The day the Uttar Pradesh election results came in, I was having lunch with a friend in Mumbai. "Mayavati appears to be the Jayalalithaa of the North," he said, before passing on to other matters. But his remark stayed with me; the more I thought about it, the more the comparison made sense.
Mayavati and Jayalalithaa are alike, first of all, in having had a male mentor. Jayalalithaa was a fading actress when she was brought into the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam by M.G. Ramachandran. Mayavati was preparing for the civil services examination when she was asked by Kanshi Ram to join his then fledgling political movement. Whether their respective relationships had a romantic element (as was strongly rumoured) is, for the present purposes, beside the point. What is relevant is that the two ladies were 'tutored' in politics by men who had established themselves in the field before they did.
Mayavati and Jayalalithaa are alike, secondly, in having gone beyond their mentors in carving out independent political identities of their own. Admittedly, without the patient organizational work of their teachers they would have not had a base to build upon or exploit. The AIADMK was a product of the thousands of fan clubs or manrams that supported MGR through his career in films (and beyond). The rapid rise of the Bahujan Samaj Party would have been inconceivable without the Scheduled Caste Employees Federations previously created and nurtured by Kanshi Ram.
It is instructive, in this connection, to compare the trajectory of their careers with that of another lady in Indian politics, Sonia Gandhi. Ten years after she assumed leadership of the Congress, Sonia Gandhi still has to seek legitimacy from the memory and legacy of her husband, her mother-in-law, and her grandfather-in-law. Her speeches are peppered with references to Rajiv-ji, Indira-ji, and Pandit-ji. To provide further reassurance, portraits of these three worthies look down on her as she speaks. But the power women of North and South have no need for such crutches or anchors. Jayalalithaa is not compelled to make references to MGR in her speeches. The name and memory of Kanshi Ram are conspicuously absent in the press conferences convened by the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.
In their authoritativeness, Mayavati and Jayalalithaa are dissimilar from Sonia Gandhi, yet akin to that other and older Mrs Gandhi, namely, Indira. Like Indira Gandhi, the ladies of North and South run their parties as if it were a personal fiefdom. Dissent or even reasoned argument is impermissible. Like the senior Mrs Gandhi, they both have a favoured group of trusted bureaucrats who are assigned positions of power (and profit). Like her, again, they can be vengeful towards political opponents. And like the architect of the notorious Emergency, Mayavati and Jayalalithaa are not sympathetic to the idea of press freedom. Both have encouraged and condoned attacks on journalists who have criticized them.
Viewed sympathetically, the toughness that Mayavati and Jayalalithaa display may have something to do with the hurdles that stand in the way of a woman seeking to make her way in a man's world. Both Jayalalithaa and Mayavati have laboured under a double handicap. Not only was Jayalalithaa a woman, she was also a Brahmin, this in a state where political hegemony was enjoyed by non-Brahmins. Not only was Mayavati a woman, she was also a Dalit, this in a state where economic, political and cultural power has been the preserve of Brahmins and Rajputs. To fight their corner, to win elections, both ladies have had to cultivate a certain ruthlessness.
Writing in the Seventies, the veteran British journalist, James Cameron, remarked that "there is not and never has been a working-class woman with a function in Indian politics, and it is hard to say when there ever will be". Cameron could write as he did because the only women he knew in Indian politics were the likes of Vijayalakshmi Pandit and Sarojini Naidu. Compared to those aristocratic ladies even Jayalalithaa is of plebeian background, whereas Mayavati is, of course, a genuine subaltern. Cameron found it improbable that there ever would be a 'working-class' woman with a function in Indian politics. Two decades later, two women were chief ministers of large states in north and south India respectively. They had reached there without the benefit of wealth or family background.
Mayavati and Jayalalithaa are also alike in that neither has yet reached the summit of her ambition. Jayalalithaa has had two long terms as chief minister of Tamil Nadu. Mayavati has previously had three brief stints as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh; in this, her fourth term, she can, if she so wishes, serve a full five years. In the context of the viciousness of Indian politics, these are impressive achievements. But the ladies are not done yet. Both have made it clear that they hope to be prime minister of India one day. It is because of that ambition that Jayalalithaa paid somewhat greater attention in her second term to development and governance. And Mayavati's larger goal is manifest in the expansion of the Bahujan Samaj Party into the states of southern and western India. (Were I a betting man, I would place some money on Mayavati becoming prime minister. It is a long shot; but Jayalalithaa's is a longer shot still. For one thing, Uttar Pradesh has almost twice as many Lok Sabha seats as Tamil Nadu; for another, the Dalit constituency is an all-India one, making it easier for Mayavati to have an impact outside her own state.)
Finally, Mayavati and Jayalalithaa are alike in that to the middle-class sensibility (mine and yours), their personalities are less than appealing. Neither, it appears, has a sense of humour. Harsh, unforgiving, strong-willed and bloody-minded, they are autocrats who do not look with especial favour on the institutions and processes of democracy. That said, they share one redeeming feature which marks them out from the competition. "Politicians' progeny are a curse," said Madhu Limaye, a remark that is of chilling relevance in India today, with almost all parties having become family firms. At least, Mayavati and Jayalalithaa have no children.