When it Comes to Politics in India, Sexism is the Norm

The political reality of women in India pretty much mirrors the actual reality.

Are you a devi, sadhavi, bahu or beti? If you don’t fall in one of these stereotypes, then what are you doing as a woman in Indian politics?

Even if you are all of the above – as Priyanka Gandhi undoubtedly is – any male politician can ‘objectify’ you, just as BJP’s erstwhile firebrand Vinay Katiyar did today by saying that the BJP has “prettier women” than Gandhi. He then went on to embarrass his own minister Smriti Irani, who he described as “prettier”.

These statements, however, are not even remotely surprising since sexism and misogyny is the norm in Indian politics. Remember when in 2012 Narendra Modi described the late Sunanda Pushkar as the “50-crore-rupee girlfriend?”

I still remember when swathed in her saffron robes, Uma Bharti, while she was the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, showed me her giant Barbie doll collection and said, “that she felt safe playing with her dolls”. Bharti had to first protect herself by being a sadhvi then by infantilise herself by playing with dolls.

Despite it all she became a target due to the salacious speculations about her relationship with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) Govindacharya.

The RSS – the self-described protector of the Hindus – still does not allow women in the ranks and expects full-time pracharaks to be celibate in an imitation of the Catholic Church.

Modi and Katiyar – who was the founder of the Bajrang Dal and who has ruthlessly been sidelined by Modi and Amit Shah – both draw inspiration from the RSS. Katiyar, by commenting on Gandhi, was probably trying to make headlines.

Last year, BJP leader Dayashankar Singh made derogatory remarks against the four-time Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati. Although Singh was subsequently expelled, he, however, continues to be present at all of Modi’s election rallies in the state.

It was business as usual for male UP politicians who simply could not understand what all the fuss was about.

The late Jayalalithaa and Mayawati, perhaps because they never fit the caricature bhabi mould, were ruthlessly attacked in the most sexist manner.

In an infamous ‘guest house’ incident, Samajwadi Party supporters attacked Mayawati in a UP guest house and she had to be physically protected by the police. Jayalalitha had her saree torn, which is perhaps why she took to the all-engulfing cape as a security blanket.

BJP’s Irani has perhaps been the worst target of such sexist attacks. Congress’s Sanjay Nirupam called her a “thumka laganey wali” on live television. Even now, BJP politicians who are her rivals, routinely circulate pictures of her in swimsuits from her days as a Miss India contestant.

Vasundhara Raje Scindia, the chief minister of Rajasthan, had to dress as a traditional princess in her campaign pictures. Chafing at the pictures, she once wryly told me, “you don’t just have to be a princess, you have to look the part.”

Not if you are a man though.

I have never seen her nephew Jyotiraditya Scindia, a Congress MP, play dress-up as the maharaja of Gwalior.

The message being sent to women is that if you want to be in politics, you have to behave and look a certain way. So if you are married, you must take your husband’s last name, must dress like a bride on TV with sindoor et al at all times.

I still remember when years ago Sushma Swaraj invited me for a screening of Monsoon Wedding on Karva Chauth for which she was dressed like a bride. No man attended the screening and I think I was the only woman wearing jeans. Perhaps they were unaware of the subject of the film.

Ask any woman politician why they confine themselves to these caricatures and the answer is that it is what is expected of them and it’s “safe.” If you don’t confirm, you are considered “fair game,” especially in the Hindi heartland politics.

So while all politicians talk about ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao,’ and as rather inane campaigns like ‘selfie with daughter’ are launched, when Modi let slip “despite being a woman” in his praise of Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in 2015, it kind of really said it all.

Modi has also unleashed a vitriolic army of paid trolls to sexually harass and intimidate women with contrary opinions on social media, where the trolls he follows routinely make rape threats.

The political reality of women in India pretty much mirrors the actual reality and everyday outrage is not a solution. Leaders in all political parties are united in their opposition to the Women’s Reservation Bill, though only a few would say what Sharad Yadav did by calling its votaries parakati. I still remember asking him what exactly he meant and he gave a vague reply. Both his daughter and his wife have long hair and, as he told me proudly, no political ambitions.

Gandhi’s response to Katiyar is perhaps the best approach. She laughed at him and said he reflected his party’s mindset. He really does, since it’s a mindset that cuts across party lines, and it is pointless to ask for a token apology.

Swati Chaturvedi is a freelance journalist and author of I Am a Troll (Juggernaut, 2016).