Mahua Moitra’s Plight Is Testament to the Kismet of Women Politicians in India

Indian politics has constructed a sexual imagery of women leaders that primarily focuses on their character, physical appearance, dress, demeanour and family. While their success is understated and mostly shoved under the carpet, their failure is wholly attributed to their gender.

At a time when parliament finally passed a law reserving one-third of total seats for women in the House of the People and Legislative Assembly of every state, the targeting of MP Mahua Moitra under the guise of unsubstantiated charges is a reminder of how ‘gender’ and the ‘performance of femininity’ shape the life of women leaders across the political sphere.

Let’s observe the statistics first. The Rajya Sabha has only 31 women among 239 total members and in the Lok Sabha, only 82 of the 539 members are women. When it comes to the Government of India, only 10 women find representation in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 79-member council of ministers, out of which only two hold  cabinet rank. The picture at the state level is bleaker, with the national average of women in state assemblies being around 9%. India’s rank on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index 2023 is 127 out of 146, with the country trailing behind neighbours like Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

In the 2019 general election, out of the 435 candidates that the Bharatiya Janata Party fielded, 12.6% were women. Women constituted 12.9% of the total candidates fielded by the Indian National Congress. On the other hand, some regional parties’ selection of women candidates was quite commendable. Of the total number of candidates fielded by West Bengal’s All-India Trinamool Congress, 37.1% were women.

Evidently, what are typically viewed as ‘gender neutral’ public institutions and political parties in India are exclusively ‘for, by and of’ men. Rather, ‘masculinity’ is the defining feature of Indian politics. On its own, the Women’s Reservation Act, 2023 cannot enable greater political participation of women and their equal representation in parliament and politics.

Also read: The Treatment of Mahua Moitra Is a Case Study on Gender, Power and Politics in India

In a 2021 book titled Women, Power, and Political Representation: Canadian and Comparative Perspectives, the authors have acknowledged that the introduction of gender quotas has improved women’s participation in Canadian politics. However, Canadian women still face many informal and formal barriers – not just when they seek to gain access to political power but also once they have gained that power. They have cautioned that, “women need not just be present in politics, but rather should have access to key positions of power where they can act as gatekeepers, agenda setters, and political insiders”. The Moitra matter reinforces the same lesson.

Indian politics has constructed a sexual imagery of women leaders that primarily focuses on their character, physical appearance, dress, demeanour and family. They are closely watched and their performance minutely scrutinised. While their success is understated and mostly shoved under the carpet, their failure is wholly attributed to their gender.

Indian news reporting on women MPs like Moitra is pervaded by gendered perceptions of ambition, visibility, competitiveness, suitability and capability. Her association with a leading businessman and fight with an ex-lover over Henry, their pet dog, have become more newsworthy than her attendance and performance in parliament. Conversely, her participation in parliamentary debates, the type of questions she has raised, and the veracity of her criticisms of the kleptocratic tendencies of the ruling dispensation have been largely ignored.

None of those pillorying Moitra have bothered to analyse how many of questions she has raised in Parliament have a direct link with her businessman friend, Darshan Hiranandani, whose office staff helped her upload those questions. When it is common practice for MPs to share their login details and even one-time-passwords (OTPs) with personal assistants, office staff, policy clerks, interns and others – the authors and almost all LAMP fellows who have worked with MPs from different political parties will easily vouch for this fact – why is Mahua Moitra being singled out?

The Lok Sabha Ethics Committee, which was established in 2015 to oversee the moral and ethical conduct of members and examine cases of misconduct referred to it, has been operating without a proper written ‘Code of Conduct for Members of Lok Sabha’ and a mandatory ‘Declaration of Members’ Business Interests’. It is highly probable that in the absence of these two important documents, the committee can cherry-pick cases involving MPs from opposition parties while going easy with ruling party members. Further, the committee can also conduct hearings without following a fair, just and impartial procedure – as was seen in the Moitra matter, where she was not allowed to cross-examine those who had levelled grave charges against her. This violates the norms of natural justice in a constitutional democracy.

It has not escaped anyone’s notice that the committee has been super swift to investigate Moitra’s alleged association with Hiranandani. On the other hand, its response has been extremely tardy with respect to the conduct of BJP MP Ramesh Bidhuri who made communal and sexist comments against several MPs including Danish Ali, a member of the Ethics Committee.

In order to avert sexual objectification, increase their acceptability within politics and be ‘likeable’ among the masses, women leaders have taken to supposedly asexual, respectable and dignified titles like ‘Didi’ Mamata Banerjee (elder sister), ‘Behenji’ Mayawati (sister), ‘Amma’ Jayalalitha (mother). Even Moitra has chanted ‘Jai Ma Durga’ and invoked the powerful Hindu goddess on X (formerly Twitter) to fight off the attacks on herself from the BJP. We cannot forget that as a woman politician, she has to work over time to not let the scandal blight her political career.

Also read: Mahua Moitra and the Question of Maryada

Unfortunately, there exists zero female sorority in Indian politics. Women politicians do not get the requisite support from peers in their own political party, nor are formal institutional mechanisms available to check misogyny and bullying. When the Ethics Committee quizzed MP Moitra about her private life, none of the women members of the committee responded. Women leaders find it extremely difficult to support their ilk across party lines because they are unable to reconcile their gender identity and political differences. Explaining the reality of female misogyny, feminist writer Chimamanda Adichie has commented, “[A]nd there are many women in the world who do not like other women.” This is writ large in Indian politics.

Ireland’s landmark 2009 report on ‘Women’s Participation in Politics’ has found that factors such as ‘less confidence’, ‘gendered culture’ and ‘gender bias in political parties’ in candidate’s selection procedures’ adversely affect women politicians. Particularly in India, because the Parliament, state assemblies and political parties are mainly led and run by men, the culture of behaviour and the informally accepted norms of language, views and expressions render the political sphere unsuitable for women.

Moitra walked out of the Ethics Committee’s meeting as a mark of protest and lashed out against the committee’s unfair procedure, manner of investigation and content of the questions. While people were left aghast at her audacity, the ruling dispensation has called her remarks ‘explosive’. Kimberle Crenshaw’s words can be used to describe the Indian society for which “saving honour from shame is a priority. Unfortunately, this priority tends to be more readily interpreted as obliging women not to scream rather than obliging men not to hit”.

With such a deep-seated culture of misogyny, what will it take for Indian lawmakers to remodel Parliament into a truly diverse, inclusive and accommodating place of work?

Prerna Dhoop is an Assistant Professor at the National Law School of India University (NLSIU) Bangalore and Vandana Dhoop teaches at the St. Xavier’s University, Kolkata.