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The Rising Power of Women in India

Monday, July 20th, 2009

Can you guess what the most positive aspect of India today might be? The answer is a word called HOPE. Hope for a better tomorrow, hope for success, hope for greater possibilities and hope for a country that is indiscriminating of cast, creed and gender. In the dark ages as well as the stone ages, physical might was what dominated existence, wherein it was acceptable to place women in a lower position. Yet with the passage of time, might was gradually replaced with intellect, art, science and inventions, culture, and so on. With this evolutionary progression has come the inevitable change in the status of women in essentially every sphere of influence. The following essay has been written in tribute to six prominent female icons, in support of further acceptance of the intrinsic and fundamental might of women in all domains.

Pratibha Devi Singh Patil

Pratibha Devi Singh Patil

Pratibha Devi Singh Patil

As the first female constitutional head of a democratic nation, this esteemed leader was responsible for aptly redefining the title of ‘First Man’ to ‘First Woman.’ The post of president of a titular signatory had a lot of sheen to it back during the tenure of Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, the father of India’s nuclear energy program, but over time the position had gradually become tarnished. However, I am confident to the extent of being boisterous that it will now regain its well-deserved dignity and rightful say under Mrs. Pratibha Devi Singh Patil. Mrs. Patil is a veteran in the field of social causes and polity. She represented the Edlabad constituency in Jalgaon District, Maharashtra, as a member of the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly (1962-1985), and was deputy chairwoman of the Rajya Sabha (1986-1988), a Member of Parliament from Amravati in the Lok Sabha (1991-1996), and the first female and 24th overall Governor of Rajasthan (2004-2007). She married the educator Devisingh Ramsingh Shekhawat on July 7, 1965, had a son and daughter, and together with her husband, she set up an educational institute, Vidya Bharati Shikshan Prasarak Mandal, which now runs a chain of schools and colleges in Jalgaon and Mumbai. She has also set up the Shram Sadhana Trust, which runs hostels for working women in New Delhi, Mumbai and Pune, as well as an engineering college in Jalgaon. She founded and was the chairwoman of a cooperative sugar factory known as Sant Muktabai Sahakari Sakhar Karkhana, and a cooperative bank named after herself as the Pratibha Mahila Sahakari Bank. She was also involved in setting up an industrial training school for the visually challenged in Jalgaon, and the running of a school for poor children of Vimukta Jatis and nomadic tribes.

Pratibha Patil began her political career in 1962 at the age of just 27. She became a deputy minister for education after re-election in 1967 in the Vasantrao Naik ministry. In her next terms (1972-78), she acted as full cabinet minister for the state. She handled the portfolios of tourism, social welfare and housing for successive congress governments under several chief ministers. She was continually re-elected to the assembly, either from the Jalgaon or the nearby Edlabad constituencies, until 1985, when she was elected to the Rajya Sabha as a Congress candidate. It is noteworthy that she has never lost an election that she has contested.

Few people know that Mrs. Pratibha also managed Indira Gandhi’s kitchen when Sanjay Gandhi died. She protested the arrest of Indira Gandhi in December 1977 and subsequently spent 10 days in prison. In November 2004, eight years after she had completed her term in the 10th Lok Sabha, Pratibha Patil was recalled from political hibernation to become the first woman Governor of Rajasthan. She was only the second politician from Maharashtra to hold this post, the first being Vasantdada Patil. With Pratibha Patil as Governor, Rajasthan then had women in three significant positions of power in the state, including Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje and Assembly Speaker Sumitra Singh. UPA Chairwoman Sonia Gandhi described her nomination as an “historic occasion” in India’s 60th year of independence. She had faced Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, an NDA-supported candidate, in a straight contest, and visited state capitals to garner support and finally won by over 300,000 votes. This also resulted in the potential that she would become the first female President of India.

Sonia Gandhi

Sonia Gandhi

Sonia Gandhi

The personality we are about to discuss is quite in contrast to Mrs. Pratibha Patil. Referred to in discussion as ‘The Madam’ (a term used both affectionately and derisively), Gandhi has roots in polity by virtue of her marriage into the first family of Indian politics. Born as Sonia Maino in Ovassanjo (a modest Italian village), she later married Rajiv Gandhi and was then content to live a life away from political and public glare. But destiny weaved a much different plot by first getting Rajiv Gandhi into public office following the death of Indira Gandhi. With her husband’s death, the neglected and sorry state of affairs of the Indian National Congress was something she could not ignore. Rather than waiting for a political miracle to happen, she took the onus upon herself and thrust herself with an acumen and might which could be paralleled by notably few persons. The result of the tussle amongst the phraseology of ‘India Shining’ and ‘Aam Aadmi’ (Ordinary man) is known to one and all. She displayed acute diplomacy, farsighted vision, mature decision making, fearless leadership and to top it all off, she showed the nation firsthand what sacrifice means when she rejected the offer of becoming the Prime Minister, whereby her detractors were then found staying away from TV ‘bites and quips.’

On May 28, 2005 Sonia Gandhi was elected as President of the Indian National Congress by overwhelming support across the country from all states. In a short span since, she has plunged into active politics before the February midterm Lok Sabha elections. Since Rajiv’s death, Sonia had led a nearly reclusive life for six years, save for her appearances at a few official functions. In fact, the top job of the Congress organization was offered to her on a platter immediately after the death of her husband on May 21, 1991. The grieving and reluctant widow declined the offer, however. Sonia, whose Italian origin gave her opponents ‘propaganda grist,’ became a full-fledged Indian citizen in 1984 following the death of Indira Gandhi. Sonia never let herself succumb to the sometimes-intense propaganda of the opposition. Choosing instead to fight bravely with the situation, she managed to come up with a roadmap for the success of her party. Nowadays, Sonia is not only in the thick of politics, but her children, Rahul and Priyanka, are both dedicated workers of the Congress party.

A question arises of why Sonia has become so popular in such a short span of time. The answer can be found in the way by which she launched a nationwide campaign in the 2004 general elections, crisscrossing the country on the ‘Ordinary Man’ slogan, which stood in contrast to the ‘India Shining’ slogan of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA). She countered the BJP by asking, “Who is India Shining for?” Her policy was to stick with the questions of a common man that made her popular in each and every part of the world’s largest democracy. Her refusal of the prime minister’s post after the successful drive in 2004 gave her an angel-like personality in the eyes of many of her countrymen. Through taking charge of the PM’s post instead, she then recommended noted economist Dr. Manmohan Singh for the Prime Minister’s post, whose innocent behavior and sober personality went on to win the hearts of more than a billion citizens.

Meira Kumar

Meira Kumar

Meira Kumar

Here we take a look at the life of yet another inspiring lady, Meira Kumar, the newly elected speaker. The daughter of former Deputy Prime Minister Jagjeevan Ram and a lawyer by training, she has been elected to Parliament five times and has also served as social justice minister. She gave up her job as a career diplomat to enter politics. As speaker, Kumar presides over India’s powerful lower house of Parliament, or Lok Sabha. One can aptly say that this move was indicative of a greater national acceptance of women’s leadership. With an endearing smile on her face Meira always portrays an air of calm. She has served as an IFS to many countries as representative of India. India’s Parliament elected her as its first-ever female speaker after the formation of the 15th Lok Sabha. Her appointment is also important because she belongs to India’s lowest caste.

At 64, Meira Kumar was elected unopposed and immediately assumed her post, replacing Somnath Chaterjee. Lawmakers thumped their desks in cheering Kumar as she was congratulated by Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh and L.K. Advani, the leader of the opposition. Meira Kumar has long been actively participating in various movements pertaining to social reforms, human rights and democracy. During the last century’s worst drought in 1967, acting as the chairperson of the National Drought Committee of the congress party, she launched a ‘Family Adoption Scheme,’ under which affluent families adopted those draught-affected families. Meira Kumar is very much committed to human rights and the abolition of India’s caste system, and towards this she has visited many places where atrocities were committed against lower castes and targeted tribes during the last 20 years. She has not only staged and led demonstrations, but she has also filed a number of public interest litigation cases in the Supreme Court to ensure justice for those who cannot defend themselves.

Kumari Mayawati

Kumari Mayawati

Kumari Mayawati

Like Meira, Kumara Mayawati is a female politician of lower caste origin who has been chosen by the Indian masses to a high-ranking position, namely as chief minister of UP, India’s most populous state. Mayawati has been the Chief Minister during three other short tenures, but her party holds the absolute majority in the state at this time. She is the highest income-tax payer amongst all politicians in India, paying Rs. 26 crore for the year 2007-08. From her beginnings as a teacher to her ascension to politician, Mayawati always proved herself as a sentinel of the Dalits (a lower caste). In 1977, Kanshi Ram became very influential in her life, resulting in her joining his core team when he founded the BSP in 1984. She has struggled throughout her life towards making a place for herself in Indian politics. In 2001, Kanshi Ram named her as his successor, after her electoral experience and considerable groundwork over the previous 10 years.

Mayawati first won in the Lok Sabha elections in 1989 from Bijnor. In 1995, while a member of the Rajya Sabha, she became a Chief Minister in a short-lived coalition government, and validated her position by winning from two constituencies in 1996. She was again Chief Minister for a short period in 1997, and then for a somewhat longer term in coalition with the Bharatiya Janata Party from 2002 to 2003. In her tenures as Chief Minister, Mayawati had a number of monuments erected to honor Buddhist and Dalit heroes such as Bhimrao Ambedkar, Chhatrapati Shahuji Maharaj, Gautama Buddha and others. Through her tireless campaign efforts, Mayawati managed to attract support from Brahmins, Thakurs, Muslims and OBCs, resulting in the first election of a Dalit party, partly because it (the BSP) had offered seats to people from these communities and partly because of her invincible social engineering formula. Her work had led to a full majority for her party, the first such majority since 1991.

Sheila Dixit

Sheila Dixit

Sheila Dixit

There is one more political name whose discussion is important in order to know the larger picture of effective female leadership of India. She is Delhi’s Chief minister Sheila Dixit. Born on March 31, 1938, she has held this position since 1998, as a member of the Indian National Congress. Dr. Dixit was sworn in as the Chief Minister for a third consecutive term of the Government of the state of Delhi in January 2009 after pulling off a surprise victory in November 2008. She is only the second female Chief Minister of Delhi in history. During the period between 1984 and 1989, she represented the Kannauj Parliamentary Constituency of Uttar Pradesh. As a Member of Parliament, she served on the Estimates Committee of the Lok Sabha. Dr. Dixit also chaired the Implementation Committee for Commemoration of Forty Years of India’s Independence and Jawaharlal Nehru’s centenary. She represented India at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women for five years (1984-1989). As President of the Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee, she led her party to victory in the Assembly elections in 1998. She had also served as a Union Minister from 1986-1989, first as the Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs and later as a Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office. In 2008, she was short-listed for the World Mayor award. As Chief Minister of Delhi, Dixit was awarded the Best Chief Minister of India by the Journalist Association of India. Her political career hasn’t been all roses, as she has received an equal amount of thorns along the way. Along with her 82 colleagues, she was jailed in August 1990 for 23 days by the state government when she led a movement against the atrocities being committed against women.

Indra Krishnamurthy Nooyi

Indra Krishnamurthy Nooyi

Indra Krishnamurthy Nooyi

From the political arena, we now conclude with female leaders from two different fields; first from the business sector, then concluding with a sports personality. PepsiCo, the world’s fourth-largest food and beverage company’s CEO is none other than an Indian woman named Indra Krishnamurthy Nooyi. Born on October 28, 1955 in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India, Nooyi was named the successor to Steven Reinemund as chief executive officer of the company. She was effectively appointed as CEO by PepsiCo’s board of directors on October 1, 2006. Nooyi ranks as the world’s third Most Powerful Women, according to a poll of Forbes magazine conducted in 2008. In 2006 and 2007, Nooyi was named the Most Powerful Business Woman in the world by Fortune magazine. In 2008, Nooyi was named one of America’s Best Leaders by U.S. News & World Report.

After graduating from IIM-C in 1976, she worked in Cotton Fields. She was admitted to the Yale School of Management in 1978 for her master’s degree. Following her graduation in 1980, Nooyi started at The Boston Consulting Group (BCG), from which she moved on to strategy positions at Motorola and ABB. At present, Nooyi is also a fellow at the Ho Corporation and serves on the board of several organizations, including Motorola, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the International Rescue Committee, Eisenhower Fellowships and the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Among her friends are former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who describes her as a “wild New York Yankees fan.” In 2007, she was awarded Padma Bhushan by the Government of India. In 2008, she was elected to the fellowship of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She joined PepsiCo in 1994, and was named president and CFO in 2001. On August 14, 2006, she took over as CEO, only the fifth in PepsiCo’s 42-year history.

Indra Nooyi had recommended the spinning off of Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut, arguing PepsiCo couldn’t bring enough value to the fast food industry. Nooyi also took the lead in the acquisition of Tropicana in 1998, and the merger with Quaker Oats Co. Business officials rave at her ability to drive deep and hard while maintaining a sense of fun. According to some prestigious business reports, since she started as CFO in 2001, the company’s annual revenues have risen 72 percent, while net profit more than doubled to $5.6 billion in 2006. Nooyi has also played a vital role in starting Tricon, which is currently known as Yum! Brands Inc. In March 2008, Nooyi was elected Chairman of the U.S.-India Business Council (USIBC), a non-profit business advocacy organization representing nearly 300 of the largest U.S. companies doing business in India and two dozen of India’s global companies investing in America. Nooyi leads the USIBC’s Board of Directors, an assembly of 25 senior executives representing a cross-section of American industry.

Sania Mirza

Sania Mirza

Sania Mirza

Last but not least, there is one more pearl in India’s pocket. She is Indian tennis star Sania Mirza. Born on Nov. 15, 1986, Mirza is the highest-ranked female tennis player ever from India, with a careerhigh ranking of 27th in singles and 18th in doubles. She holds the distinction of being the first Indian woman to be seeded in a Grand Slam tennis tournament. Earlier in 2005, she had become the first Indian woman to reach the fourth round of a Grand Slam tournament at the U.S. Open. She started her professional tennis career in 2003, and in 2004 she was awarded the Arjuna award by the Indian government. Mirza was born to Imran Mirza, a sports journalist, and her mother Nasima in Mumbai. She was brought up in Hyderabad in a devout Muslim family. In April 2003, Mirza made her debut in the India Fed Cup team, winning all three singles matches. Mirza won the 2003 Wimbledon Championships Girls Doubles title, teaming up with Alisa Kleybanova of Russia. In winning the Mixed Doubles event with Mahesh Bhupathi at the 2009 Australian Open, she became the first Indian woman to win any grand slam event. In 2006, Mirza was awarded a Padma Shri, India’s fourth highest civilian honor for her contribution to tennis.

These six examples of stupendous achievement by Indian women provide an inspiring reference to a wider, national female collective, and hence it has been decided upon by ‘people who matter’ to endeavor to provide an equal footing, or at least a congenial environment, wherein the aspirations of Indian women are able to be met. The UPA government is unequivocal and thoroughly committed to the passing of a women’s reservation bill within its first 100 days in office. The ‘First Woman’ has also been emphatic in proposing the formation of a national mission for female literacy and a national mission for the empowerment of women.

The elevation of women’s status and the positions being offered to them should not be viewed solely through the eyes of gender issues, but we will know in our hearts of hearts it is only a small homage to endless dedication and a small token against countless wrongdoings, innumerable misgivings and neglect that our mothers, sisters and daughters have been subjected to.

The work for building a new India must continue.

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