Namita Bhandare in Hindustan Times. More HereThe headlines are euphoric. Mamata Banerjee, J Jayalalithaa, Mayawati and Sheila Dikshit, just four women now rule over 400 million Indians. Three cheers for gender justice. Yet, there is no skirting the big question: are they about to swing a new deal for India's women? Some would argue, don't hold your breath."They might not be game changers for other women," says Akhila Sivadas, executive director, Centre for Advocacy and Research. "But at least they have been able to come up in a highly competitive environment that is often hostile to women."
The four women chief ministers are pictures in contrast. In her elegant saris, Sheila Dikshit is the silver-haired patrician who calls journalists beta, especially when they are asking tough questions. The unyielding Mayawati rules Uttar Pradesh by diktat, transferring officials who displease her faster than you can say ‘statue'. Jayalalithaa encourages full ashtang namaskars by genuflecting party members. Only Mamata is the untried, untested chief minister who comes to power with zero ostentation and enormous expectation for single-handedly demolishing 34 years of unbroken Communist rule.
It's early days yet to judge the third coming of Jayalalithaa or the first of Mamata in terms of what this means to the women of their states. But the rise to power of this sisterhood, says Guha, "has to be set off against the continuing discrimination against women in society". Adds social activist Biraj Patnaik: "There is great symbolic value in having these women in power." Significantly, despite their ideological differences, this sorority remains united on one issue: the Women's Reservation Bill, passed in the Rajya Sabha but now stuck in the lower house.It's tempting to see the rise of so many women at one point in time as a great victory for women everywhere. But women have a long way to go and many hurdles — female foeticide, dowry, malnutrition — to overcome.
Women in positions of power at the national and state level might not immediately usher in a new deal for other women. Their achievements (and scandals) are perhaps benchmarked against their male competitors. But their presence could mean a good, hard knock at yet another glass ceiling.