In Greek mythology, Pyrrha, the daughter of Pandora, escapes the Great Deluge with her husband Deucalion. After floating in an ark for nine days and nine nights, the ark rests atop Mount Parnassus and they are the only survivors of the flood. Casting rocks from the ground over their shoulders, Pyrrha and Deucalion repopulate the earth. The rocks that Pyrrha cast turned into women. If from Pandora, the very first woman, whose curiosity unleashed evil spirits, came man’s first brush with death, from Pyrrha came all of womankind thereafter.
Veteran journalist Kalyani Shankar’s timely new book, Pandora’s Daughters profiles eight of India’s most important female politicians — Sonia Gandhi, Sushma Swaraj, Mayawati, Pratibha Patil, J. Jayalalithaa, Mamata Banerjee, Sheila Diskhit and Mehbooba Mufti. Based on her interaction with them over the years as a political journalist, biographical material and interviews with other politicians and people who know them, she provides rich detail of their origins, their struggles and successes.
Where the book does not go further enough, however, is in telling us what comes after Pyrrha. In an introductory chapter that is endlessly repetitive — we learn no less than five times in one chapter about the importance of Ms. Mufti’s father in her ascendance — Shankar summarises the back-story and worldview of each of the women leaders she is about to profile, but ends with a rumination on dynasty and personality cults. What impact have these transformational women had on the polity of a country so deeply patriarchal? What impact have they had on the aspirations of other women and women leaders? Neither are these questions asked nor answered.
The rest of the book proceeds as a fairly straightforward biographical account, with the addition of Shankar’s insight into dizzying inner political manoeuvring. While students of modern Indian politics will be delighted with stories of the inner wrangling before government formations — or the behind-the-scenes drama in the Congress before UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi’s elevation as Congress president in 1998 — more casual readers might miss a touch of the human and the personal. Some of the best insights undoubtedly come from the author’s retelling of events she was witness to, and from interviews with men and women who saw it all; Natwar Singh’s retelling of Rajiv Gandhi’s funeral and former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s conversation with Ms. Gandhi, for instance. But there is little about their personal lives that we learn that is not already known, with the surprising exception of former President Pratibha Patil.
An interest aspect of the biographical material Shankar uses is perhaps one of the first extensive deployments in a book of cables sent by United States embassy officials, put into the public domain by Wikileaks. Most news citations too are from American and British publications. While this can provide for candid opinion on top politicians, the uncritical reproduction of at sometimes erroneous, often snarky information is problematic. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the passages on former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, Mayawati. Speaking of her fourth term, Shankar quotes a Newsweek article which said: “She is among India’s richest politicians, with a taste for diamond jewellery and glittering silk saris and kurtas ...”, saris that no one but Newsweek seems to have seen any evidence of.
While the author acknowledges the path-breaking and transformational nature of Mayawati’s rise in politics, particularly significant for a book on woman politicians, the BSP leader comes in for more than her fair share of criticism in the book. “Mayawati’s politics is much like the queen’s in Alice in Wonderland, who declared “Off with his head!” to anyone who stood in her way,” Shankar writes in some of her first words in the book on Mayawati. Later, in the chapter on her, we are told “Mayawati clearly has no vision and lacks administrative skills” and “[s]he has no vision on a foreign, security or even economic policy pertaining to the whole country, as she does not have the requisite background.” “In essence,” Shankar writes, “she has no broad worldview”.
Another Chief Minister, also known for her autocratic ways, but from a more privileged background gets far kinder words. The Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, Jayalalithaa “still remains beautiful, majestic and imperious, and has aged gracefully from the film-goers’ heart-throb to a respected Chief Minister”. After cataloguing the twists and turns in her political career, as well as acknowledging the sycophancy she inspires in her partymen, Shankar concludes: “This leader has come a long way since her celluloid days. From expanding MGR’s constituency of women to identifying the weaker sections, she has developed an image of an “iron lady” and a cult of personality. Her future may be bright if she plays her cards well.” Former New Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit too gets praise as “an example of how personal popularity combined with hard work and a leaders’ patronage can make a woman leader successful”.
These tropes about women politicians — that they enter politics through political families or mentors, that they are autocratic, capricious and insecure — are not sufficiently interrogated, nor are we told how this makes them different from male politicians, many of whom the same criticisms would apply to. We learn who Pyrrha is, but we never fully learn why she survived and how she changed the world.