The Re-feminisation of Our Politics
Mahatma Gandhi first ‘feminised’ politics in India. There were women in Indian politics, even before his return but they weren’t that many, and nearly all were from the upper classes
It was Mahatma Gandhi who first ‘feminised’ politics in India. Sure, there were women in Indian politics, and in the Indian National Congress too, even before he returned to India from South Africa in 1915, but they weren’t that many, and nearly all were from the upper classes and elite families.
Not that they didn’t make a contribution. Many of them were accomplished women, who argued vigorously for women’s education and to secure for them the right to vote and contest elections. Bimala, the woman protagonist of Rabindranath Tagore’s novel Ghare Baire, published in 1916, stepped out of the confines of a conservative home to take part in the Swadeshi movement. Women in Bengal had even taken part in armed rebellion against colonial rule but, again, you could count them on your fingertips. Nonviolent protest suited the likes of Bimala, indeed most Indian women.
Gandhi’s resolute yet non-violent brand of protest appealed to even home-bound women; it was something they could afford to do. They stepped out of their homes in their numbers for the first time for Gandhi’s satyagraha, each inspiring others of the family to follow suit. This was a ‘feminisation’ of our politics on a scale never seen before—Gandhi had opened the floodgates. Women embraced his political idiom—of ahimsa (non-violence) and satyagraha (peaceful protest) against injustice, in search of satya (the truth)—with unstinting enthusiasm.
A century later, the Bharat Jodo Yatra replays memories of those days, as women, young and old, step out to walk with Rahul Gandhi. This is remarkable especially because women still comprise only 14 per cent of the Lok Sabha; in state legislatures, they are even fewer. It is happening at a time when politics has become—and is widely being seen as—venal, violent and a sphere still dominated by men. For hearts and minds hardened by the cynicism our politics easily engenders, it is hard to accept this manifest transformation, but for others, the sight of a swelling multitude of women walking in step, shoulder to shoulder with the men, with a sense of renewed hope, is unmissable.
Roughly a third of the Yatris are women, the crowds still dominantly male. And yet there is a comfortable familiarity in their physical connect with Rahul Gandhi—for women, both young and old, hugging and kissing Rahul Gandhi in full public view seems like the most natural thing. Even more importantly, they seem to be sharing their experiences and ideas for a better India without any inhibition.
The photographs and videos of this ongoing Bharat Jodo Yatra are sending out a powerful signal and indicate another phase of feminisation of Indian politics. Rahul has to toil much more, of course, before he can empower these women and a lot will depend on his will to stay the course. But in the way he is engaging with them, Rahul seems to carry a sense that to transform Indian politics, it must become a safe and comfortable space for women, that they have to play an important part in nation-building.
Chayanika Shah, a Mumbaibased queer rights activist and spokesperson for queer feminism, says candidly: “I have watched these videos at length, sometimes for as long as 15 minutes at a stretch and have been moved by them.”
“Women betraying their emotions in public, breaking down in tears are powerful images. Women are sensitive to touch and can differentiate between good touch and bad touch. The images say a lot about Rahul Gandhi also, who is the rare Indian politician—perhaps the only one at this time—who can be dignified, sensitive and respectful while hugging women in public. The women are also clearly comfortable and secure, which is why they do not mind him holding their hand in front of others and talking to them,” she says. A friend and journalist, Manorama, who joined the Bharat Jodo Yatra for a day in Karnataka, and several others too, echo similar sentiments.
Our politics is currently in the throes of a toxic machismo. Women play a decorative role in this worldview, where leaders proudly thump their “56 inch chest”, and refer to Sonia and Rahul Gandhi as cow and calf. That the Prime Minister himself should speak that language speaks volumes about the political culture that has been normalised.
He makes fun of Renuka Chaudhary’s full-throated laughter in Parliament; he mocks women chief ministers in election rallies in the tone of a street-corner bully. No surprise, then, that his government should have done nothing about promises made in the party manifesto vis-à-vis women’s reservation. With the kind of brute majority his party has in Parliament, nothing but a lack of intent can explain this.
When the Prime Minister talks about respect for women, as he did recently from the ramparts of the Red Fort on Independence Day—ironically coinciding with the release of Bilkis Bano’s rapists—it rings hollow, to say the least. When elections are round the corner, it seems quite alright for his party to release on parole Baba Ram Rahim, the godman convicted of rape and murder and supposedly serving a life sentence.
His brags are also always brawny: “There was a time when pigeons were released, now cheetahs… we want delivery at the speed of a cheetah,” he recently said.
It is in this backdrop that the re-feminisation of our politics acquires special significance. The women at the Bharat Jodo Yatra look like the harbingers of that hope. It’s still only a beginning, and what lies ahead is a political battle even before new legislation and new policy initiatives can reshape our polity. The feminisation initiated by Mahatma Gandhi lost steam after Independence. While women were at the forefront of the Dandi March in 1930 and in the Quit India movement of 1942, they gradually lost their standing in politics after Independence, and their role became progressively marginal and ceremonial.
Their numbers dwindled in politics and while some women engaged in constructive social work, fewer women remained in active politics. While Gandhi expanded the space for women and made politics a hospitable habitat for them, he wasn’t around to sustain that work or give it meaningful expression in Indian politics after Independence. Rahul Gandhi must, therefore, go beyond the words and images of this Yatra, and declare unequivocally that the women’s reservation bill will be passed as soon as a Congress government is formed. He must present a new vision for women.
The feminisation of Indian politics will no doubt threaten status-quoist politicians and political groups. These are the same people who called Gandhi a coward and mocked Nehru as a philanderer. They are of the same ilk: the people who slandered Gandhi and Nehru then and the ones who are attacking Rahul now. Even women leaders of the BJP have made snide comments about photographs that show Rahul walking hand in hand with women or of women hugging him. They have accused him of ‘using’ children to promote his politics, citing photographs of children riding on his shoulders; even a photograph with his niece invited snide remarks.
The patriarchy and male chauvinism that sits at the heart of this politics has taken other forms in the past. They resisted Ambedkar’s Hindu Code Bill, which sought to alleviate the condition of Indian women; they opposed the Constitution and extolled the virtues of Manusmriti; they can be trusted to oppose women’s active participation in politics.
Our history contains sobering reminders of good beginnings that couldn’t be sustained. Let’s hope the new beginning we witness in the ongoing Bharat Jodo Yatra is the onset of sustainable change, let’s hope Indian women are marching towards a fulfilment of their long-cherished dreams of dignity and equality.