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The Rise of Women Leaders in India: A Book Review of ‘She, The Leader’ by Nidhi Sharma

She, The Leader: Women in Indian Politics

Author: Nidhi Sharma


Published by Aleph Book Company

Pages: 392

MRP: Rs. 999/-

Thank you @alephbookco for a media copy of the book.

The participation of women in Indian politics has come a long way since Independence, yet it still has much ground to cover. In 1947, when India became independent, only 9 women were elected to India's first Lok Sabha. In 2023, that number has risen to 81, but still constitutes just 15% of the Lok Sabha. The journey has been arduous and the obstacles many, from social prejudice to threats of violence. Yet, some remarkable women have managed to overcome these barriers and risen to the highest echelons of Indian politics through sheer determination, courage and political acumen.

Nidhi Sharma's book 'She, The Leader: Women in Indian Politics' chronicles the stories of 17 such trailblazing female politicians who have left an indelible impact on India's political landscape. Divided into four sections, the book provides a comprehensive overview of the achievements of women politicians in India, ranging from 20th century stalwarts to present day movers and shakers.

The first section titled 'The Pioneers' features two political heavyweights - India's first woman Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and India's first woman Chief Minister Sucheta Kriplani. Despite their contrasting styles and political ideologies, both women displayed tremendous strength of character in thriving and leading in the male dominated arena of politics. The section does justice in capturing their nuanced leadership styles and the difficult decisions they had to take in their tenures.

The second section 'The Inheritors' deals with women leaders like Sonia Gandhi, Jayalalithaa, Mayawati, Vasundhara Raje Scindia and Sheila Dikshit who inherited their political legacies from male relatives or mentors, yet managed to carve their own distinct identity. Sonia Gandhi's rise to the apex of power in Indian politics from the shadows of grief and self-doubt is particularly inspiring. The section sheds light on how despite lacking political experience, she was able to successfully(arguable) lead the Congress party due to her grit, charisma and astute decision-making abilities.

'The Lone Warriors', the third section, focuses on women who had no political background yet made a mark through their own merit like Sushma Swaraj, Mamata Banerjee, Brinda Karat, Pratibha Patil and Ambika Soni. Of particular note is the portrayal of Mamata Banerjee's fiery, uncompromising spirit which enabled her historic victory over the Left Front's 34-year rule in West Bengal. The section provides a vivid snapshot of how these women fought social barriers and prejudices to establish themselves as politically savvy, strong leaders in their own right.

The last section titled 'Future Leaders' profiles emerging women politicians making waves in contemporary Indian politics - Smriti Irani, Supriya Sule, Kavitha Kalvakuntla, Kanimozhi Karunanidhi and Ampareen Lyngdoh. Despite their relative youth, they have already demonstrated great promise through their mass connect, oratory skills and commitment to public service. The book posits them as the new generation who will carry the baton of women's leadership forward in Indian politics.

A common thread running through the disparate leadership journeys is how these women challenged the notion that politics is a 'man's world' through their indomitable courage in the face of violence, smear campaigns and entrenched patriarchy. Yet, the book presents a balanced perspective by not shying away from the controversies that have dogged some like Mayawati's alleged corruption charges or Jayalalithaa's authoritarian streak.

The writing style is crisp, journalistic and engaging. Through anecdotes and insights from contemporaneous accounts, the author provides well-etched profiles of each leader that manages to be objective despite the clear admiration she holds for her subjects. The biggest accomplishment of the book is in bringing out the distinct leadership styles of each politician profiled. Indira Gandhi's charismatic and authoritarian bent clearly comes through, as does Mamata Banerjee's firebrand, populist image.

By profiling leaders across the political spectrum irrespective of ideology, Nidhi Sharma has provided an inclusive, non-partisan look at the rich tapestry of women's participation in Indian politics. The book is a much-needed addition in documenting the invaluable contributions of female leaders who have shaped the destiny of modern India. It will serve as an inspiration for aspiring women politicians and a reminder that while the path is difficult, it is eminently achievable with perseverance and courage.

For the lay reader, the diverse and vividly written profiles provides a unique window into understanding the personal and political journey of these leaders. For the budding analyst or political science student, it provides a treasure trove of well-researched insights into leadership styles, mass connect, regional considerations and intra-party dynamics that have influenced their tenures. The book is equally accessible for a casual reader looking for inspiring stories as much as for scholars trying to understand the complex map of women's participation in Indian polity.

At just over 350 pages, the book provides a crisp yet comprehensive overview of its ambitious scope. The writing is simple yet nuanced and manages to pack in a great deal of information without becoming dense or pedantic. The journalistic style with short, crisp chapters makes it an easy, enjoyable read. While more elaborate profiling of some leaders like Indira Gandhi and Mamata Banerjee would have been welcome, but given the vast canvas the book seeks to cover, the length seems apt.

In summary, Nidhi Sharma has made a valuable contribution in recording the stories of pioneering women politicians of India. It will serve as an inspiring resource and a primer into understanding the nuances of women's leadership styles. For any student, scholar or even casual reader interested in understanding the role of women in Indian politics, this thoroughly-researched and well-written book is highly recommended. While the fight for gender equality in Indian politics still has miles to go, books like 'She, The Leader' provide an insightful look at the progress made and the heights achieved by women who have smashed the political glass ceiling through sheer courage of character.

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