9 Dec 2007, 0317 hrs, IST, Manjima Bhattacharijya
If Jayalalithaa, Mayawati, Uma Bharati and Mamata Banerjee were to meet up for a ladies' lunch, chances are they would have incredible tales to tell. These four power ladies of Indian politics share many remarkable things--they have all in their own ways made it to the top without using the 'widows, wives and wards' fast-track to political stardom, they are all from humble backgrounds with similar trajectories of struggle, and they have all held portfolios usually reserved for men (three CMs between the four of them). They are also, by choice or design, single.
Being single is often a personal matter but in politics, whether it was Mrs Gandhi or Queen Elizabeth I, it has been part of a long-standing political strategy. There are the obvious practical advantages. Single women politicians are usually able to meet the demands of the job without the distractions from home, or having to depend heavily on support structures. Being single also reduces the chances of suffering from the Pati Sarpanch syndrome (where the husbands of female heads of local panchayats are actually the ones in control), and becoming a puppet in the hands of a significant other. Symbolically too, maintaining a sanitised 'single woman' profile has always reaped rewards for women in Indian politics.
To begin with, the single status is perfectly in sync with some of the readymade images up for grabs that have both cultural appeal and popular sanction--such as Mother India, Shakti or Durga incarnate in culture or the Iron Lady in politics. But the image that is the chosen one in the case of our four ladies is much closer to home--that of the sacrificing elder sister. It is hardly another happy coincidence that Mayawati is known by her followers as behenji, Uma Bharati as didi, and Mamata Banerjee as didi too. Jaya is amma in name but also qualifies in tone to be the stern elder sister--the one who stays single so that she can work and put her siblings through college.
For this image to succeed, the single woman politician must stick by some rules. Women in politics can neither be footloose nor fancy free. Instead, they must work at maintaining a persona that is out of reach, asexual, almost celibate. This is not surprising considering that in mythology (Hanuman, Bhishma), politics (Mahatma Gandhi) and religion (nuns, popes, sadhus) celibacy or sexual abstinence has been associated with power and given unquestioned moral authority.
Considering Jayalalitha started her film career in a vampish role and maintained much of that image through her film career, the fact that much of our generation have never as much as seen her neck tells us something. It's clear which role demands what. One demands a hyper-sexualised persona, the other, a desexualised one. While the married ladies of the Sabha are allowed some vanity--Renuka, Sushma, Sonia, Supriya--the single ones have to keep it simple. An unspoken moratorium is placed on loud colours, lipsticks, flowers in the hair or any conspicuous signs of playfulness or sensuality. Uma, the only official sanyasin out of the four, has her saffron robes. Mayawati's cream salwar-kameezes are uniformly devoid of frills. Only on grand occasions does she change into pink. You could drag Mamata Banerjee kicking her heels (like the West Bengal police often do) for a makeover but she is unlikely to surrender her cotton saris and rubber chappals. As for Jaya usually shrouded in her voluminous capes, one wonders where she wore the 10,000 sarees, 750 shoes and 64 pounds of diamond-studded gold jewellery that were raided from her home following corruption charges.
The next step, after erasing all signs of availability, is to quash all possibilities of romance. A few years ago, when two Bengali TV serials thinly disguised as biographies of Mamata Banerjee were being made, the lead actress expressed worries that the script of one had a touch of romance that could make her vulnerable to angry mobs who would not accept this kind of allusion to the politician as being romantically inclined. Banerjee's colleagues justified, "People like to see her in a certain light only. There's no harm in pandering to that."
Being single also adds to the creation of a myth around a person that enables them to rise above the ordinary. The single woman is a lesser known and mysterious entity in herself, much more so than the stereotype of a belan-wielding housewife. Add to this the eccentricities of individuals, and the result is personal intrigue that makes for excellent political PR. Jayalalithaa's stories of excess and extravagance are widely reported and rarely clarified. The media, Western media in particular, love to report on her 48 suitcases sent ahead before a three-day visit to Delhi, or how she has her five-star hotel suite decorated just the way she likes it. Like a rock star or film star, she fits their eccentric diva persona that is literally (like her life-size cutouts that once dominated the Chennai skyline) larger than life. Similarly Uma's dramatic journey from Babri to Bhopal and back to the pavilion, Maya's fascinating return to power or penchant for diamond earrings and birthday parties or Mamata's angry-young-woman of Indian politics routine. These are the stuff of legends. Marriage would only make them ordinary.
Despite being masters of the game of identity politics, the four ladies are yet to discover the political value of their identity as 'single women'. Mayawati, chosen by Newsweek as one of the world's top eight women leaders, does make a fleeting reference to it when she says, "As a single woman and a Dalit I faced slurs, neglect, insults, even physical threats...I had to struggle very hard for every inch of political space I occupy today." Yet a proper understanding of the political identity of single women--the specific discrimination, social exclusion and other issues that confront single women in India (gender sensitive workplaces, adoption, equal pay, sexual harassment, healthcare, right to property, social-cultural rights or right to housing)--is still to come.
For that, single women--or even women, for that matter--have to be recognised as a valuable vote bank, as is happening in other parts of the world. In the US Presidential Elections 2008, single women voters are being wooed by both parties as the next 'power brokers'. Twenty million out of the 47 million single women did not vote in the 2004 elections, making them the nation's largest bloc of non-voters. Constituting almost one-fourth of the population of USA, they may make or break the next President of the US.
Single women in India have the potential to go far. According to the Census of India 2001, the number of 'never married' women in India who are eligible to vote is almost 15 million. This excludes other single women outside the institution of marriage--the 2.2 million divorced or separated women and the 32.2 million widows. Together, the number of 'single women' is close to 50 million. That's equal to the population of South Africa, double the population of Australia and only ten million less than the population of the UK. That should give Jaya, Uma, Maya and Mamata something to think about.
TIMES OF INDIA