Smriti Irani’s outrage is more about herself and Gujarat polls than the President of India

The 'Rashtrapati vs Rashtrapatni' debate is old and it was Bal Thackeray who had called Pratibha Patil 'Rashtrapatni'. But Prime Minister Modi is guilty of calling women far worse names

Smriti Irani’s outrage is more about herself and Gujarat polls than the President of India

Sujata Anandan

What was Smriti Irani outraging about in Parliament with regard to a Congress leader (Adhi Ranjan Das) referring to newly-elected president Droupadi Murmu as ‘Rashtrapatni’? The allegedly offensive word was uttered by the MP outside Parliament, to a newsman and the Member had apologised saying that it was a slip of the tongue in course of a conversation in which he had twice addressed the President correctly as 'Rashtrapati'.

But the floor of the Parliament was used by the BJP and more notably union minister Smriti Irani to demand an apology from Congress President Sonia Gandhi. This was against the Rules of the House but she and other BJP Members were allowed to heckle the Congress President. Later, when she walked across the aisle and enquired from a senior BJP MP why she was being asked to apologised, the MPs intensified the heckling and intimidation.

Clearly Smriti Irani and other BJP members are not aware that in the Constituent Assembly itself, members had wondered if ever a lady were to become the President, whether she should be addressed as 'Rashtrapatni'. Other addresses like 'Karnadhar' had also been suggested but Jawaharlal Nehru put an end to the discussion by firmly saying that the President, irrespective of gender, would be called 'Rashtrapati'. For once, BJP and Smriti Irani seem to be on the same page as Nehru.

Well, Murmu is also not the first person to be referred to as thus. She is not the first woman president of India. That was Pratibha Patil in 2007 and it was then Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray who had referred to Patil as 'Rashtrapatni'. One doesn’t know how conversant Irani is with Indian languages but Marathi, Gujarati, Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam and other vernacular newspapers in Mumbai were then having a tough time on how to translate ‘Rashtrapati’ to refer to a woman president. Most of them came up with 'Rashtrapatni', including, of course , Saamna, of which Bal Thackeray was the editor.

Then, by consensus, Marathi newspapers decided that Patil should be referred to ‘Rashtra Adhyaksh’ because Adhyaksh in Marathi is president, Speaker or chairperson and, even if not quite suitable, it was nearest to a gender- neutral description for a woman president. Though Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru had insisted a woman president, too, would be referred to as Rashtrapati, since two generations had passed by then, neither Thackeray, nor the Congress, nor even the BJP had any clue about it.

The Congress MP probably had difficulty in finding the equivalent in Bangla and then translating it to Hindi. But if Irani is outraging about lack of gender sensitivity in the Congress leader, one would like to remind her and the BJP that Narendra Modi has referred to Sonia Gandhi as a ’Jersey Cow’, to the late Sunanda Tharoor as a fifty crore girl friend, to Renuka Chaudhury as Shoorpanakha, (that too in parliament, not on the streets), referred to Bangladesh president Sheikh Hasina patronisingly as ‘ despite being a woman’ (as though he, as a man was better than her as a leader) and cat-called Mamata Banerjee with a Didi-o-Didi that only Roadside Romeos in Bengal do while eve-teasing women.

One guesses Irani’s offence was more a form of defence against the Congress highlighting the allegation that her daughter runs a restaurant in Goa which serves up beef and pork, a strict no-no for the BJP elsewhere. BJP has also lynched innocent people for transporting cows for dairying purposes (not killing them for food) and has attempted to provoke Muslims by slaughtering pigs in Kerala at least on one occasion (though the pig is unholy to Muslims and not holy like the cow to Hindutva bigots). Irani seemed to be diverting attention from herself to Sonia Gandhi, who has been known for her poise and dignified conduct.

Union Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s defence of her party colleague also falls by the wayside, considering, by her own admission, she was not present when the altercation took place in the House – there were too many eye witnesses, including from non-Congress parties who uphold the Congress version of events.

But this attempt to malign Sonia Gandhi also brings to mind the fact that elections to the Gujarat Assembly are fast approaching and the Adivasi – as also the Muslim – vote largely still vests with the Congress. Sharad Pawar often says that in alliance with the Congress, he has to work for only 25 percent of the vote as 20 percent, mostly comprising Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims, automatically vote for the Congress, headed by the Nehru-Gandhis. “It is their personal vote which does not sway from them and we know how difficult it was when the Congress was headed by a non-Gandhi,” he had once said.

That is also the reason why the BJP is hell bent upon destroying the reputations and courage of both Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi because without them the Congress would have little buffer to fall back. But to their chagrin, nothing bends the Gandhis, neither calling them names, nor throwing the Enforcement Directorate against them. They do not seek compromises and they continue to fight for the interests of the poor in the country. And that is a big stumbling block in the way of the BJP,

When Thackeray had called Pratibha Patil India’s first Rashtrapatni, the soft-spoken lady had good- humouredly laughed it off (as had US Vice president Kamala Harris’s husband when media jokingly speculated how the first woman VP’s husband should be referred – as first husband, first gentleman or something else). The Shiv Sena had voted for Patil at her Presidential election and she knew it was typical Thackeray-speak that really meant no insult to her per se.

Thackeray was a little wary about whether he might have gone too far but then she called him on his birthday a few months later. He was highly emotional about that, not because he knew he was forgiven but because no BJP leader had thought to wish him on his birthday in all the years of their alliance. Not surprisingly, he voted again for the Congress candidate – Pranab Mukherjee – in 2012, making him the most highly voted president of India because even BS Yeddyurappa’s faction of the BJP in Karnataka had then voted for him.

Obviously the BJP is now outraging because Murmu has received the least amount of votes of all presidential candidates. It is nothing to do with her Adivasi status or being a woman but it is clear there is disillusionment with the regime, for the cross voting could only have come from those expected to support the BJP candidate. There was no harm done this time but one might not be able to say the same at elections in Gujarat. That is why they seemed to have staged the high drama out of nowhere.

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