Not in Her Husband's Shadow

A New Generation of Leaders

Woman Pradhan (Chair) of a local government (Panchayat) in rural Uttar Pradesh.

      We were settled around a table to conduct a village interview. This is essentially a focus group where 4-6 knowledgeable informants gather to provide us with information on village infrastructure, government programs, agriculture etc.  Our respondent included a Pradhan (Chair) of the local government, the Panchayat and a paid Panchayat secretary. Or so I thought!

     As we started filling out the roster of panchayat members, we discovered that the gentleman we thought was the Pradhan was actually the husband of the Pradhan. He was also addressed by the courtesy title of Pradhan and seemed quite involved in village politics. My first thought was, "Ah, this village must have one of those figurehead Pradhans who got elected in a seat reserved for women candidates but the real power rests with her husband."  But then I was a hit with a sense of Déjà vu. Having grown up in a  tiny town in Gujarat, I remember my father (who occasionally helped out my physician mother as an office administrator) being called Doctor. Dad thought this was hilarious since he had dropped out of high school to join the Indian independence movement and was rather proud of his lack of credentials. So I was somewhat curious to figure out if the woman Pradhan in our sample resembled my steely mother or the caricature of figurehead female representative that figure so prominently in our political legends.

    I asked the Panchayat Secretary to take me to her while Amit Thorat and O.P. Sharma were filling out the village questionnaire. I am really glad I did because it was a fascinating experience.  After introductions, the very first thing the Pradhan told me was that she was elected from a “general” seat rather than one reserved for women and her victory was really significant because she handily won in a field of 17 candidates. I was a bit taken aback and asked her why she had decided to run rather than her husband. She said that she had lost the election quite narrowly the previous round of elections when she stood for a women’s seat so she was always interested. This time when the family was thinking about it, they decided she should run instead of the husband because her name began with a A and she would be listed first, increasing her chances of winning.  Interesting logic!

      When I asked her about the Panchayat, the challenges they faced and how she liked dealing with various government requirements, she was clearly very knowledgeable and articulate.  She mentioned that the mid-day meal supplies for the school are irregular and for the past two months she was supplying rations from her home to feed the children.  She has completed 12 standards of schooling and was quite interested in differentiating herself from the former Pradhan, a poorly educated woman. 

       While she was quite animated in our discussions, it was clear that she practices purdah of some sort (known as ghunghat in these parts). So I asked her about attending various meetings and whether she went alone or was accompanied by someone. Here the Panchayat Secretary, who was in and out of the room while we were talking, intervened, “Given the dignity of the seat of Pradhan, she would obviously be accompanied by someone when she attends meetings. Sometimes I go with her, some times her husband, sometimes other people.” To tell you the truth, it does not seem remarkable to me. A retinue accompanies many male pradhans when they go to district headquarters, why should I attribute this behaviour to gender when talking to a woman Pradhan and to status when talking to a male pradhan? For many of the women local leaders I have met, politics seems to be a family affair as opposed to male leaders where the wife is often left out of political discussions. But having lived through the Clinton presidency where two-for-one was the norm, I am not sure it is fair for me to complain!

     I am not sure I am ready to go as far as Esther Duflo and Rohini Pande in arguing that women’s political leadership will change the nature of governance and programmatic emphasis in villages. If that were the case all it would take is three elections to transform rural India, a period over which the reserved seat rotation would have had some impact in each village! But I do think that the reservations have had tremendous impact in creating a political space that has given rise to numerous village leaders from whom scores of Mamata Banerjee and Mayawati will emerge who will probably share all the strengths and weaknesses of their male counterparts but it would be hard to call them figureheads.

22-May 2011 6:05 PM

© Sonalde Desai 2012