An Oxford wag was once heard to remark that since Indira Gandhi, Ms Margaret Thatcher and Ms Benazir Bhutto had gone to Sommerville College there existed good reasons to shut it down. The barb was directed at the authoritarian streak that all three ladies had revealed when in power. Feminists will decry the comment as a typical expression of male chauvinism in a bastion of male culture and privileges. But men and women who have suffered in the hands of any one of the three women will pause before they dismiss the comment. Ms J. Jayalalithaa’s attack on The Hindu, the premier newspaper of south India, is a reminder of a woman’s ruthless use of power against her enemies. The Indian experience in this regard is telling and unfortunate. Ms Jayalalithaa does not take kindly to either criticism or opposition, and she has no scruples about assiduously cultivating her self-interest. There is a similarity here with Indira Gandhi, who was cut from the same cloth and had little or no compunctions about subverting the entire democratic process to suit her own ends. Ms Mayavati, although from a different social and economic strata, has allegedly amassed a fortune and when in power, engaged in a vendetta against her opponents. In West Bengal, Ms Mamata Banerjee had made herself notorious as a disrupter, by her stridency and utter irresponsibility. It will not be unfair to suggest that among the current crop of women politicians, only the chief minister of Delhi, Ms Sheila Dixit, behaves with a modicum of dignity.
There are important lessons here for those who believe in empowerment of the underprivileged and argue that such empowerment inevitably leads to a deepening and widening of democracy. Democracy, like many other good things in life, is an acquired virtue. It needs a certain amount of schooling. Those sections of the population which for reasons rooted in history have not been participants in the workings of political society — women are one such section — need to be trained in the democratic process. Unless this happens, a sudden accession to power — as in the case of Indira Gandhi — or a sudden entry into a male enclave like the Tory party — as is the case of Ms Thatcher — creates possibilities of an abuse of power or of modes of behaviour which are out of tune with democratic practice. Ms Jayalalithaa may be convent-educated, but she, as a woman, is new to political power.
Advocates of the women’s reservation bill should pause to think if reserving seats for the likes of Ms Jayalalithaa or Ms Mayavati or Ms Banerjee or Phoolan Devi will at all enrich Indian democracy. The argument is not that men do not abuse power or that they are not prone to be autocratic. History belies any such claim. The argument is to suggest ways to safeguard democracy against predatory men and women who cause havoc with power. There are enough authoritarian and insensitive men, there is no need for women to be equal in this regard. Women should be better than men in every sphere. History has given them the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of the dominant sex.