Ideas of India: Female Populist Leaders in India

Shruti Rajagopalan and Proma Ray Chaudhury discuss women in politics and the Indian ideal of political ascetism

Mamata Banerjee. Image Credit: Munir Uz Zaman/Getty Images

Ideas of India is a podcast in which Mercatus Senior Research Fellow Shruti Rajagopalan examines the academic ideas that can propel India forward. You can subscribe to the podcast on Apple, Spotify, Google, Overcast, Stitcher or the podcast app of your choice.

This episode is the fourth in a series in which Shruti will speak with doctoral candidates and postdoctoral scholars about their research as they enter the job market and the world of academia. The first episode featured Vaishnavi Surendra, the second featured Rohit Ticku and the third featured Tanu Kumar. In this episode, Shruti speaks with Proma Ray Chaudhury about her research on women in Indian politics, particularly Mamata Bannerjee, and how they are perceived compared with their male counterparts. Chaudhury is a PhD candidate in the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University, under the EU Marie Curie ETN Global India Project. She was formerly an assistant professor at West Bengal State University. Her research interests include gender, religion, political mobilization, political violence and critical theory.

This transcript has been slightly edited for clarity.

SHRUTI RAJAGOPALAN: Welcome to Ideas of India, a podcast where we examine academic ideas that can propel India forward. My name is Shruti Rajagopalan, and for the next few weeks, I will be speaking to young doctoral and postdoctoral candidates entering the academic job market and the policy world about their newly minted research on Indian political economy.

The fourth scholar in our young scholars series is Proma Ray Chaudhury, a PhD candidate at the School of Law and Government in Dublin City University under the EU Marie Curie ETN Global India Project. She is working on gender and women’s political participation in contemporary India. I spoke with Proma about her paper, titled “The Political Asceticism of Mamata Banerjee: Female Populist Leadership in Contemporary India,” where she studies representation of female populist leaders, in particular Mamata Bannerjee in West Bengal.

For Proma’s papers and for a full transcript of this conversation, click on the link in the show notes or visit DiscourseMagazine.com.

Hi, Proma. Welcome to the show.

PROMA RAY CHAUDHURY: Hi, Shruti. Thank you for having me here. It’s a great pleasure to share my research with you.

RAJAGOPALAN: I’m completely new to the area of gender and political representation within the field of political science. But your paper intrigued me initially because it was about Mamata Banerjee, and that was my impetus to start reading it.

But what I realized while reading your paper was that you’re actually giving us a much broader set of political commentary to think about, in the sense of not just women in politics or how we get more women in politics, but actually what we expect those women to be like in politics in India and, in your paper, in the particular case of West Bengal. Can you talk to me a little bit more about that idea, fundamentally within democracy and democratic politics, and also how you came about writing this paper?

Gender and Political Asceticism

CHAUDHURY: Let me start with, again as you said, a broader political framework here, and then I come to the context of Mamata Banerjee, of course.

I started with how feminist researchers viewed that conventional models of political leadership tend to privilege behavioral traits that are associated with masculinity—like aggression, assertiveness, often rationality as well, ambition, et cetera—while at the same time, it undervalues or devalues traits associated with femininity, for instance, kindness, nurturing, emotions, warmth, et cetera.

This tendency tends to relegate women as constitutively unfit for leadership roles. And this is true for almost all political ideologies, not only populism as such.

Now, coming to populism, these androcentric premises, what we call—they are very intensified because we see populist leaders as primarily being very hypermasculine, strongman figures. All across the world, we see that. In this context, it becomes very necessary for women political leaders on the side of populism—be it in France, be it in India, for that matter—to incorporate elements from both masculinity as well as femininity.

As we know, like in other fields, this balance between masculinity and femininity is a very tough act. So women political leaders—we see that they tend to adopt certain traditionalist concepts or what I call them – modes of power – that starts to legitimize their leadership in a sense.

It is a combination, as I said, of masculine traits, of feminine traits, and also at the same time, it has involved a very crafty kind of reformulation of the discourse of political asceticism, which is again, a very South Asian thing.

If you look at political asceticism, someone who is familiar with the political style of Gandhi might instantly recognize it—Mohandas Gandhi. He established, on a visceral level, what is the paradigm of a modern political ascetic—celibacy, then austerity, frugality of lifestyle, sartorially, as well as especially a stress upon indigenous living, indigenous lifestyle, indigenous food habits, et cetera—was what distinguished Gandhi’s politics in a way.

RAJAGOPALAN: I find this very fascinating because it’s not just—as you mentioned—about masculinity versus femininity. It is this expectation that they will be almost monastic. They will be celibate. They will be larger than life. They will be godlike. In the case of Mamata Banerjee, it’s almost as if she’s deified. You can see representations of her during Durga Puja and things like that.

But at the same time, with women—unlike the men—we also associate familial relationships, right? We call Mamata Banerjee “Didi.” Or we call Jayalalithaa “Amma,” or Mayawati “Behenji.” So, with women there’s this additional expectation that they are like one of us, they are like a sister, a mother or a parent.

But at the same time, they are not really women in the traditional sense. They must be celibate. They must be above physical attractions. They must be above material attractions, and so on and so forth. How does that craft the way women actually create space for themselves within the political discourse?

CHAUDHURY: In Mamata’s case, too, we see that there is this specific stress upon being incorruptible. Even though there were certain financial scams coming out about her government, especially in her second term of government, we see that there was a lot of stress on the fact by political commentators that she herself was probably not corruptible, even though her cabinet was.

So you see that there is this thing that women have an extra burden on themselves, even as there are other people who also practice political asceticism in a way. Like we have the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who also kind of is seen as a practitioner of political asceticism. There is Yogi Adityanath, who is, in effect, virtually a political ascetic. He represents—again, because of his monastic origins—he represents the political ascetic figure.

But at the same time, in Mamata Banerjee, you do not find the kind of Hindu supremacist appeal or an espousal of violent resolutions to social conflicts that you find in these kinds of leaders, in Yogi Adityanath and Sadhvi Pragya and other Hindu nationalist leaders. You see that Mamata Banerjee also has to tread a very tough balancing ground between Hindu supremacism, then left politics, which she has been traditionally a rival of, right?


CHAUDHURY: These are the certain contextual factors, contextual specificities that she has had to encounter and grapple with. I think that these are the things that summarize up her popular self-fashioning in a great way. There are certain passages in her autobiography, which I explore, where she says, “I’m a second-class parliamentarian.” Her parliamentary career is quite long, but she says that because she lacks a command over English and she lacks what she describes as glamor, she could never be one of those elite parliamentarians.

For me, she represents what the political scientist Yogendra Yadav also calls, the second democratic upsurge, that even though she has an upper-caste surname, she kind of represents the backward class surge in mainstream Indian politics that was seen during the 1980s and ’90s. She also probably belongs to the same category, even though she herself belongs to the upper caste, so that, I think, was important.

Mamata Banerjee vs. Other Female Politicians

RAJAGOPALAN: Yeah, and I think caste is, as you said, extremely important. We routinely see in India, whether male or female, upper-caste political leaders who espouse certain practices and lifestyles to appeal to a larger mass. But I want to draw a contrast between Mamata Banerjee and a couple of other really popular female leaders in India. One obvious comparison is of course J. Jayalalithaa, who was the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, and the other is Mayawati, who was the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh.

Now, one really interesting thing, I think—there are many points of differences between these three women, but they were all incredibly popular. They all fashion themselves as strong women in a way that counters the strongman ideology or perception. And third, they were all associated by the masses with some kind of familial connection. Mayawati was “Behenji” and J. Jayalalithaa was “Amma.”

But one really important point of difference is that Jayalalithaa was the opposite of what we associate with austerity, right? One, of course, is the corruption element of it, but famously, her adopted son had the most expensive wedding that India had ever seen at that time, and so on.

Mayawati, though not quite to the same extent as Jayalalithaa, was constantly mocked for carrying a fashionable handbag or wearing sunglasses or wearing posh clothes, and not seeming austere by wearing the traditional white sari as many female leaders do. What do you think is the reason for this contrast? Is it just their individual personalities? Is there something about the politics in Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu which is what is driving this?

CHAUDHURY: This is a very interesting question. I think that, as you said, there is something very specific about the context in which all these three leaders function because all these states have very different political cultures and histories to begin with. So, the kind of women leaders who are deemed to be desirable, or appropriate for that matter, differs vastly in the case of Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Also, their respective social locations differ because in Jayalalithaa—we see that she belonged to the class of the glitterati, so called.

And she also had a male mentor, which Mayawati also did, but in Mamata Banerjee, you don’t find that. Especially when you come to Mayawati’s case, there’s the specific point about her backward caste origins, which contributes to the fact that, if she showed any sign of ostentation, it was seen to be disagreeable, in a sense. Because of her Dalit origin, she was not supposed to aspire to such levels of ostentation or poshness. That was one of the reasons I thought that Mayawati’s case was also quite interesting.

Now coming to Mamata Banerjee, where there already has been a lot of journalistic works on her in particular, but she remains an outsider in the scholarship on West Bengal politics because the scholars on West Bengal thus far, barring a few exceptions, have covered her like a period, let’s say, in the sense that her rise, her ascent to power has been attributed to a decay of the Left Front government, which disregards her own personal contributions to how she galvanized the Singur anti–land acquisition movement and an Nandigram movement, for that matter.

Usually, they look at the rise of TMC or the Trinamool Congress party as a decay of the Left Front, attributing it to a vacuum that was left by the decay of the Left Front and nothing to do with her own style of politics, which has been derided as nonserious, as populist. The term populist itself is derisive in a way.

And I think there is a deeper reason behind this. This applies, to a different degree, to other political leaders, like you said, to Jayalalithaa and Mayawati as well, is that the use of emotions in populism is often seen as a reason to denigrate it, to deride it. Because it is not seen as being fit for “the proper conduct of politics.”

And this is a rather global phenomenon, I would say, because there are other works, like Emmy Eklundh’s work on Spanish Indignados movement, where she also mentions this particular tendency of communists and socialists—old socialist parties—not to be very cognizant of left populist parties or left populist movements because they are seen as too emotional or not very appropriate for proper conduct of politics. So, I think that this was also one of the factors that was important.

And lastly, speaking in Mamata Banerjee’s context, again, as I mentioned, she does not have a male political mentor, so that also fascinated me. Because I’m also a Bengali, I have seen her rise from the ashes, so as to say, and that fascinated me as to, how does this happen? How does a woman who has no political mentor of her own, in a country which has its fair share of political dynasticism, where dynasticism is so important?

Familiar links are very important for women who join politics, on the basis that they do not have a lot of political capital as such, so they have to rely on political linkages with families. You see that these are the factors that influenced me to take up Mamata Banerjee’s case.

RAJAGOPALAN: One thing I did not know about was the extent of the misogyny against Mamata Banerjee, not just on the usual lines, but highly sexualized misogyny—I mean, literally sometimes accusing her of working in red-light-district areas, and being someone who got paid by the Americans. Even when she encounters police brutality, it is one of those “She must have asked for it,” the typical narrative that you see with women.

But what I find even more incredible—that I could easily imagine, given the kind of misogynistic context of India and Indian politics with virtually anyone else—but Mamata Banerjee is someone who defeated Somnath Chatterjee. He was an absolute giant in Left politics, but also in the parliament. He has seen every government in modern India until recently, until he retired, and defeating him is no minor feat. It’s so interesting that you point out that this kind of political celibacy and frugality that is espoused may also be directly a consequence of the attacks against her.

A New Generation of Female Leaders in Panchayats

RAJAGOPALAN: Now I have a couple of questions because I think some of the strands of research that you talk about have application, as you said, across South Asia, some even across the world, but I want to pick one particular aspect within India. As you know, we have Panchayati Raj institutions which have reservation for women sarpanch. And in India we famously had the whole pati sarpanch [de facto husband–village leader] issue, as you rightly pointed out. The women are born in politics from the familial connection. They can’t just launch themselves on their own.

But there are two trends we see. One, that the pati sarpanch trend is slowly weakening. There are more and more women who are no longer rubber-stamp leaders within the Panchayati Raj. They actually are leaders, de facto. And the second, we’ve had four to five iterations of Panchayati Raj elections in most states. You see a new political class emerging right at the most local level.

Do you think those women in politics have a slightly different kind of burden relative to, say, as you point out, someone like Mamata Banerjee, who needs to lead a state with almost 90 to 100 million people in West Bengal? Is it the populism that causes this kind of monastic portrayal, austerity and so on? Or is it just that we haven’t had a class of women yet, and once this new class of women rise up to maybe chief minister levels, we will slowly see this disappearing?

CHAUDHURY: Yeah, I think that this is a very promising kind of idea to begin with, to be honest, and once, as you say, the new class of women panchayat heads or sarpanches rise, and we see that there is a foundational change at the local-level politics, that this kind of burden on women politicians, particularly at the higher levels, might disappear.

We also have to see—particularly when we talk about women lawmakers at the higher echelons of political power—we see that in India, there’s no reservation for women at the higher levels yet. That is a very important point that I think women need to grapple with still, even though there’s a greater democratization of the lower level, and that also happened because of reservations.

RAJAGOPALAN: Reservations.

CHAUDHURY: Right. I think we need certain structural changes, as well, before this can happen. Before we see this greater representation for women in a more substantive sense of the term, we need more descriptive representation for women in the parliament, in state legislatures, et cetera, although certain political parties—Mamata’s party included—have also brought out these 50 percent voluntary party quotas. There’s another one called Biju Janata Dal—

RAJAGOPALAN: Biju Janata Dal.

CHAUDHURY: —in Odisha, which has also announced this . . . And these are welcome steps altogether. But at the same time, we need to see . . . And research has also demonstrated that parties make use of the loopholes in quota laws and field women in less winnable seats. So, there are these factors, very much like the pradhan pati [de facto husband–village leader] kind of factor that operates these structural obstacles, cultural obstacles, which operates to relegate women again to that stature to which they were confined to before.

At the same time, we see that, again, there are these new women coming up, a new class of women coming up who represent and embody a different idea of political subjectivity, more assertive in a sense. If more women came up and took up that mantle of leadership, I think the burden on women would probably decrease.

But at the same time, when we look at Indian political culture as such, or South Asian political culture at large, we see that there is this general tendency of valorizing leaders who lead austere lives. So political asceticism is not just related to women as such, but it is a gender phenomenon, so women have to bear the burden more, specifically.

This kind of tendency has always remained, and I feel that we might be seeing more of it, particularly given the rise of the BJP, and again, we have a Prime Minister [Modi] who embodies this kind of political subjectivity. So we might not see a comprehensive end to this phenomenon, but maybe, as you say, the more the women leaders arise and the more number of women leaders we have, women might have more freedom, so as to espouse a different kind of political subjectivity.

A Different Perspective on Populism

RAJAGOPALAN: Why do you think this research is important? Why should we care about any of this?

CHAUDHURY: Usually in studies of populism, we see that we focus on Trump supporters, let’s say, and we focus on this particular phenomenon which shows the people as a very passive entity. So I’ve tried to destabilize that.

Globally speaking, there have been studies on individual populist leaders, and that is what populist studies is all about, but feminist researchers, feminist scholars have often criticized populist studies by saying that there is this leader-centrism. I mean, there’s no interaction between leaders and followers.

I’ve tried to focus on the perceptions and appraisals of Mamata Banerjee as a populist leader, by both her followers as well as her critics. That gives me a hint or a highlight into the interdependent relationship between leaders and followers that goes on to constitute the populist subjectivity, the populist leader. And at the same time, by focusing on the very different ideas that her followers and critics seem to have about her—and very polarized ideas—I have tried to destabilize the perceived homogeneity of the people that studies on populism focus on.

Secondly, as I mentioned, this abundant use of emotions in populous politics has often been used to delegitimize it as regarded as nonserious. So, in the context of Indian politics, there still is a lack of studies on women populist leaders and how their style of populism, how their self-fashioning interacts with and influences their followers in particular, and also critics. I think that says a lot about the impact that female populist leaders have on their constituencies as such, in general, and how that speaks back to their self-representation.

So, as we have discussed before, there is this burden on Mamata to remain austere, while we see Prime Minister Modi—even though he also calls himself a fakir or a wandering ascetic—he has that luxury to also don very expensive suits and not stick to the austere sartorial-lifestyle ethic that Mamata Banerjee cannot be seen to deviate from. This was where my research was located, and I thought of exploring it further.

RAJAGOPALAN: I think another really important element in your research is that on the one hand—and this is of course not directly in your paper, but just really zooming out—on the one hand, it is great news that we have women populist leaders, especially someone like Mamata Banerjee, who comes, as you said, without a familial link or connection to launch her in politics.

But on the other hand, women cannot be seen to have a family. They cannot be seen raising children. They can’t be seen in any other role other than a familial connection to the entire populace. She is the older sister of all of West Bengal in India. So that feels like a bit of bad news.

Avenues for Further Research

Now, what else are you working on?

CHAUDHURY: My PhD research is primarily focused on women’s substantive representation in the political parties of West Bengal, of which, this particular strand is one, focusing on the All India Trinamool Congress. I’ve also been working on the articulation of belongings and self-making—what I call self-making of women party members in three political parties, that is, the All India Trinamool Congress, the Communist Party of India [Marxist], and the Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP. It is a qualitative interpretive study, which is based on the feminist institutionalist research framework.

Then through the semi-structured interviews that I’ve conducted with women party members belonging to the grassroots, intermediary and elite levels of these three parties, I am trying to look at what sense they make of their belonging vis-à-vis the institutional spaces of these parties. I’m also trying to, at the same time, compare them across the three parties.

Through my fieldwork, I’ve come across very many interesting insights on how there is a lot of similarity between the Communist Party and the BJP for that matter, even though they stand on very opposite sides of the ideological spectrum, because both are cadre-based parties, and both have a distinctly rigid organizational structure. At the same time, there is the AITC, the Trinamool Congress, which is a very personalist party and has a different ideological and organizational structure.

So, like you mentioned, there is this burden on women to remain unmarried and commit themselves entirely to the party or to political activism. I have, very interestingly, come across this in all three parties as well. It’s not only Mamata Banerjee who does that, but women in the grassroots level, women also who go on to become members of parliament.

In all three parties, they have made certain kinds of conscious lifestyle choices where they say that, particularly one BJP MP, who’s now become a central government minister. I remember her telling me that she considers herself as one of the brothers in the party. And she’s been told that quite often, that, “You know, you’re not a sister for that matter. You’re our brother.” There’s this integration into this homosocial, male-bonding kind of workplace culture of the parties that these women somehow aspire to.

There are other women, also, who raise children, raise a family, as well as devote time in the party, and they often talk about how limited they are because some of them are not assisted by their family members. As I said, family support or also consent from their male members is crucial when it comes to sustained political participation by the women. But at the same time, we see that there are these women who commit their everything to the political party, who call themselves married to the party as such. They actually rise quite a lot in the party hierarchy. That also says a lot about the gendered institutional cultures of these parties, I think.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yeah, and so much of this, when we read, say, biographies of CEOs who are women and things like that, there’s a very similar expectation from women who rise in virtually any field, right? The expectation that you need to be a little bit more masculine, leave your family behind, or at least not prioritize it or not be seen to prioritize it. Sort of be married to your work. I know you don’t make these broad generalizations, but I think it’s quite easy to see it emerging from your research. How did you get interested in this branch of research?

CHAUDHURY: Well, I think that it also comes somewhere from an ideological position that I have. I’ve remained a broadly committed feminist thus far, and an intersectional one, because I also recognize the particular impact of gendered power and hierarchy that has on very different women coming from very different social locations—women and trans people and other historically marginalized identities.

Also, there’s this personal element that I have. I lost my father when I was eight years old, and I’ve seen my mother go through this harrowing experience of widowhood, which you know is very specific to Hindu culture especially. Women are stigmatized in Hinduism when they’re widowed. They’re seen, somehow, as people who have lost their everything and are in need of protection.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, and also like a bad luck, bad charm, bad omen—people who might jinx a family function. There’re so many superstitions associated with that.

CHAUDHURY: That takes me back to so many memories that I have also personally seen because we were suddenly seen as orphans when we were children, when our father passed away. I’ve seen my mother struggle with her job and with raising a family as a single mother. All of this somehow inspired me to commit to this idea of feminism and idea of gender equality.

And because I’m a student of political science, I remain passionately committed to the idea that women should have an equal stake in politics no matter where they are—grassroots, elite levels, et cetera. In India, we have a long way to go, I would say, despite the fact that there has been some substantial grassroots women’s participation. At the elite level, we still have a very long way to go.

RAJAGOPALAN: And what do you think, aside from your research, are the big questions in this field?

CHAUDHURY: Because I like to call myself a feminist institutionalist scholar, I think that generally how the informal dynamics of gendered power, gendered hierarchy work behind and condition these very formal institutional processes in political parties and public bodies as such, are very important questions.

These are not very easily documented by statistical analysis, so you have to go into deep immersive studies, ethnographic studies. For that, I think, is one of the important factors that feminist institutionalist research has brought out, and also certain other factors—for instance, what we mean by an ideal political candidate.

There are these androcentric premises, again, that this kind of research has brought forth and highlighted, that often we see that the ideal candidate is a local man—irrespective of context, I would say, a local man who’s familiar. We see that there’s this constitutive limitation for women to contest in politics, to come and join politics in the first place. I think that, again, the burden on women is a lot greater, and there’s a lot more scope to do research as more and more women are contesting that burden and they’re coming forward.

RAJAGOPALAN: Proma, I have one last question that I ask all my guests, which is very important during the pandemic. What are you binge-watching to keep yourself sane through the COVID pandemic?

CHAUDHURY: Well, I think I’ve lost track of what all I’ve been watching, but lately I’ve been taking to radio dramas, listening to these fascinating detective stories: Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, et cetera, and these have been keeping me sane. Recently, I’ve started watching The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix, and it’s pretty amazing. I think I would recommend it to everyone.

RAJAGOPALAN: Thank you so much for your time. I wish you good luck with your research, and I hope to read a lot more of your work in the future.

CHAUDHURY: Thanks so much. It’s been a great pleasure sharing my research with you and talking. I think these have sharpened my ideas better about my research. Thanks so much.

RAJAGOPALAN: Thanks for listening to Ideas of India. If you enjoy this podcast, please help us grow by sharing with like-minded friends. You can connect with me on Twitter @srajagopalan. Our next episode features the research of Dr. Vaidehi Tandel, who is a junior fellow at IDFC Institute, about her work on the political economy of urbanization in India.

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