Goddesses of politics

August 17, 2010, 7:34 pm

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

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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