‘Journalism is literature in a hurry,’ goes an old saying. At some point of time a few journalists decide to put a break on this hurry and write elaborately on a topic they are passionate about. One such effort has been ‘She The’ Leader – Women in Indian Politics’ by Nidhi Sharma.

It is a vast subject that is important given the scale and expanse of Indian democracy and yet limited representation to women in the legislative bodies. In the current Lok Sabha there are 82 women members, the highest till now.

The figure comes to barely 15 % of the total strength and the rise is still considerable given the 4.4% representation they had after the first general elections in 1952.

The book’s author has pointed it out saying, “An optimist can draw succour from this threefold increase in women’s representation in sixty-seven years of India’s parliamentary election history, but the fact remains that India’s highest decision-making body is not truly representative of Indian society.

“In 1951, merely 2 % of the United States of America’s House of Representatives and 3 % of the United Kingdom’s House of Commons was women. In 2022, the representation has gone up to 28.3 % in the US and 34.61 % in the UK.”

The book even points to the country’s poor record on women’s representation as it quotes the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index 2022 which ranks India 48th among 146 countries on the political empowerment sub-index, behind Bangladesh.

The readers are reminded of the first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s message to his Chief Ministers on 18 May 1952 saying, “I have noticed with great regret how few women have been elected. I suppose this is so in the state assemblies and councils also.

“It is not a matter of showing favour to anyone or even injustice, but rather of doing something which is not conducive to the future growth of the country. I am quite sure our real growth will only come when women have a full chance to play their part in public life.”

The author says, “Nehru’s letter is reflective of how leaders of independent India had expected the natural forces of democracy to throw up women leaders. After all, women had fought shoulder-to-shoulder with men against British rule, sometimes even outpacing the men in spearheading Mahatma Gandhi’s call to come out of purdah and give up societal inhibitions. Till then, women had been the object of reforms and not leaders of reforms.”

Even Mahatma Gandhi felt India’s freedom movement could not be driven by one half of the population while ignoring the other half. By involving women, he gave them their rightful place, next to men, as equals, a right they had been denied for centuries by the orthodox Indian society.

When one talks about women in Indian politics, the contemporary scenario takes the centre stage in context of the pending legislation on women’s reservation. Nidhi has placed the issue in context, while going by what she has witnessed around it as a journalist covering political parties and the developments in the Parliament.

She has also pointed at the stance of different political forces while underlining both the Congress led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led regimes have failed to deliver on the issue.

The larger portion of the book goes towards profiling 17 women politicians who according to the author have fought social inequalities and patriarchal attitudes to create their own brand of politics in the national discourse.

It is divided into four parts: The Pioneers (Indira Gandhi and Sucheta Kripalani); The Inheritors (Sonia Gandhi, J. Jayalalithaa, Vasundhara Raje, Sheila Dikshit and Mayawati); The Lone Warriors (Pratibha Patil, Sushma Swaraj, Mamata Banerjee, Brinda Karat and Ambika Soni); and The Future Leaders (Supriya Sule, Kavitha Kalvakuntla, Kanimozhi Karunanidhi, Ampareen Lyngdoh and Smriti Z. Irani).

There are interesting anecdotes around these politicians. The book narrates the interesting tale about the marriage of Sucheta and J.N. Kripalani, something that was opposed by the family as well as Gandhi.

It quotes Kripalani writing in a section of Sucheta’s autobiography, “Gandhi ji, as I have said, was against our marriage, but he soon came to have a high opinion of her ability. He appointed her the general secretary of the Kasturba National Memorial Trust for the service of the women and children in the villages. The members of my family, my sister and others, who were against our marriage, soon shed their prejudice and began to like her.”

It narrates the tender side of Sonia Gandhi by her long-time aide where it is stated, “There is an old banyan tree outside her office. She was once on the rounds meeting people. Nobody had noticed but a baby squirrel had fallen off the tree.

“At that time, she stopped and asked for the baby squirrel to be attended to, ‘Don’t touch it. The moment you touch it, the mother won’t accept her back,’ she said. A towel was brought and the staff used it to put the squirrel back on the tree”.

“But then this is the same Gandhi who is firm in her refusal to meet chief ministers for months once she hears corruption charges against them or their close aides,” the writer says.

And then there is the story around Sushma Swaraj ensuring the safety of 19 young women from the different provinces of Pakistan to participate in the Global Youth Peace Festival in Chandigarh that had come right after the Uri militant attack in 2016. The relations between the two countries had hit rock bottom with tension palpable in the air.

For someone wanting an easy read around the politics in India and the role women have been playing in it, the book offers interesting insights.

‘She The’ Leader – Women in Indian Politics’

Publisher: Aleph Book Company

Author: Nidhi Sharma