

You have been an observer of Indian politics for more than three decades now. Do women leaders function the way their male counterparts do?
Women leaders are of a different quality. Leaders like NT Ramarao and MG Ramachandran were personality cults. But all these women leaders in my book have their own personality cult. They want to control men, particularly a leader like J Jayalalithaa. As I have mentioned in the book, she makes sure that she is above everybody. She wants to prove that. The same is the case with Mamata Banerjee. She put Ajit Panja, a senior leader to her, as a minister of state because she did not want him to hold the rank of Union Cabinet Minister. Similarly, when Mayawati became the Chief Minister for the fourth time she made her Brahmin ministers touch her feet in front of everybody at the swearing-in ceremony. So it shows that they wanted to prove that they are above the men, not just equal to men. To that extent, they are different from male politicians. Male leaders don’t have that kind of attitude.

Did you get to interact with these women leaders before you actually wrote the book? 
With some of them I did. I met Sheila Dikshit, Sushma Swaraj, Mehbooba Mufti and Mamata Banerjee. I met Mayawati very briefly. I had a meeting with Pratibha Patil. She gave me a lot of time. Jayalalithaa did not.

But she does meet editors, doesn’t she?

No. She has given few interviews. She is not happy with the way the interviews go. You know how she walked out of interviews conducted by Karan Thapar or Rajat Sharma. She does not believe in the media. Most of the leaders don’t believe in the media.

Is the phenomenon limited to women leaders?   

No. Women leaders and some men leaders too don’t believe in the media. NT Ramarao and MG Ramachandran never bothered. Lalu Prasad Yadav is not bothered. Mulayam is comparatively better.

Is there more to what you have written about these women leaders?  
There must be other facets as well. As journalists we cannot write everything we know. I know many things. But I don’t want to write. There is a dictum in journalism that a journalist is not known by what he/she writes but what he/she does not write! That is what was taught to me. We cannot put everything we know into writing.

Of all the eight leaders, Mamata Banerjee is the only one who did not have a mentor. Does that make her more eligible to be Pandora’s daughter than the others?      
Let me explain the concept of Pandora’s Daughter. When Pandora’s Box was opened so many things, mostly evil things, were found. In the end there was a small box and it contained hope. Of course these women leaders are hope and not in any derogatory sense. I think all these leaders will bring hope to the country.

Everyone was fascinated by Indira Gandhi. You have seen her. How do you compare these women leaders with her? 
See the basic trait is the same. She controlled men. In fact she controlled them more than these women leaders. She also developed a kind of personality cult to evoke fear, respect… A leader should not only have fear or respect. They should combine both. She also had great achievements to her credit like the liberation of Bangladesh. Everything was wiped out because of the Emergency that she imposed. These leaders have not done anything of that kind. She also struggled. She did not emerge overnight. When she became Prime Minister she really struggled with the old guard. But she quietly eased them out.

You mention that women leaders rule with an iron hand. What about men leaders? 
They do as well. Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad Yadav now. Leaders who have charisma and can get votes behave like that.

Though we have these women leaders the representation in Parliament and Legislature is still in nascent stage.
Just because more women leaders are coming up does not mean there is more representation for women. It just doesn’t happen. Second, the mindset of men has not changed and third, the women’s reservation bill is languishing in Parliament since 1996. Politicians do not want to lose their seat and status for the sake of even their wives, sisters, mothers or daughters. They want to safeguard their own interests. It is also happening in every other country. When I was working in the US during late 90s, many people feared the prospect of a woman President.

Do you see more women leaders emerging?    

No. The funniest thing is that these women leaders do not encourage other women. How many of them have given 50 per cent ministry to women MLAs? None of them has done it. Ministries are given to woman as a token of symbolism.

Writing about Sonia Gandhi you say that she has has a populist agenda like her mother-in-law. Do you see UPA II resorting to more of it ahead of the 2014 General Elections?                      
They cannot give up the populist agenda as they have worked on it. They are going ahead with it. This will be part of their agenda. There is also no time to pursue any new agenda.

How far is ‘inaccessibility’ an asset for these women leaders?
Former Foreign Minister K Natwar Singh has put it very well. He says that allowing somebody to meet them is itself a big concession. The aura is kept intact. Even when NTR, a film star, became Chief Minister he was inaccessible. But as CM he had to meet people and he started meeting people. Slowly the aura faded away. Similarly MGR was loved by the masses. Yet he maintained his inaccessibility.

Sonia Gandhi was averse to politics. She had dissuaded Rajiv too. When Rajiv was assassinated she kept herself away. Has the Sonia been brought in by Congress to exploit “Gandhi brand” name?

In the Congress senior leaders do not accept each other. It is a fact the Gandhi family is the unifying force in the party. That is why Rajiv was accepted and Sonia was accepted. Despite all odds Sonia brought the party to power. She has done it twice. Now we have to see whether Rahul can deliver in 2014.

The family is used for getting power. What about rejuvenating the party?

The Congress Party has not been rejuvenated. Both the mother and son accepted after the 2011 assembly elections that the party is not there. I don’t understand why they have not built the party? Why in the UP, Bihar and in other states why the party has not been built up, why a second-rung leadership has not been created? This shows that the family has neglected the party.

You covered the Indian government and politics from close quarters when the country was in transition during 1991-1996. 
Prime Minister Narasimha Rao was not judged properly. People say he never took decisions. In fact, he took the most important decisions on economic reforms. Manmohan Singh may be touted as the architect of economic liberalization, but it was Rao who took the decision and bore the brunt from the party. In foreign policy he thought of the ‘Look East’ policy. It was Rao who took the decision to establish diplomatic ties with Israel and South Africa. These were big achievements.

Coming back to Sonia Gandhi don’t you think she has emerged as a successful Indian politician?
Her thinking is still European. That is why she sometimes goes wrong. It is amazing to see her as the most powerful woman in the country. People like Jyoti Basu and Karunanidhi accepted her and she ended anti-Congressism. Even the Left joined her. What I really admire is that she has really changed herself into the model Indian women. She has changed herself to suit the Indian conditions. How many Indian women can adapt to European conditions? She came from the First World and adapted herself. It is a very difficult thing to do.

Is there more to the cold relations between Sonia and  Narasimha Rao than what you have mentioned in the book?
It is people in the party who created the wedge between these two leaders. As I said neither he called her up nor did she. Both of them used intermediaries, and they probably played mischief. It did not suit the party to have them together. Had they been together it would have been good as he would taken care of governance while she would have been the party’s face. They would have complemented each other.

Has Mayawati done enough to empower Dalits beyond merely announcing schemes?
Mayawati has brought awareness among the Dalits. During her regime, atrocities were very low. But she failed in certain key respects.

Mamata Banerjee emerged without a mentor, fought her own party and as well as the Communists.
She was like Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party. As the Congress failed to make use of the anti-Communist space, Mamata utilised the opportunity. She has been persevering and her only slogan is anti-Communism.

Do you see any of these women leaders becoming Prime Minister of India?  
Why one of them? All of them could be Prime Minister. All of them are ambitious. That is why none of the political parties is having pre-poll alliance for the 2014 General Elections. Once they get 30 to 35 seats, watch the fun then. See what happened in 1996. Both HD Deve Gowda and IK Gujral have proved anybody could become Prime Minister. They are leaders in their own right with a mass base.

Will some of the monolithic parties headed by women leaders continue after them?

See NTR and MGR never promoted the second line of leadership. Even Jayalalithaa was not MGR’s choice. All these leaders believe after them it is the deluge. Most of them are single women. They are 24X7 politicians. They don’t want anybody to continue with the party. Otherwise they would have propped up somebody.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017