The ingrained sexism behind the criticism of Indira Gandhi in contrast to appreciation for Narendra Modi

While PM Modi is almost never criticised by his Bhakts for his moves, we always hear criticism for Indira Gandhi, for being strong and assertive. Is politics really that unforgiving towards women?

Indira Gandhi
Indira Gandhi


As an undemocratic step, the decision to abrogate Article 370, is widely being hailed across the nation as being a ‘strong’, ‘daring’, ‘fearless’ measure; one begins to wonder how the abstract muzzling of the entire Valley’s population can be so fiercely celebrated? One then wonders how Mrs Indira Gandhi is often panned for suppression of voices in India by these cheerleaders of Kashmir’s isolation. But as for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, he has a 56 inch ka seena .

Modi’s BJP holds an absolute majority in Parliament as of today, and he has been blatantly bulldozing bills through the House and muzzling voices of dissent. His government is capturing journalists, his fanboys and Cabinet colleagues are declaring individuals anti-nationals on their whims and fancies. Privatisation of PSUs, polarising people on communal lines, promoting crony capitalism, making life difficult for the poor - these are what Modi has done.

The strength of Indira Gandhi however, lied in her policies, two of which come to mind immediately. Indira Gandhi's decisions such as the nationalisation of banks and the abolition of princes' privy purses changed both her political career and transformed India as never before.

Those two decisions marked her as an audacious woman who could take on the dominant'' capitalists'' as well as feudal kings and princes. Everybody loves to pillory Indira Gandhi despite her being the driving forces of various perks that we still enjoy such as scientific temperament. In his piece on the woman dubbed as the Iron Lady, Naipaul pointed out that India (under Indira) had grown “intellectually and industrially, and for a long time there has been a balance between rationalism, the life of the mind and the pull of old barbarism.”

How can people then, listen to stories about plastic surgery in the times of Lord Ganesh, emails and clouds; (a+b)2 and still have some undying love for Narendra Modi?

The nuclear explosions in 1974, the space programmes of the 80s and Rakesh Sharma’s journey on a Soviet spaceship established an Indian scientific spirit that is now entrenched deep into our psyche.

The answer is simple really: Because women in politics, even in the 21st century, are judged with incredibly sexist standards. We have seen it with the desexualisation of women, the only known women in politics being accredited with titles such as “didi”, “ammaa”, “behen”, etc.

A research that features in the book Sociology of Gender: The Challenge of Feminist Sociological Thought, the only reference to women comes in the form of dislike of Indira Gandhi in the region under study because of her being a woman and a widow.

Dubbed “goongi gudiya” and the “only man in the cabinet”, it is not very surprising that Indira Gandhi was at the receiving end of a lot of misogynistic vitriol. She had herself said that she did not like the sexist slant of various comments aimed at her.

In a research, titled The Price of Power: Power Seeking and Backlash Against Female Politicians; conducted by Harvard Kennedy School; the results state a similar story.

Voters are less likely to vote for women candidates when they see them as competing for power, while male politicians are not held responsible.

• All things being equal, participants in the study are likely to perceive female politicians as being about as male politicians striving for equal power.

• If respondents saw male politicians as seeking power, they also saw them as having greater agency (i.e., being more assertive, heavier, and tougher) and greater competence, while this was not true for their female counterpart perceptions.

• When participants saw women in politics as seeking power, they also saw them as having less communality (i.e., unsupportive and uncaring), while this was not true because of their perceptions of male politicians seeking power.

• Participants expressed feelings of moral outrage (i.e., hatred, frustration, and/or disgust) towards them when female politicians are portrayed as seeking power.

• Participant gender had no impact on any of the outcomes of the study – that is, women were as likely as men to have negative reactions to female politicians in search of power.

In short, both a power-seeking image and the power-seeking intention expressed can bias voters against female politicians because people don't want a woman to be power-seeking, to be politically strong.

And it is not just the sexism that prevailed in India, it was even the United States of America. When as Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi went to approach then POTUS Richard Nixon, who was then unhappy with her strong-willed narratives and stentorian views, Nixon and his then Secretary, Kissinger, did not have very pleasant things to say about her.

When the Nixon Tapes were released the most striking of them were him calling Indira Gandhi a “b**ch.”

“This is just the point when she is a b**ch,” Nixon said. Kissinger responded that “the Indians are bastards anyway,” and agreed that Gandhi was “a b**ch.” A little later, Nixon added, “we really slobbered over the old witch.”

Indira Gandhi was secular and she showed great empathy for the poor and the downtrodden, something absent in the current leadership. As we cope with the mortifying aftermath of an undemocratic bulldozing of bills; and strange, unplanned decisions that has left this country reeling with a bad economic crisis, it is also important to recall that transferring banks to the public sector was not done to mess with the poor, to make money, it was done to strike at the rich. The current climate of economics suggests that people will be penalised for somebody else’s scams. With the writing off of crores worth of debts but penalising people, it’s sure whose side the BJP lies on.

Indira Gandhi’s decisions harmed no ordinary citizen. It benefited the small businessmen and also resulted in the expansion of the banking system to reach out to the remotest corners of the country. She did not think twice before she rattled the elites and pleased the ordinary citizens. With Demonetisation and GST, Modi has done just the opposite.

Abject ignorance and, worse, sense of apathy for the difficulties millions of people are going through rules, mark our present-day rulers. Nirmala Sitharaman reflects it so well when she says, “GST has flaws but kanoon hai”. Today we have a government which has zero accountability to Parliament and disinterest in the lives of the poor.

Indira Gandhi may have had her flaws, as does every leader, but when the Modi abuses power, why is he then called strong, driven and a thousand more gallant adjectives whereas a woman, who nationalised institutions, brought a green revolution, stripped the Princes of their power and popularised the Garibi Hatao slogan, cut Pakistan into two halves; is pilloried for being a selfish woman? Whether or not she abused her power is debatable, but she brought a visible difference to people’s lives. The only thing that Indira Gandhi and Modi might have in common is their blind following.

And in these strange times when mythology is paraded as history and science, let’s remember what she had said at a speech one day before her assassination: “if along with this a scientific temper is not cultivated, if we remain prisoners of superstitions, if we continue to quarrel among ourselves, if we tolerate communalism and do not fight against it, how will we be able to preserve the unity of India? If unity is not preserved, how will we protect our independence?”

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