India, at this moment, has more key political powerbrokers who are women than any other country in the world. Coalition-based politics and the rise of regional parties mean that any one of five women could determine the shape of the next national government, and the future of the country.
After state elections earlier this month, India has four female chief ministers, who rule states with a combined population of 375 million people. A woman heads the most powerful national political party, and chairs the coalition government. The leader of the national opposition is a woman. The president is a woman. And so is the speaker of parliament.
They are extraordinary individuals, these women – a former film star, a woman from the “untouchable” caste who grew up in a slum, a rabble-rouser in flip-flops whose skull was once splintered by the Communists she has implacably opposed. But when they are considered as a group, their ascension to power offers a number of insights into change in India.
The suddenly female face of power seems to have taken much of the nation by surprise. And it is startling in the context of the intense discrimination against women and girls that permeates every aspect of life across class, communities and geography here.
Some of these are well-documented, such as the widespread practice of aborting female fetuses, and child mortality rates that are much higher for girls, because they are denied food and health care provided for boys. Women are still murdered by in-laws for dowry; fear of violence or gossip keeps women from fully participating in the booming economy – because they are harassed on public transportation, afraid to stay late at work, or cannot risk damage to a “reputation” by working outside their home.
And yet: there are now five women who may make, break, or radically reshape the future of this country.
For all of their marked ideological and stylistic differences, there are commonalities between these women: they are all single, either never married, or widowed. They are older – in their late 50s, 60s or 70s. They have a signature personal style that is core to their political identity. And they are almost universally known by a nickname, one that connotes a family relationship, such as behenji, for honoured sister, didi, for older sister, amma, for mother.
They are drawing on family relationships to make themselves seem familiar and non-threatening to voters, while at the same time taking advantage of the positions of power women have in Indian families, says J. Devika, a fellow at the Centre for Development Studies in Kerala who researches political power and women in India.
“These women play this really smart game [with] familial sources of power,” Prof. Devika says. “Age is a very important determinant within the joint family – as you become older you become the agent of patriarchal power. A didi, for example, or behenji, can be a very powerful person.”
N. Bhaskara Rao, who has studied voting patterns and female politicians for the Centre for Media Studies in New Delhi, says that voters consistently identify a handful of reasons that they elect women: a belief that they will be less corrupt than men; that they care more about inequities; that they have a better understanding of the lives and needs of ordinary people.
Meanwhile, economic and social changes – including a law passed in the mid-1990s to reserve a third of local government seats for women – have had a slow effect, said K. P. Vijayalakshmi, a professor of politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “This many women [in power] has proved that Indian democracy is not just churning but there has been some change out of that churning – we need to be commended. There has been a movement towards normalization of women in politics.”
The rise of regional parties helped, she said; when there were only two big national parties, the ranks to climb were dauntingly high. Urbanization has also had an effect: people leaving villages for cities tend to leave the traditional determinants of voting, especially caste, behind. “Women always had ambition – but the opportunity has blossomed.”
That said, less than 10 per cent of members of parliament, and of the newly elected state legislators, are women. It is far from an equal playing field, said Neerja Chowdhury, an analyst who writes extensively on women and politics. Rather, there is space for truly exceptional, “gutsy” women willing to defy the cultural norms against travelling alone; giving orders to men, especially older ones; and holding centre stage.
She does not expect the women at the top now to do much to change that. “When they make it to the top positions they are even more ruthless than their male counterparts – because they have to survive – so they learn to play the rules of the game even harder,” Ms. Chowdhury says.
Yet despite all that, Ms. Chowdhury adds, their presence in power changes things for young women who have seen their rise. “I would certainly feel, ‘If they can make it, I can make it too,’” she says. “There is hope – it’s not so formidable as it once looked.”