New Delhi: A gratuitous reference by Rahul Gandhi to defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s gender in a speech in Jaipur on Wednesday provided Prime Minister Modi some political ammunition when he accused the Congress president of “insulting all women”.
Referring to Modi’s unwillingness to debate him on the Rafale controversy, Gandhi said, “The watchman with a 56-inch chest ran away and told a woman, Sitharaman ji, defend me…,” Rahul Gandhi said, speaking in Hindi. “And for two and a half hours, the woman could not defend him.”
(“Janta ki adaalat se 56-inch ki chaati wala chowkidaar bhaag gaya. Aur ek mahila se kehta hai sitharaman ji aap meri raksha kijiye, main apni raksha nahi kar paunga, aap meri raksha kijiye. Aapne dekha 2.5 ghante mahila raksha nahi kar payi.”)
The references to “woman” (or “mahila”) in this context are undeniably symptomatic of reflexive sexism. Modi is being castigated not just for leaving the battlefield but for entrusting his defence to the hands of a woman. If Sitharaman had been a man, it is unlikely that Rahul Gandhi would have said:
“The chowkidar with a 56-inch chest ran away and told a man, Sitharaman ji, defend me. And for two and a half hours, the man could not defend him.”
However, Modi is the last person who has the right to raise this as an issue when he too has been guilty of a similar sort of casual sexism.
In June 2015, during a speech at Dhaka University that was otherwise full of praise for Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, Modi made a patently sexist observation:
“Mujhe khushi ki baat hai ki Bangladesh ke pradhan mantri, ek mahila hone ke bavajud bhi, danke ki chot par keh rahi hai ki terrorism ke khilaf mera zero tolerance hai”
(I am very pleased that Bangladesh’s prime minister, despite being a woman, is openly saying that she has zero tolerance of terrorism)
The comment made headlines across the world but three years later, none of the news reports on Modi’s criticism of Rahul Gandhi chose to recall his own track record in this matter.
In a column for The Wire at the time, feminist scholar Ratna Kapur said that Modi’s “despite being a woman” comment “once again reminds us of the continued illiteracy displayed by our politicians across the political divide on the issue of sexism and sexist speak.”
Modi’s remark was not just random and unthoughtful, she wrote. “It is part of a pervasive sexist and misogynist culture that continues to be on full display by our politicians regardless of party affiliations… As harmless as a one-sentence remark about the Bangladeshi Prime Minister framed as praise may seem, the fact is, it is not. It is reflective of the conceit that male politicians simply do a better job.”
Kapur concluded her analysis by saying that while politicians do not have a monopoly on sexism, they are “the representatives of the people and hence their voices need to be subject to greater critical scrutiny. It is time to crowd source justice by shaming politicians into their appalling and at times deeply offensive behavior, and render them accountable for what they say and how they say it. And as the Prime Minister, it is even more incumbent on Modi to be held accountable for his displays of sexism that is not just a one-off occurrence. Recall the days when he was chief minister of Gujarat campaigning in Himachal Pradesh and described Sunanda Pushkara Tharoor as Shashi Tharoor’s “50 Crore girlfriend”.