Mayawati had Kanshiram, Sheila Dixit had her father-in-law Umashankar Dixit, J Jayalalithaa had M G Ramachandran, Uma Bharti first had the patronage of Rajmata Vijay raje Scindia and later of L K Advani who she acknowledged as pita-tulya (akin to a father) and, of course, her brother standing beside her through thick and thin.

Sonia Gandhi had Rajiv Gandhi, Mrs Indira Gandhi and the rest of the Nehru-Gandhi family charisma to back her up. But Mamata Banerjee had no godfather at all. Or, indeed, no godmother as Pratibha Patil has always had (first, Indira and then Sonia Gandhi).

I was awaiting the results of the West Bengal elections with bated breath – for Mamata’s win would mean she is the only woman in this country who has made it to the top, quite on her own.

It has taken her nearly 15 years – which is not much in a lifetime – and various flip-flops between alliance partners before she got both her formula and timing right. And she is now all set to be chief minister of West Bengal. Which holds out a lot of hope to many women in this country who might want to go places without the baggage of male patronage as has been generally happening until now.

I am not a votary of reservation for women because I think it demeans women and defeats the purpose in two crucial ways: one, it goes with the presumption that women are not good enough to fight men in their own backyards; that they are somehow inferior and so the poor things need some special privileges. And two: reservations, in any case, are of no use to women who do not belong to powerful political families – the large number of women in parliament today are all related in various ways to powerful male politicians of their own time.

My most enduring image of Mamata is one of her getting up onto the roof of her car some years ago and attempting “suicide’’ by tying her sari pallu round her neck – as if that was guaranteed to do the job! But despite the hysteria (and histrionics) of all of her shrill protests, my tears brimmed over on the morning of the counting as I saw her using the same pallu, drawn over her shoulder, to wipe the sweat off her brow – much as my grandmother and mother used to do, in the days before air-conditioning, through their household chores. No delicate lace-edged handkerchief for her and absolutely no self-consciousness at all about being seen on national television thus. That is a homespun image that could prove very endearing as well as enduring.

To that extent, even President Pratibha Patil, who is the only other woman I can think of who got to that high office without any godfather in her family, was ever more sophisticated with her full-sleeved blouses and crisply starched saris – and, yes, slippers to match as against Mamata’s blue-strapped Hawaii chappals (will Bata now record high sales of this humble footwear?) which no one will ever be seen dead in outside their own bathrooms.

There is something to be said for simple living and high thinking, after all – friends in Calcutta have told me how, despite the fact that Mamata finally began to draw a lot of funds from industrialists who had seen the writing on the wall in recent months, she was not urged to go out and buy silks and jewels for herself – every last paisa was turned over to her party for fighting these elections. How much do white cotton saris and rubber chappals cost, after all?

It would be interesting to see if she goes for a makeover as chief minister but that’s beside the point – a thought like that perhaps even trivialises her victory. My excitement comes more from the fact that Mamata’s victory perhaps now opens a small window for women on their own in politics. Going by my own experience in Maharashtra, I have been unable to come across a single woman – single in more ways than one – who has not had a male supporter standing firmly beside her. Even President Patil began life with six brothers watching her like a hawk before she was married and later a husband who worked his career round hers to facilitate her progress in her chosen field.

I know as a matter of fact that Sharad Pawar had wanted to give tickets to two prominent women at one time – one was single and the other divorced. Every five years, as elections came round the corner, he would call over both. The standard question to the singleton was “So you don’t want to get married?’’
To the divorcee, it would be, “I do not know what your family situation is now?’’

It took a long time for them to catch on that they were not getting tickets because Pawar thought they could not make it on their own without a husband or some other male relative fobbing off the unwanted and clearing paths through the political thickets for them. So these women, living in one of the most progressive of Indian states with pioneers like Jija Maata, Ahilyabai Holkar and Savitiribai Phule, among others, who broke so much ground for women in earlier times, have still been the poorer. They can draw some twisted sense of satisfaction, though, from the fact that at the last election Pawar, in a way, paid all the women and particularly President Patil a backhanded compliment by referring to her MLA son as Rajendra `Patil’; instead of Rajendra `Shekhawat’ (Patil’s husband is Devisinh Shekhawat).

Sometime ago when I asked Union Law Minister Veerappa Moily about how he thought the women’s reservation bill would benefit anyone but women related to male politicians, he said, “In the beginning it might be like that. But it will get better. It might take time but we will, by and by, have women independent of any male shackles.’’

Well, Mamata was always independent of any male bonding (or shackling). Her constant companion was only her sincerest dedication to her cause. So I believe she is a better icon for women in politics than any of the others: you don’t have to be hip, you don’t have to be sophisticated, you don’t have to be bejeweled. All you have to be is yourself, in a simple cotton sari and Hawaii chappals. Attagirl!

And attagirls, all, who want to follow in her footsteps.

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