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Published:September 2nd, 2009 17:07 EST
Like Father Like Daughter in  In Kathmandu

Like Father Like Daughter in In Kathmandu

By SOP newswire2

Kathmandu (Women`s Feature Service) - In 1967, India got its first woman head of state - Indira Gandhi. Daughter of India`s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, she stepped into her father`s shoes a few years after his death. It took another two decades for another daughter to rise when Benazir Bhutto, the daughter of the hanged Pakistani Prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, won a landslide victory in 1988 to become the new premier of Pakistan as well as the first woman elected to head a Muslim state. 

Six years later, a third daughter emerged in Sri Lanka with Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga becoming president of the island nation. She was the daughter of assassinated Sri Lankan president S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the first woman prime minister in the world.   

South Asia was to soon witness other women heads of state. Bangladesh saw the emergence of a daughter as its Prime Minister when Sheikh Hasina Wazed, daughter of Bangladesh`s first president, Mujibur Rahman, came to power. This followed the emphatic victory of her Awami League Party in the general election in 1996.  

However, it took more than a decade since then for Nepal to see a daughter reach political prominence. Although women comprise more than 50 per cent of Nepal`s population numbering 28 million, daughters of politicians, despite being in the forefront of political activity, have only recently gained the political centre stage.  

This June, Sujata Koirala, daughter of five-time prime minister Girija Prasad Koirala, became Nepal`s new foreign minister. Although the 55-year-old had made her debut in the government last year, she was an insignificant minister without portfolio while her father occupied the prime ministerial office. Now, with her father having retired from active politics, she has begun to come into her own. 

And she is not the only one to do so. Renu Dahal and Manushi Bhattarai are daughters of Nepal`s Maoist party members. The Maoist party is a former guerrilla organisation of Nepal that had staged an armed insurrection for 10 years against the former king. 

Maoist chief Pushpa Kamal Dahal, better known by his nom de guerre, Prachanda - meaning Awesome - made history last year when his party succeeded in abolishing the monarchy. He went on to become Nepal`s first revolutionary prime minister. Although his government fell after eight months, his daughter, Renu, has made her mark as a member of parliament.  

"The Maoist movement has seen the emergence of many women leaders, including wives and daughters," says Manushi Bhattarai, the other rising daughter. Her parents are Dr Baburam Bhattarai, once the number two in the Maoist party and former finance minister, and Hisila Yami, a front-ranking leader of the Maoists` women`s organisation and former tourism minister. 

All three daughters, Sujata, Renu and Manushi, say they joined politics because of their family background. Interestingly, each claims that being her father`s daughter has in fact hampered her rise. "Politics was a way of life for me from a very early age," says Sujata, who as a schoolgirl was forced to live in exile in India with her mother when her father was jailed for leading a pro-democracy movement in Nepal. 

"My father spent 19 years in jail," she says. "It was a time of hardship and struggle for the entire family. But no one sees that. It`s true I joined politics because I was my father`s daughter but then I also made my own contribution and carved out an identity for myself." 

Sujata, whose cabinet appointment was criticised by some members of her own Nepali Congress Party, insists she did not have to join politics to lead a good life. "My father was prime minister five times and, as his daughter, I could have quietly wielded power from behind the scenes," she states. "Politics looks glamorous from outside. But in reality, it is hard work and a lot of pains. People who come for glamour and power don`t last long." 

Like Sujata, both Renu and Manushi underwent deprivation when they were children. "We are four siblings," Renu says. "When we were young, my father was a full-time political worker who left his job and then had to live underground (with a bounty on his head). There was no money to feed so many mouths." When Renu was two, she was sent away to her mother`s family, who were prosperous farmers. "I met my parents maybe twice a year," she says. 

In 1996, when the Maoists decided to leave mainstream politics and begin an armed revolt, her parents went to India to avoid arrest. For several months, Renu, then only 17, took care of her younger sister and brother, living in Kathmandu under the threat of being discovered by the security forces and getting arrested.  

Then the party smuggled them into India. However, with their parents preoccupied with the uprising, ensuring the safety of their teenaged daughters proved too much of a burden. So, at 18, Renu found herself married, against her will, to a 23-year-old whose parents too were involved in the movement. She and her younger sister Ganga, 17, were married in the same day. Renu is often asked how is it that she, the daughter who spent little time in her revolutionary father`s company, became the most active of his children in politics. She explains, "I saw the hardship and danger he underwent and I felt we, as his family, have to support him."  

The other factor that propelled her was the class divide. "We belonged to a  farming family. But I observed how labourers, much poorer than we were, live in abject poverty and I felt the system should change," she says. "Although I joined politics because of my father, I became an MP because of the work I did. I can`t be deprived of my due because I am Prachanda`s daughter," she adds. 

Manushi, studying Political Science in Kathmandu`s Tribhuvan University`s postgraduate department, is only a student leader for now, without an official position. Manushi, too, spent her childhood underground in India, where she lived as Asmita Singh. Among her earliest memories is that of being taken by a relative to see her mother, who was in prison for having taken part in a protest. "I remember I had high fever," she says. "My aunt carried me in her arms. My mother gave me a tour of the prison and told me to be a good girl. From my early childhood, my parents prepared me for the eventuality that they could be killed." 

While the Nepali Congress and the Maoists are known as modern parties that encourage women`s participation, there may be a surprising entry in politics from one who has ties with Nepal`s most conservative party.  

Until last year, Devyani Singh nee Rana showed no interest in politics even though her father Pashupati Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana belongs to a former ruling dynasty of Nepal and her mother, Usha Rana nee Scindia, hails from India`s erstwhile royal family of Gwalior whose members have been prominent politicians. 

Devyani`s name would ring a bell - as the woman Nepal`s late crown prince Dipendra wanted to marry before Nepal`s infamous palace massacre of 2001. In a surprise move in April 2008, when Nepal held a historic election to decide the fate of its king, Devyani campaigned for her father. Then, in the Indian general election held earlier this year, she campaigned in Madhya Pradesh for mother-in-law Veena Singh, daughter of former minister Arjun Singh. Unfortunately, both Devyani`s candidates did not make it.  

A family member who knows Devyani rules out her entering Nepali politics - at least in the near future. "Her husband is based in New Delhi. She took part in the campaigns as a gesture of solidarity with her family ... it is doubtful if she would like to take the plunge herself."   

By Sudeshna Sarkar  

(©  Women`s Feature Service)