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SIRENS OF CHANGE

That three women have become chief ministers is a sign of the churning in
Indian politics. The keynote of the elections was change

Women tempt. They do not just tempt men, they tempt speculation, classification, theory, in short, everything that pretends to be fascinated by the female mystery on the one hand and claims to understand it like an open book on the other. So when in the elections to assemblies in five states, three women bag the winner’s prizes, the temptation to theorize is overwhelming. Only this time the old theories will not do. The lady from the Congress has beaten the anti-incumbency trend shown in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, and is to be chief minister of Delhi for another five years. In presence and personality, she is dramatically different from the other two winners, Ms Uma Bharti and Ms Vijaya Raje. Ms Sheila Dikshit has grown in stature as a no-nonsense politician, who saw to it that her electorate had cleaner air and faster routes, found the government accessible and daily life peaceful.

But Ms Bharti and Ms Raje share nothing in common either, except their party. Ms Bharti comes from the other backward classes. She has been for years the saffron-clad politician and demagogue who tends to go over the top and get away with it — her theatrical predilection for the well-aimed push is now a part of India’s Babri Masjid lore — and who is not unnecessarily bothered by reason or truth-telling. But the Bharatiya Janata Party strategists projected her as a development guru in the making, whose down-to-earth passion was directed not against a religion but against the failed promises of Mr Digvijay Singh. As the raja fell in Madhya Pradesh, the rajkumari rose in Rajasthan, different from Ms Bharti in caste, background and demeanour, far from streetwise, almost unknown outside her own region. Again it was strategy that worked. The BJP backroom boys masterminded a parivartan yatra. As the princess sweated through villages across the length and breadth of Rajasthan, and advertisements, slogans and jokes burgeoned on newspaper pages, television screens and mobile windows, the exotic unfamiliar became more desirable than the plodding familiar.

Neither gender, nor caste, nor party, nor even strategy can explain this. Women lost too: Ms Sonia Gandhi, Ms Ambika Soni. To look elsewhere for explanations is to look at the direction that India’s democracy seems to be taking. However indirectly, the people are demanding accountability and improvement. It is change they want: the parivartan yatra was symbolic. Anyone who seems to promise change, to represent it by his very presence, is worth a try. Ms Raje changed into the clothes of each village she visited, sometimes in the helicopter that took her there. For a sheltered princess, this is change enough. Mr Ashok Gehlot, whose record on development is not bad at all, could not match this in dynamism. Ms Bharti’s rhetoric shifted radically from religion to development. And as an active, vocal politician, she is very far from the Hindutva-patronized ideal of the woman-in-the-home. Ms Dikshit has already brought changes, at least in the people’s perception. People are looking for difference, and maybe, in the process, India’s democracy is growing up.

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