As the high-intensity Assembly elections draw to a close on Thursday, it appears that the women leaders have fared much better than their male counterparts. In Tamil Nadu, Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK is set to form the government for a second consecutive term; in West Bengal, the Trinamool Congress has emerged victorious with Mamata Banerjee at the helm.
While 68-year-old Jayalalithaa became the first chief minister in 27 years to be re-elected in Tamil Nadu for a second consecutive term, 61-year-old Banerjee is headed for a landslide win in West Bengal with 45.3 percent voter share (as of 1:41 pm on the ECI website).
Both the leaders, while separated by geography, are similar in their journeys as well as the grit with which they single-handedly led their respective parties to victory despite skepticism.
These powerhouses of women did not always have such influence and authority at their disposal. Mamata and her family lived in a shabby neighbourhood in south Kolkata, driven to poverty by their father’s early death. Jayalalithaa’s father was a lawyer. However, she recounted in a Tamil magazine that far from supporting the family, he squandered away her grandfather’s wealth. Jayaram died when Jayalalithaa was two.
Both women thus grew without influences of the dominant male, perhaps something that set precedent for the roles they were to assume in a male dominated political scenario, and quite unabashedly so.
Before politics became the mainstay of their lives, both Jaya and Mamata have had illustrious academic careers. Banerjee’s academic record consists of bachelors and masters degrees from Calcutta University along with a diploma in law. Jayalalithaa completed her education in Bengaluru and Chennai. She got accepted into Stella Maris College too, but opted to work in films instead. However, she introduced into politics in 1982 to M.G. Ramachandran, her co-star and political mentor, and was formally made the propaganda secretary for AIADMK in 1983.
Mamata and Jayalalithaa both did not stick to their initial moorings and broke away to stand on their own. Mamata quit the Congress in 1977 to float her own party, the All India Trinamool Congress. By the late 1990s TMC had become the most formidable opposition party in West Bengal.
Jayalalithaa meanwhile, had to face a power struggle within the AIADMK after MGR’s death in 1987 caused a split in the party. The opposing faction was led by MGR’s wife VN Janaki. However, Jayalalithaa stood by her claim of being MGR’s political heir and in 1989, after becoming the first woman leader of opposition in Tamil Nadu, was able to merge the sparring factions of the party. Since then, she has held the post of the general secretary of the AIADMK.
Mamata first tasted victory in 1984, when she trumped over CPI-M heavyweight and former Lok Sabha speaker Somnath Chatterjee and won the seat in Jadavpur constituency – one which she has held through 1991, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2004 and 2009, losing only in 1989. After years of struggle and alliances however, her most prolific win was when the TMC defeated the CPI (M), India’s longest standing communist government (in power since 1977), and became the chief minister in 2011.
Jayalalithaa too had to follow a hard path to her current stature. She was allegedly manhandled by DMK members in the Tamil Nadu Assembly in 1989, prompting her to swear vengeance and promise only to return to the assembly as the chief minister that year. She did not win that year. However, undeterred by the humiliation, she trudged on and is on her way to become the chief minister of Tamil Nadu for the sixth time.
While Mamata is popularly called ‘didi’ (elder sister), Jayalalithaa came to be known as ‘amma’ (mother). Not only are they known for the developmental schemes initiated in their respective states, but also for the distinct image they have managed to create for themselves.
Mamata has the reputation of an unforgiving, culturally rooted leader, known for her temper tantrums but also for her simple and earthy lifestyle, never far away from her humble roots. Meanwhile, Jayalalithaa’s claim to fame has been her deft management of party affairs and the staunchly loyal following she enjoys among the people of Tamil Nadu. The degree of their support was perhaps seen most clearly when she was convicted in the disproportionate assets case, where people took to public demonstrations, committing suicide and even self-immolation.
These Assembly elections, TMC’s manifesto focused on urban and rural development to usher in a ‘New Bengal’, AIADMK’s focused on subsidies, freebies galore along with special provisions for women. In Tamil Nadu, Jayalalithaa faced a DMK-Congress alliance, the BJP, which went all out with Prime Minister Narendra Modi coming down to campaign in the state, the PMK and the DMDK-PWF third front. Mamata also stood her ground against the Congress-Left grand alliance and the BJP.
While they are now on a safely on the glorious road to victory, these women did not shy away from taking risks, often at the cost of standing alone. The idea is not to say that they are free from the allegations of corruption and malpractice that have become characteristic of Indian political leaders. It is not to imply that they have fulfilled every promise they have made. It also does not mean that they live up to the stereotype of the selfless, pious woman that comes with their colloquial tags of didi and amma.
Quite the contrary, they have been sharp, loud-mouthed, cautious women who have known to strike when the iron is still hot. Perhaps that is why they have held their own through years of political turmoil, controversies and attempts of dethronement. And these elections are a testament to that spirit, if nothing else.