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the-south-asian.com                               April  2001

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South Asian Women Leaders -

"accident of gender" or "accident of birth"


Roopa Bakshi


In a strongly patriarchal south Asian society, this pantheon of women leaders, Stanley Wolpert feels, may be an "accident of gender". Indira Gandhi was an only child, Benazir Bhutto and Chandrika Kumaratunga are the eldest among siblings –  the younger of Benazir’s two brothers was found dead in his apartment in France, while Murtaza, seen by many as a political heir to Zulfikar Bhutto, was assassinated in Karachi a few years ago; Hasina Wajed is the sole survivor of a family that was massacred; Chandrika Kumaratunga’s younger brother Anura Bandaranaike, unable to deflect his older sister from her political ambitions, joined the Opposition. Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Khalida Zia - were housewives at the time of their personal tragedies, and did not have children old enough to be seated in their father’s office.

indira.jpg (10518 bytes)When Indira Gandhi (1917–1984) first became the Prime Minister of India in 1966, she was 49 years old, had a fine political pedigree, and also a track record of 28 years of close association with the Congress (she had been a member of the Working Committee and also the President of the party); she had served on various Boards and had also headed a Ministry. In retrospect, even these credentials are not enough for the Prime Minister’s Office - it is wisdom and vision that matter. Many groups and Governments were alienated by her myopic policies, not least by her younger son Sanjay, who was feared for his muscle-flexing bully-politics.

PM_Sirimavo_Bandaranaike.jpg (5006 bytes)Sirimavo Bandaranaike passed away in October 2000, in Colombo. She had just finished serving her third term as Prime Minister – this time under her daughter President Chandrika Kumaratunga. Sirimavo Bandaranaike came from an influential family of Sri Lanka, studied at St. Bridget’s Convent in Colombo, married Solomon Bandaranaike, raised a family, and her life was devoted to her role as a mother and a wife. Her husband became the Prime Minister of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1956 and three years later, in 1959, was killed by a Buddhist monk. Sirimavo stepped into her husband’s shoes, aged 44. Her first two terms as Prime Minister were marked by unpopular policies that alienated the country’s minority groups, led to ethnic strife and dissension, and also economic stagnation. In 1980 the Parliament barred her from political office but was pardoned six years later.  

benazir_bhutto_-ht.jpg (33745 bytes)Benazir Bhutto was 24 years old when General Zia staged a coup, imprisoned her father Zulfikar Bhutto, and executed him in 1979. Benazir and her mother Nusrat Bhutto were put under house arrest, later imprisoned for a while. Benazir spent 5 years in detention. Educated at Radcliffe and Oxford, Benazir won the 1988 elections. She had the nation’s goodwill but her focus remained misdirected. She was dismissed 20 months later on charges of incompetence and corruption. Benazir came back to 
power in 1993 and there was little or no change in her agenda. 
She was once again dismissed on accusations of corruption. Her husband Asif Zardari is in prison on charges of corruption, she is estranged from her mother, her brother Murtaza was assassinated in Karachi in 1996 – a heavy price to pay for lust of power.

KhaledaZia.jpg (9234 bytes)Bangladesh’s first woman Prime Minister, Khalida Zia, had led a quiet existence, married to General-turned-President Zia Ur Rahman, and was totally involved in raising their two sons. In 1981 rebel military officers gunned down her husband. She got inducted into politics and a decade later won the election to the Prime Minister’s Office. Five years later she lost to Hasina Wajed, daughter of Bangladesh’s first Prime Minister Mujibur Rahman, who was assassinated in 1976.


Sheikh_Hasina_Wajid.jpg (12197 bytes)Hasina Wajed was in Germany with her nuclear physicist husband when a group of four young army officers stormed into her father Mujibur Rahman’s house in Dhaka and killed all members of the household, including Mujibur Rahman’s young grandchildren. The lone survivor of Mujibur Rahman’s family, Hasina Wajed was the natural choice for her father’s party leadership. She lost the election to Khalida Zia in 1991 but defeated her in the following elections in 1996 to become the country’s Prime Minister.

President_Chandrika_Kumaratunga.jpg (4421 bytes)Chandrika Kumaratunga, the current President of Sri Lanka, is the daughter of two Prime Ministers – Solomon and Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Born into a privileged family, Chandrika was educated in Sri Lanka and later studied Political Science at the University of Paris. Her husband, an actor and an aspiring politician, was killed in 1988, and it was after his death that Chandrika Kumaratunga rejoined her mother's party that won the parliamentary elections of August 1994. Only six years after her formal foray into politics, Chandrika, aged 49, first became Prime Minister in 1994, and then, in November of that year, she won the presidential election. She appointed her mother, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, to serve as Prime Minister in her new government. The ongoing ethnic crisis that arose during her mother’s tenure, has cost the country heavily in terms of its people, productivity and resources.

Sonia_Gandhi_by_Pradeep_bhatia.jpg (26593 bytes)More recently, Sonia Gandhi, wife of the assassinated leader and former Prime Minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi, was elected to the Office of the President of the Congress party, which also makes her the leader of the Opposition. Sonia shied away from politics for a long time, devoting herself to her children - Rahul and Priyanka - but eventually succumbed to the pressures of the Party stalwarts who needed a 'man' to keep the fortunes of the party together. Her mother-in law Indira Gandhi was often referred to as the "only man in her Cabinet."

Unlike women leaders and Prime Ministers elsewhere, the existing south Asian pantheon has not risen from the political ranks, nor have they any work experience in any sector of the economy. Margaret Thatcher, became the Prime Minister of Great Britain after 27 years of work experience. She had worked as a research chemist and a tax lawyer before she joined the Conservative Party. When she got elected to the Parliament, she was still a long way from 10 Downing Street – it would take her another twenty years to get there. Similarly Golda Meir, Israel’s Prime Minister (1969-74), spent forty odd years working hard for various organisations and working her way to the top through sheer devotion and dedication. They were neither wives nor dynastic daughters.

Democratic institutions evolve with vision, hard work and foresight of wise leaders – and leadership is not created overnight. People brought in for emotional reasons interrupt and halt the democratic process, and at times have easily undermined democratic institutions. The quest, and consequent, lust for power is not gender specific. Corruption and insatiable ambition are the hallmark of many a leader in the south Asian region – man or woman. South Asian women need to change this record of political inheritance. There are among them, many who are talented and politically gifted to enter the political arena on their own merit. Asma Jahangir of Pakistan maybe one of them.






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