Around the time two women Indian provincial leaders were witnessing frenzied celebrations for winning elections, history was being scripted in an island country not very far from India. The first ever woman president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, took oath on May 20 to shepherd the country through difficult times. Taiwan, roughly one-third the size of Tamil Nadu, with a population of about one-fourth of Bengal’s, is under mounting threat from China. The Mainland Chinese government wants to impose the one-China framework on the republic — a strategy that will be the death knell for a vibrant democracy. Next to unremitting Chinese pressure and closely tied to it is Taiwan’s faltering economy. Tsai’s overwhelming mandate comes with a minefield of expectations — trigger growth and employment and keep China of the decisive victories notched up by Mamata Banerjee and J. Jayalalithaa. All three women have proved their mettle through fair and democratic means in a vocation that sees very little participation of women at the highest levels of decision-making. In the current Lok Sabha, women occupy just 66 seats, a dismal 12 per cent representation. At the legislative assembly level, the picture is more depressing, with the national average across all state assemblies being a miserable 9%. In the slippery world of politics, existential crises come in myriad forms. To survive and excel requires more than just the will to serve the masses. A few tough-as-nails women have shown they can step up to the plate and do a better job than their male counterparts. Outside the domain of dynastic politics, the unquestioned allegiance that Banerjee and Jayalalithaa enjoy in their respective fiefdoms is nothing short of spectacular. Absolute control over administration and the party has been the key to their dominance in the corridors of power.

Contrary to popular perception, chief minister Mamata Banerjee deserves credit for Bengal’s economic turnaround. An American think tank, Brookling Institution, in its 2014 Global Metro Monitor report ranked Kolkata 32nd in the exhaustive list of 300 world cities on the basis of “two key economic indicators — annualized growth rate of real GDP per capita and annualized growth rate of employment”. The only Indian city to feature in the top 30 list was Delhi. West Bengal’s growth rate between 2012 and 2015 was faster than the national average. Per capita income in the state too has registered a spike: the 12.8 per cent increase in 2014-15 is more than double the national per capita percentage figures of 6.1. Banerjee’s welfare measures for the rural poor helped her decimate her adversaries, who had resorted to puerile tactics of making fun of her attire, accent and diction. She was the butt of numerous jokes circulating in social media platforms.

Jayalalithaa too had focussed on populist measures to beat anti-incumbency. Brand Amma as it has been called has come to symbolise an umbrella of welfare schemes, including low-cost canteens, drinking water, medicines, buses, cement, housing, free cattle, electronic household appliances like mixers and grinders. The state’s law and order situation had also improved in her tenure. In the competitive freebie culture of Tamil Nadu politics, Amma has also outdone her main rival,.

Till recently — that is before the migrant crisis erupted in Europe — Germany’s Chancellor, the feisty Angela Merkel, was considered the most powerful woman in the world. She still is, though her popularity has taken a beating in the last few months. Her detractors are trying to undermine her bold and resolute stance in the face of an unprecedented humanitarian crisis that inspired Europe to open the doors to an avalanche of refugees fleeing Syria and other strife-torn countries. Merkel had led by example, taking in 1.1 million people. Yes, it did antagonise a section of her people, notably the Far Right, who are whipping up Islamophobia and anti-migrant violence, but Merkel is a tough cookie. When most of Europe was mired in economic crises, Germany under Merkel had emerged as an economic tour de force, with low unemployment and a resilient manufacturing base. In the first quarter of 2016, Germany has more than doubled its economic growth rate, propelled by domestic consumption. It is to Merkel’s credit that in the face of a worldwide phenomenon of widening economic chasm, Germany has retained its middle class and a high level of social solidarity.

From the highest echelons of power to the grassroots movement, women have made giant strides as change agents — embracing challenges that men have found difficult to surmount. At all levels of constructive interventions undertaken by women, the opposition has been fierce, and in most cases mindless because of entrenched gender bias. USAID, a US government agency that fights extreme global poverty and supports democratic societies, believes that “countries with increased women’s participation and leadership in civil society and political parties tend to be more inclusive, responsive, egalitarian, and democratic. When women meaningfully participate in peace processes, they can help to expand the scope of agreements and improve the prospects for durable peace.”

By Uma Ramachandran

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