Politics, Writing

A deity in a cape & the eternal pedestrian in chappals

No two women are more different or more alike than Jayalalitha & Mamata Banerjee, both victors by landslide majorities yesterday. Both come from humble backgrounds, have fought long and hard as outsiders in a world that has been implacably opposed to them and both have shunned dependence on others, particularly, men. Both have learned to become fiercely individualistic, rising above their many constraints and limitations, by being utterly driven and focused on their goals. And both make bad enemies.

And yet, the story of Mamata Banerjee and J Jayalalitha could not be more different. Jayalalitha came to power on the back of a powerful man, before proceeding to become her own person. Her sense of individuality came from a deep sense of grievance at the many personal injustices she was subjected to. In many ways, Jayalalitha represents herself more than anyone else, and has succeeded in turning her perpetual quest for redress into a successful political cause. Her strength comes from her great insight into understanding that in large parts of India, and certainly in Tamil Nadu, political leaders need to act as if they were anointed rulers by divine decree. It is by understanding this that she has turned her potential drawbacks into advantages. She is otherwise an outsider to Tamil Nadu, a Brahmin in a Dravidian world, a convent educated, English-speaking oddity, and of course a woman.

The key to her success is not her representativeness, but its opposite. She is someone who looks like a credible ruler and certainly acts like one. Her victory exudes the sense of ruler’s triumphant return from exile rather than a successful campaign aimed at wooing at the hearts and minds of the voters. Her success is not because of any particular set of principles or even any specifically resonant promises, but merely part of the inexorable cycle that seems to be at work in Tamil Nadu where after a few seasons, one set of deities is ritually replaced by another.

The victory of Mamata Bannerjee on the other hand presents a completely different picture. Although she too like Jayalalitha, is a cauldron of smouldering resentments, in her case she very clearly represents something other than herself. She embodies the fragmented anger of the ordinary citizen, refracted through the prism of the callous indifference of the political establishment. It is striking that she has won by representing the people more successfully than the CPM, a party whose ideology is ostensibly precisely and almost exclusively about standing for the downtrodden. It is a testimony to her ability to effortlessly and credibly carry in her persona, the disappointments of a much larger body of people, that she is one of the very few female politicians that have emerged as leaders without any legacy whatsoever. It is instructive that she is called Didi to Jayalalitha’s Amma, for her relationship with her constituency is better captured as a relationship based on kinship rather than authority. But if Mamata represents those she leads with great fidelity, unlike Jayalalitha, she has shown little ability to rule, and little interest in developing a broader vision of governance, going by her unspectacular performance as a minister. Her political life has moved from tantrum to more improbable tantrum, without showing an ability to gather her rage into a meaningful plan of action.

It is a study in contrasts. One a controlled, often vengeful upper class ruler, driven by a personal agenda who revels in creating distance between herself and others and other a fountain of hyper-emotional torrent of indignation, living the life of those she leads and feeling their fractured and often incoherent rage. One completely at home with the trappings of power while the other forever at odds with those in power. For one power is an intensely satisfying entitlement that visits her periodically whereas for the other it is the culmination of a lifelong quest, leaving in its wake a sense of emptiness, for all the investment has so far been made in overthrowing the powerful rather than in exercising power. Both look and sound different and both are associated with their own very articulate symbols — one wears a cape and the other hawai chappals.

Jayalalitha’s cape tells the story of a woman who has learned to rule by keeping everything close to the chest and under wraps. It is a shroud of significance, a cloak that marks very sharply drawn boundaries between her and everything else. For someone whose journey has been marked with bouts of humiliation and active marginalization, the need to put distance between herself and anyone capable of wielding power over her has been a pronounced one. The need is to place herself above the reach of other people’s power, either by towering over all else in her avatar as an oversized cut-out or by wearing a mark of royalty, an insignia of superhumanhood by way of a cape.

Mamata Banerjee’s hawai chappals mark her out as an eternal pedestrian, flip-flopping her way through busy streets and unruly crowds. They speak of a comfort with ordinariness and the desire to remain free of any confining structures. Along with her one room house and her crumpled sarees, they capture Mamata’s disinterest in the pursuit of a power as a means to any personal end just as they point to an unwillingness to be part of any established structure with hierarchies and rules.

In some ways, both victories underline the power of democracy in India in that in both cases governments perceived to be inefficient or corrupt have been thrown out. Perhaps Mamata’s victory is more significant in this respect as it vindicates the representative nature of electoral politics in the country. And while the two women may share very different outlooks towards power, with one awkward with the prospect of ruling and other revelling in it, neither seem particularly interested in the question of governance. For all the significance we might see in these wins, in the larger context perhaps not much has changed.

TOI-New Delhi- Saturday, May 14, 2011