In India, Mayawati, Mamata Banerjee and the late J Jayalalithaa, have been prominent women political figures. In a predominantly male-dominated political landscape, the three were able to carve out individual, independent identities, single-handedly running their parties as authoritative, one-woman shows. However, while each of these leaders focused essentially on propelling their parties forward and devoted years into sculpting their larger-than-life personas, they overshadowed or squashed the possible emergence of their successors. To put it more bluntly, none of them has been able to groom a prominent heir of equal caliber who could have the same crowd-drawing prowess that these three women command.
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The three embraced their feminine identity, often reveling in images relating to either a mother-figure or an older sister, hinting at their ability to sweep their followers under their wing and fiercely protect them. Mamata Banerjee, whose name literally translates to ‘motherly love’, is often referred to as ‘Didi’ (elder sister). Mayawati is affectionately called ‘Behenji’ (elder sister), while Jayalalithaa was endearingly called ‘Amma’ (mother) by her supporters. However, while each enjoys an exalted standing, none of them have formidable successors who could take their legacy forward.
Take the late Jayalalithaa, for instance. As the news regarding Jayalalithaa’s spiraling health was relayed over the last few days, questions regarding who could most likely be her successor in the AIADMK, began ricocheting in newsrooms and households. There was a belief that her passing would leave behind an uncertain, unnerving vacuum. However, when she did pass away, Jayalalithaa’s trusted aide, O Panneerselvam stepped up and was elected as the party head. Within moments, he was also sworn in as the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. Many, however, doubt whether Panneerselvam will be able to command the torrential pull Jayalalithaa was able to command during her reign. Though he has had the experience of being chief minister more than once, Panneerselvam appears meek, more subdued in comparison to his predecessor’s towering stature. Although he displayed faithful allegiance to Amma, she never considered the idea of passing down her strategic and tactful political expertise to him.
Jayalalithaa’s overpowering persona, however, wasn’t an overnight creation. She grew into a political force under the tutelage of AIADMK’s founder M G Ramamchandran, who hand-held her towards political stardom. Under his wing, a politically shy and inexperienced Jayalalithaa transformed into a confident protégé, stealthily rising in the male-dominated ranks of politics. She eventually metamorphosed into a demigod – under MGR, she had learned how to artfully project herself as a larger-than-life phenomenon who was ought to be worshiped.
When it comes to Mayawati, the story isn’t too different. Mayawati too, was groomed to become a political icon. When she met Kanshi Ram, the founder of Bahujan Samaj Party, he assumed the role of her mentor. Kanshi Ram carefully molded her into a fierce activist for the Dalits. In his eyes, she was to become a leader who would go on to be synonymous with the overarching identity of the down-trodden lower caste of India, the Dalits. As Kanshi Ram steadily gained political momentum, Mayawati piggybacked on his journey to fame. Ram inculcated in her a strong fighting spirit, leading Mayawati to eventually transform into a political Machiavellian who became well-versed with realpolitik. However, it all assumed a macabre tone when Kanshi Ram passed away. As Mayawati made herself comfortable in the chair of the party head, Kanshi Ram’s sister promptly began pointing fingers at Mayawati, holding her responsible for his death. The noise eventually drowned out. In October 2016 however, BJP demanded a CBI investigation into his death, prodding Samajwadi Party to look into the matter.
Like Jayalalithaa, Mayawati does not have a successor in place. In August 2008, there was speculation that Raja Ram would be the possible heir of her legacy. That, in her absence, he would take the reigns of Bahujan Samaj Party. Back then, Raja Ram was more or less a marginal figure, even though he was functioning as BSP’s vice-president. He joined BSP at the behest of Kanshi Ram (founder of BSP and Mayawati’s predecessor) and then steadily mounted the political ladder within the party. Reticent of the media, however, he rarely found himself to be the focus of mainstream conversations. Not much therefore is known about him except the fact that he is 18 years younger to Mayawati and a Dalit. However, the same month, possibly due to an internal dispute, Mayawati stripped Raja Ram of his post and replaced him with Alok Kumar Verma – an unlikely and even more unknown figure.
By pulling Raja Ram out as a party authority, it appeared that Mayawati ostensibly wanted to obliterate competition. It also hinted that she wasn’t prepared to be overshadowed, nor was she ready to groom anyone. Although Raja Ram continues to be the party’s vice-president even today, since 2008 there has been no news relating to who could be Mayawati’s likely political heir. Within the party, there is a firm belief that Mayawati holds her cards close to her chest and is unable to trust any leader.
Mamata Banerjee who is at present the sitting Chief Minister of West Bengal, leads the All India Trinamool Congress. Banerjee’s popularity is unrivaled in West Bengal, as she possesses an instinctive ability to rally the masses. A firebrand, Mamta severed her ties with the Indian National Congress to establish her own party, TMC in 1997. Unlike Mayawati and Jayalalithaa, Mamta Banerjee didn’t have a mentor. She carved her own political trajectory, learning the trick of being a master strategist on her own. However, like Mayawati and Jayalalithaa, Mamata Banerjee too, doesn’t have a successor in place.
The three women leaders, all known to be in possession of an overbearing, dictatorial streak, have steered the uneven territory of politics with extraordinary craft. Undoubtedly, they are forces to be reckoned with. However, throughout their political career, they’ve refused to take the backseat, and in doing so, stopped short of passing the baton to anyone to take forth their legacy, one they painstakingly worked towards building.