India’s alpha-male Prime Minister Narendra Modi faces three formidable women looking to spoil his chances of winning a new term in elections beginning next week.
– ‘Big sis’ –
Feisty and fiery Mamata Banerjee is the first female chief minister of the eastern state of West Bengal — home to more people than Germany — where Modi’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) needs to do well.
The diminutive 64-year-old is one of Modi’s most vociferous critics and has been working to cobble together an anti-Modi alliance.
“We can tell you one thing, that we are all together against the BJP government to save the nation,” she says.
Banerjee, whose Trinamool Congress party rules the roost in West Bengal, has succeeded in keeping the BJP at bay so far despite the growing popularity of Modi.
The former national railways minister known as “didi”, or big sister, enjoys a mass following not least because of her humble upbringing and lowbrow style.
“Banerjee is a very important leader. She is a struggler and a fighter to the core,” Manisha Priyam, a Delhi-based political analyst, told AFP.
“If she does well in the state, she will be an important player in the formation of a government.”
A budding poet, painter and author — Banerjee dons many hats. While her fans swear by her oil paintings and poems, critics deride her work as trash.
– Lower-caste champion –
Known as the “Dalit Queen”, Mayawati, 63, has had a colourful career as champion of lower caste Dalits. She wields considerable influence in 200-million-strong Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state and the election’s biggest prize.
Her Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) was decimated in the 2014 polls but she has stitched up an alliance with her sworn enemy, the Samajwadi Party.
Analysts blamed her 2014 rout on her penchant for extravagance — she once sent her private jet to pick up a pair of sandals according to leaked US cables — and a controversy over building concrete parks full of statues of herself.
But if her party performs well this time, she could once again play a pivotal role in coalition negotiations.
She has hit the right notes so far, calling out the BJP for its “divide and rule communal politics” while cosying up with her once arch-rival Akhilesh Yadav who helms the Samajwadi Party.
“She does have a cadre which has been built up astutely. No politics can go ahead in UP by disrespecting her. No one can afford to take her lightly,” said Priyam.
– Indira reborn? –
The youngest scion of the famed Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra entered the family business of politics in January after years of steering clear — and has made a splash.
And what could be a better battleground for the charismatic younger sister of PM-hopeful Rahul Gandhi than Uttar Pradesh — the Hindu heartland where Modi has his core support base.
Priyanka, 47, has been tasked with reviving the Congress party in the state, where it was thrashed in 2014 polls — winning just two of the 80 parliamentary seats in contrast to BJP’s 71.
She seems to have taken the challenge head-on, launching her campaign in Modi’s constituency of Varanasi on a motorboat that traversed the Ganges, a river revered by Hindus.
The symbolism was not lost on analysts, saying her move was aimed at snuffing out criticism that her Congress party has been ignoring majority Hindu voters and appeasing India’s 170 million Muslims.
Her fans say her common touch, as well as her appearance, are reminiscent of Indira Gandhi, her grandmother who was India’s first woman prime minister — and a divisive figure assassinated in 1984.
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