The politics of the right wing in India has typically been a politics of backlash against values of the kind symbolised by a marginalised group. Currently, this is most visibly represented by assertive women politicians. To the female politician baiters, women, as mass leaders asserting their will over men, are a direct challenge to Indian politics’ essential masculinity: the 56-inch chest, the growling guerrilla style chest thumping declaration of paurush and purusharth, dubbing men unlike themselves as napunsak, a eunuch. But that has not stalled the inevitable rise at the national level, of major political leaders like Indira Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, Jayalalithaa, Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati and now Priyanka Gandhi Vadra.
Priyanka has yet to prove her mettle, but it is generally agreed that she has the potential. Even her opponents concede this. Hence the recent spurt in some of them sneeringly referring to her Chikna Chehra, attractive face, as being the sole reason for her popularity. Another resorts to remarks about how when not addressing public rallies in Indian dresses, Priyanka dresses in jeans (read favoured attire of westernised, liberated women long declared subversive collectively by the Bajrang Dal, Sri Ram Sene and the khap panchayats of Haryana). The fact is that powerful NDA leaders have been shaken by not one but three major female leaders facing them in the crucial 2019 Elections. Their media cells and supporters are at pains to destroy that challenge. They are trying hard to establish that feminism as a political ideology has failed. That women in politics are not so much defending a failed ideology as resurrecting a culture of barren wombs and the breakdown of the family system as we know it. Mayawati, Mamata or the late Jayalalithaa, all have been subjected to sneering remarks about their single status. Ironically, this comes from a quarter where the top leader-in-chief is himself a single man. He proudly and publicly declares himself again and again as being a Fakir, a man without any worldly ties!
In this scenario, Priyanka poses a problem to female baiters. She has, before stepping into mainstream politics, fulfilled all traditional roles: a nurturing mother and caring and respectful daughter and a loyal wife to her husband. So unsurprisingly, they now train their guns against her as they have been doing against her mother, for being dynasts and destroyers of healthy democratic principles. The careers of these two women are illustrative of how the strictures women face in their rise to power are not only harsh but also frequently self-contradictory.
The family defines women in every sphere in India. Despite our liberal Constitution and the 1994 (73rd-74th) Amendment that gave women 33% reservation in local bodies, women continue to be defined by the families they belong to, less by their own merit. Compared to their male counterparts, they are far more likely to be quizzed by the media and their opponents about their family. And the political gatekeepers in most parties still being men, they are more comfortable networking with men and assume that female candidates are less likely to win unless backed by a powerful clan. Interestingly, available hard data about women candidates’ ultimate winnability reveals women, if they cross the odds and get tickets, win proportionally more with higher margins than men.
Male supremacy still intrudes into every sphere of the Sangh Parivar whose supreme body has always been sanitised free of women. In choosing women as members, as electoral candidates, as ministers, or for key positions as governors or top bureaucrats, male power alone determines the final list.
Defying all the above odds and many others besides, women in India have come a long way in our Parliament. In 1952, out of the total 499 seats in the Lok Sabha, just 22 (4.41% of the total) were occupied by women. And in the Upper House, women numbered a mere 7.31% of the total number of seats. Their numbers in the last Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha rose to 11.23% and 11.62% respectively. But they have a long way to go yet before they come anywhere near the present day number of women parliamentarians in developing countries like Rwanda (56.3%) or our neighbouring Nepal (33.2%).
The family being so important to women electorally, weakening their state and status within the family sets them back firmly. Soon after the NDA led by the right-wing BJP came to power, an ebullient Prime Minister assembled his most trusted brains from the party’s think tank to create an image of his government as a progressive force out to save the nation from the vile Left and libertines including feminists of all colours. In the process, they overturned the welfare structures created by the previous government and characterised by implication, that issues such as reservations for women in Parliament and state welfarism were fringe issues. True, a lot of lip service was paid to empowerment of women by giving charge of the ministries of Human Resource Development, External Affairs, Food processing, Ganga Cleaning to women. But the presence of two important ministers in nodal ministries, Smriti Irani or Sushma Swaraj, made no great difference to womens’ lives in general both within and outside their homes. Irani herself was soon shifted out of HRD to Ministry of Textiles while Sushma Swaraj, despite her considerable experience and interpersonal skills, was all but relegated to the margins like a latter day Madonna, and the PM himself strode the arena of foreign affairs travelling non stop. His Minister for External Affairs mostly stayed back and won (considerable) goodwill among the electorates by helping organise visas for Indian travellers and sorting out problems of abandoned non-resident wives and workers in war zones. It is a pity that bad health may force her to pull out of politics.
For women, one of the key takeaways from the past five years of the NDA rule has been that even powerful women within the ruling party may not get their due and that their comfortable lives and public appearances as honoured guests only hide their essential powerlessness. Male supremacy still intrudes into every sphere of the Sangh Parivar whose supreme body has always been sanitised free of women. In choosing women as members, as electoral candidates, as ministers, or for key positions as governors or top bureaucrats, male power alone determines the final list. Be sure the present power pack does not have a fatherly indulgent face it claims to have behind that steely mask. It still scripts and controls the myth of masculine superiority ultimately to its own advantage. Watch this space as tickets get distributed.