Women and Entertainment in South Asian Politics
Sumantra Bose

Introduction From Indira and Sonia Gandhi in India to Sirimavo and Chandrika Bandaranaike in Sri Lanka, female involvement in South Asian politics seems largely to have been confined to those born into great political dynasties. In this interview Sumantra Bose, Ralf Dahrendorf fellow and lecturer in comparative politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science, argues that this situation is rapidly changing. He holds that the fragmentation of political allegiance in India has meant that many women have been able to exploit the moral authority they command in the home at the national level, leading to great political success.

Would you say that female involvement in south Asian politics is largely dynastic?

Sumantra Bose: There is a strong dynastic tradition in Indian politics, exemplified, of course, above all, by the Nehru-Gandhi family, which provided successive prime ministers between independence, more than 50 years ago, and the late 1980s.

The most famous figure to have profited from this dynastic tendency in Indian politics was Indira Gandhi, who was Prime Minister for two periods, between 1966 and 1977 and then, again, from 1980 until her assassination in 1984. So, there has been a tradition of women getting involved in Indian political life because they belong to traditional political families, and because their fathers, husbands or brothers were powerful politicians in their own time and then the womenfolk got involved at a later stage.

That is changing, however. The last decade has been one of great transformation in Indian politics, not just a breakdown of the one-party-dominant system and its replacement by a much more heterogeneous situation, but in other ways as well. This decade of transformation has witnessed the rise of a number of influential women politicians who are not connected by birth or by marriage to traditionally powerful political families. For example, there's Mamata Banerjee who comes from a very humble background and has literally risen from scratch from the grassroots level to being a fairly powerful mass leader in her province, West Bengal.

There is also Jayalalitha, who reportedly used to be the mistress of a powerful politician in south India, in Tamil Nadu state, and inherited his mantle after he died. But, then again, despite being connected to a powerful male politician, she doesn't really come from a politically famous or privileged background herself. There are other examples. Mayawati, who is the leader of the lowest castes in the most populous and largest Indian state, Uttar Pradesh, in northern India, again, doesn't have any political lineage worth speaking of.

So, the past decade has seen the emergence of a number of women leaders who are politicians in their own right, not because they've had the advantage of political lineage.

Do you think that female politicians are viewed any differently to male politicians in India, and do you think they might have any particular advantages?

Bose: It is hard to say. I think the women leaders themselves will probably tell you that they had a much harder time than men in rising to where they had risen. We are talking about a very patriarchal gendered society, which does not look at women's participation in public life very positively, even now. Only 8 percent of the parliamentarians in India's National Parliament are women, so it is quite a skewed composition.

In speculating about possible advantages, I think the key to the emergence of some of the recently emerged women leaders in Indian politics is that they have managed, very creatively and subtly, to extrapolate traditional roles of authority for women in the typical Indian family, into the public domain.

For example, Mamata Banerjee is known throughout Bengal and even beyond as 'Didi', or 'older sister'. Even old men refer to her as Didi, quite routinely. Now, 'didi' or 'older sister', in a typical Bengali family, is a person who is the subject of some affection, but also, in some cases, with some authority. And I think she has very creatively and subtly managed to make herself the didi of an entire region of the country, rather than a didi of just her own family.

That could extend to some other women politicians. Within the confines of the average Indian home, women have a certain authority, especially a certain moral authority, which men, in fact, often do not have. And the key to the success in the public realm of some of these lately emerged women politicians is that they have extended those traditional roles of moral authority into the public political domain. So, they are accepted and, in many instances, respected, without being unduly threatening to men.

Do you think that part of the appeal, with Sonia Gandhi, the wife of the late prime-minister Rajiv Gandhi, is the sense that she is from a family with political pedigree and that can be trusted?

Bose: I think that speculation about the entry of Sonia Gandhi into Indian politics, as the leader of the Congress Party, which is still the largest opposition party in the country, and over the prospective participation of Priyanka, Sonia Gandhi's daughter, is highly exaggerated. These are largely creatures of the media. You know what the press and the electronic media are like. They are constantly looking for stories, they are constantly looking for headlines and soundbites. Of course, when the surviving members of India's greatest political dynasty show signs of entry into politics, show signs of getting interested, that is a story, that commands headlines. But beyond that, I think that the dynastic period of Indian politics is definitely over. Too many transformations have occurred in Indian politics in the last 10 or 12 years for the status quo to be restored.

What has happened is that the Congress Party has had a crisis of existence. It has been severely weakened over the last decade, and it does not show any signs of getting itself out of the rut by re-inventing itself, programmatically and ideologically. It is basically a dying but not quite dead party that is clutching at straws in order to prolong its threatened existence. You might know that Sonia Gandhi, since she took over as the leader of the Congress Party a few years ago, has been unable to improve the Congress Party's prospects in any meaningful sense. In fact, in the parliamentary elections of 1999, the most recent elections, she led the Congress Party to a debacle, their worst ever showing in independent India's history. The question is: why doesn't the party get rid of her and find someone else?

The answer is that this party is so fossilised and so bankrupt of ideas that it doesn't have any other leader than it can look to for rejuvenation. Similarly with Priyanka. Priyanka actually ran her mother's election campaign in a particular constituency in Uttar Pradesh, which Sonia Gandhi won herself very handsomely. And, of course, the media fixated on this spectacle of the daughter of the Nehru-Gandhi family mingling with villagers and delivering political speeches. That did work, but within a local context. Priyanka's father, the late Rajiv Gandhi, who was also assassinated, in 1991, former Prime Minister, as well, like his mother, Indira Gandhi, used to represent their particular constituency. The people of that particular area in Uttar Pradesh in northern India have a particular fondness for the Nehru-Gandhi family.

However, there is absolutely no reason to believe that that would extend to the rest of the country. And I think that if the Congress Party wants to survive into the new millennium, then it has to find a way of re-inventing itself, programmatically and ideology, rather than clutch at the dynastic straw.

There appears to be a trend in the politics of India and Sri Lanka, whereby film stars enter into the frame and run for office. Do you agree with this and, if so, do you think there is a particular reason for this?

Bose: I think you need to break down the question a bit. Former film stars have become very successful politicians only in the southern part of the country, in southern India. There are two names that come to mind, and they were both known by their initials. MGR (M.G. Ramachandran) was a very successful politician in Tamil Nadu, in India's deep south. Another man, called NTR, N.T. Rama Rao, who was also a matinee idol, as film stars are known in India, founded his own political party and went on to win regional elections and govern his own state or province, Andhra Pradesh, for quite a while. These were the two greatest success stories of movie stars turned politicians.

However, there really haven't been that many more, and not in other parts of the country, so that leads me to suspect that there is something in the popular culture of these south Indian provinces that lends itself to this phenomenon of movie stars re-inventing themselves as successful, mass-based politicians. But, remember that when India's greatest movie star ever, probably, Amitabh Bacchan, entered politics, in the mid-1980s, he wasn't a great success. He did win one election, but he was unable, in the longer term, to sustain a career as a politician, and compared to his very successful career as a movie star, his career as a politician was pretty short lived and it was rather a damp squib.

Similarly, you can talk about others like Shabana Azmi, for example, who is a very popular Indian actress, respected both in India and abroad for her acting abilities, who is a member of the Indian Parliament's upper house, called the Rajya Sabha. She is a nominated member and she doesn't need to fight and win elections, she just gets nominated there because she is a prominent person. Now, Shabana Azmi, of course, attracts cameras wherever she goes, including in Parliament. She is very photogenic so no one can blame the cameramen for doing what they do but, at the same time, she is more of a lone operator. She is not really a politician in the serious sense. She doesn't have a popular following. She is not part of any significant political party and she doesn't have her own base in any part of India.

This phenomenon of movie stars entering Indian politics, again, needs to be understood in context. And it would be good if it were not exaggerated too much. It is not really as significant a phenomenon as some think.

This feature was taken from an interview with Sumantra Bose conducted at the London School of Economics and Political Science on November 16, 2000. Copyright the London School of Economics and Political Science.