The Indian political scenario is undergoing interesting changes with more female leaders coming to the fore. Whether their presence will make a positive difference in meeting the people’s problems is a question that needs to be answered.
Women politicians are realigning political
aspirations in India.
Apolitically incorrect, maybe sexist comment, is no two women and no two watches agree. The recently concluded elections in five States of India have thrown up three women who may shape a political realignment: Congress president and United Progressive Alliance Chairperson Sonia Gandhi, whose coalition is heading the federal government, maverick Trinamool Congress Chief Mamata Banerjee, who has stormed the last bastion of the communists in West Bengal, and an equally imperious leader of a powerful regional party from Tamil Nadu, J. Jayalalitha, who has trounced the ruling party in the State, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, winning 203 of the 234 Assembly seats. In West Bengal, the TMC has won 184 out of 294 and its junior partner Congress has picked another 42. The Marxist-led left front has lost power after ruling continuously since 1971 and ended with a meager tall of 62.
Ms. Mamata’s TMC is already an ally of the Congress in the federal coalition and they also fought the elections in West Bengal as partners. In fact, Mamata quit as Railway Minister to devote all her time to her native West Bengal with the sole aim of bringing to an end to 34 years of uninterrupted communist rule.
Ms. Jayalalitha’s All India Anna DMK has made an equally impressive clean sweep in Tamil Nadu, prompting Ms. Sonia Gandhi to telephone to congratulate her and invite her for tea in her New Delhi residence for a political pow-wow. Bad news for the badly mauled Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam whose uneasy relationship with the Congress is still continuing and who is still part of the federal government though with reduced clout after losing power in the State.
The Congress has been waiting for a chance to dump the DMK ever since what has come to be known as the 2G spectrum, involving grave irregularities in the grant of mobile telephone licenses at throwaway prices by DMK Minister in the Federal Government Andimuthu Raja, leading to a loss running to billions of rupees to the Government, his exit from the Government and his ultimate arrest and prosecution along with Ms. Kanimozhi, his close friend, parliamentarian and daughter of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi.
Though the opposition started agitating over the issue soon after the scam broke out in 2008, it was Ms. Jayalalitha’s interview to a national television channel last year which precipitated matters. In that interview, she offered unconditional support to the Congress-led coalition at the Centre and emboldened Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to sack Raja, though the Congress was reluc-
tant to send the DMK itself out of the federal coalition. The continuance of the Congress alliance with the scamtainted DMK in Tamil Nadu has hit both badly, with the Congress winning just five seats and the DMK not only losing power but also ending up with a miserable tally of just 33, thus losing even the status of principal opposition to an ally of the triumphant AIADMK.
Hence the post-haste invitation by Ms. Sonia Gandhi to Ms. Jayalalitha for tea. Will Jaya bite the bait? It depends on her assessment of the prospects of the Congress-led UPA winning a third term in 2014 when the next Parliament election is due.
The elections to five State Assemblies have been seen as a run-up to the next Parliament elections. Of the five States, the Congress was junior partner to the winning TMC in West Bengal and to the loser DMK in Tamil Nadu. Where it has led from the front, the Congress has done reasonably well. In Kerala, its coalition of United Democratic Front (UDF) has nosed out the Left Democratic Front (LDF). In the federally administered Puducherry, neighboring Tamil Nadu, the Congress has lost power to a breakaway leader and former Chief Minister N. Rangasamy.
The Congress performance has been quite good only in Assam where it is set to rule on for a record third term of another five years with the Congress picking 78 out of 126 seats. Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, fighting on peace and development plank in this insurgency-hit north-eastern hill State was helped along by polarization between Hindus and Muslims.
Muslims, who form up 30 per cent of the voters, switched their allegiance from the Congress to the Deobandi outfit, Badaruddin Ajmal’s All-India United Democratic Front ( AIUDF) which has since 2006 aggressively taken up the cause of minorities. With 18 legislators, the AIDUF is Assam’s largest Opposition party. With the Hindus backing the Congress, the right-wing BJP which has been aggressively campaigning against illegal immigration from Bangladesh, has found itself left with a poor five seats, despite its alliance with the Asom Gana Parishad, a one-time powerful party which sprung from a student movement on the same issue of illegal immigration in the 1970s and 80s. The AGP had to be content with just ten seats.
In Kerala, the trend has been for the people to alternate between the two fronts, respectively led by the Congress and the Communist Party (Marxist) India. Despite this timetested trend, the Congress-led front has barely managed to romp home, winning 72 out of the total 140 seats. This because the outgoing Marxist Chief Minister V. S. Achutanandan, despite being disfavored by his own party’s central leadership, has proved to an extremely a popular leader and provided good governance. The LDF’s tally of 66 against the UDF’s 76 is attributable entirely to his personal popularity.
People in general have voted a change. But the game changer is West Bengal where the CPM-led left front came to power in 1970s by taking up the cause of poor and marginal farmers and landless farm workers, and entrenched itself through far-reaching land reforms in the next two decades and equally important panchayat system.
Ironically, it was the land led to the eventual downfall of the left front. The left front government did not see the writing wall when the peasants rose in revolt in 2007 against allotment of fertile land in Singur, for a chemical hub and in Singur for Tata’s small car plant. The outlawed Maoists and Trinamool fully backed the farmers’ agitation, leading to Tata pulling out of the plant and moving to Gujarat, and the Government putting the chemical hub plan on hold.
The peasants’ agitation was spearheaded by the outlawed Maoists and the Mamata’s Trinamool, leading to accusation by the Left front parties of collusion between the two. In the end, the Tatas shut shop in Singur and the chemical hub in Nandigram was put on hold. Riding on the wave of anger of the peasants, Mamata has come to power.
In a brilliant analysis, veteran CPI leader A. B. Bardhan has said “arrogance of power and in some cases corruption” has led to isolation of left front leaders from the people.
Calling Singur and Nandigram as symbols and not the disease, he has said while the industrialization policy was right, stake holders should have been consulted on alienation of land for setting up industries. The larger question the left front has to ponder over is why it “remained confined only to three states during more than three decades and could not get any significant influence in the rest of the country.”
With left parties losing in West Bengal, they have become marginal players at the national level. Having already lost Tripura in the north-east, its only strong base left is Kerala which saw the world’s first democratically elected communist in late 1950s.
With the left virtually left out of the reckoning, the main rival for the Congress at the national level is the BJP. However it has been on the decline since it lost power at the Centre in 2004. The current round of elections shows that the BJP is yet to retrieve lost ground.
Therefore, despite its lackluster performance, the Congress can sit pretty, smug in the belief there is no alternative to it. But a Congress pulling on because of TINA factor cannot be firm with its partners in government, as the 2G spectrum has shown. The
Congress does not have a majority in Parliament and the UPA is surviving on the support of its regional allies like the TMC and the DMK. In this, the TMC has been less demanding than the DMK. The Congress inaction on the spectrum scam has severely dented the image of the UPA. The way the Congress defended the DMK has led to the common perception that Raja could not have acted alone and a part of the loot must have gone right up to the top. So much Sonia has come to believe that the DMK has become a liability and an embarrassment for the Congress.
In such a scenario, what will be the game plan of Jayalalitha? She has always nurtured national ambition. In fact, her AIADMK was part of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, like Mamata’s TMC for a while. It was a similar tea party hosted by Sonia in 1999 which emboldened Jayalalitha to topple the Vajpayee Government with disastrous consequences. Contrary what she was led to belief, Sonia did not have the numbers. As a result, an alternative Congress-led Government could not be formed. The DMK rushed in to join hands with the BJP which was voted back to power in 1999.
Believing that she was led up the garden path, Jayalalitha launched a vitriolic attack on Sonia. That did not prevent the two coming together in the 2001 State elections. The DMK quit the NDA towards the fag end of its term and tied up with the Congress in the 2004 Parliament elections. It continued for the next 2009 poll also. Now it has come under strain following the 2G spectrum.
Now Sonia has the first move for a revival of alliance with Jaya. But Jaya seems to be in no hurry to close her options. Her swearing-in was attended by Gujarat Chief Minister Narendar Modi though he said he was only returning the courtesy as she attended his assumption office in 2002. Nevertheless, the political significance cannot be lost sight of. At the same, Jayalalalitha plans to meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and have tea with Sonia in Delhi soon.
In other words, she is keeping her options open. She may take a call closer to the next elections, if the present UPA coalition survives till then. The writer is a senior Indian journalist. He has been associated with the Bangalore-based English daily Deccan Herald and retired as an associate editor of the newspaper.
Women politicians are reshaping the political landscape in India.