Priyanka Chaturvedi has failed women in politics. Or perhaps she is showing them the only way to survive.
On April 17, Chaturvedi, then the Congress spokesperson and a familiar face on TV debates, expressed disappointment with her party for having reinstated eight members she referred to as “lumpen goons”. She had accused them last October of misbehaving with her. Pending an inquiry, they were suspended. But earlier this week they were taken back, apparently after they apologised.
The next day, Chaturvedi sent her resignation letter to Congress chief Rahul Gandhi. “What saddens me is that despite the safety, dignity and empowerment of women being promoted by the party…and your call to action, the same is not reflected in the action of some of members of the party,” she wrote. “A serious incident and misbehaviour by certain party members while I was on official duty for the party has been ignored under the guise of all hands needed for the elections.”
However, in less than 24 hours, Chaturvedi did a virtual double backflip and on Friday landed in the lap of the Shiv Sena, which is at the other end of the ideological spectrum from her former party. By doing so, she not only provided an escape hatch for the Congress, which was being questioned about not treating her charges seriously, but also provoked considerable scepticism about her own motives.
Coincidentally, the same day, a veteran woman politician, Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party, demonstrated that pragmatism can trump old fissures by sharing a stage with her former arch rival, Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party, for the first time since 1995.
Mayawati had sworn never to forgive Yadav after his party’s workers attacked her at a Lucknow guest house in June 1995, almost battering down the doors of the room in which she had locked herself.
Just another day in Indian politics, you might say, especially in an election season. But apart from demonstrating the malleability and flexibility that seems to be the hallmark of Indian politics and politicians, these events remind us of the anomalies and contradictions of a woman’s role in this country’s politics.
Take Chaturvedi. Though originally from Uttar Pradesh, she is a typical Mumbai person. She is well-spoken and articulate and appeared to be an asset for the Congress in its attempt to project itself as a modern and progressive party in contrast to its main opponent, the Bharatiya Janata Party.
At the April 19 press conference where she announced her decision to join the Shiv Sena and serve it in any capacity, Chaturvedi was asked whether she quit the Congress because she was denied a ticket to contest the parliamentary election.
Chaturvedi acknowledged she had hoped to get a ticket, but insisted that was not the main reason for her resignation. She spoke of her concern for women’s rights even as she sat on a dais with only male leaders of the Shiv Sena, a party which is not exactly an exemplar either of good behaviour or of upholding women’s rights. She appears to have missed the irony entirely, or perhaps deliberately.
A misogynistic culture
For a moment, though, if we set aside the pragmatism displayed by Mayawati in putting aside her resentment and sharing the stage with her bitter adversary, and Chaturvedi’s nifty ideological cartwheel, the two women illustrate the challenges women in politics face in India.
Mayawati’s struggles are now well known. She has confronted the double burden of being a Dalit and a woman, been called all kinds of names, criticised and mocked for her dress sense, her taste, her looks. She has received barely any appreciation for her ability to negotiate the snake pit of politics. A man in her position would have been lauded as clever, strategic, even brilliant. But Mayawati is called devious, corrupt, unprincipled and much more because she is a woman.
Chaturvedi is fairly new to politics and has had a relatively easy run. She was picked out to be a spokesperson because she speaks well and knows how to handle the medium of TV. In the last five years, with the BJP in power, she has been targeted as a woman, viciously trolled and even threatened. Her apparent reason for quitting the Congress was also misogyny. That men in the party felt they could get away with the kind of behaviour that Chaturvedi alleges with a prominent woman functionary speaks to male entitlement and a misogynistic culture that is virtually a norm in Indian politics.
Mayawati and Chaturvedi are not the exceptions by a long shot. Go back in history and remember the kind of treatment J Jayalalithaa received, especially shortly after MG Ramachandran’s death in 1989, when she was assaulted and almost stripped in the Tamil Nadu Assembly.
Similarly, Mamata Banerjee has been physically assaulted and received the choicest sexist epithets from her male opponents.
Smriti Irani may have laid herself open to criticism with her imaginative descriptions of her educational qualification, but she too has had to endure sexual and sexist comments by male politicians.
The most recent illustration of the special treatment reserved for women is what Jaya Prada, until recently with the Samajwadi Party and now a BJP candidate, has had to endure from former party colleague Azam Khan. Even when they were in the same party, Khan did not spare her.
Par for the course
Sexism, it seems, is par for the course if you are a woman stepping into the male world of Indian politics. The women who have survived have all had to face this in some form or another. If they have a male protector, in the form of a relative or a mentor, they are sometimes spared. But that too is no guarantee. Nor is the party to which they belong. So, the list includes, among others, Sonia Gandhi, Renuka Chowdhury and Priyanka Gandhi from the Congress; Sushma Swaraj, Smriti Irani and Hema Malini of the BJP; and Mayawati and Jaya Prada.
As Scroll.in reported this month, it is no different even in a state like Kerala, with high female literacy and more women voters than men. There too women hesitate to enter politics and political parties have historically been extremely parsimonious about encouraging women to be a part of electoral politics. Since 1957, the state has elected only 11 women to Parliament. And the handful of women who are standing for the Lok Sabha this time have not been spared sexist remarks from male politicians.
Chaturvedi claims she quit the Congress because it failed to act against sexism. Yet, by joining the Shiv Sena she has behaved like any male politician looking out for the best chance would. She has also reinforced the belief that for the moment, if women want to get ahead in the male world of politics, they have to be a little like them. The misogynistic and masculine culture that dominates Indian politics remains undented by the presence of such women.
Kalpana Sharma is the Readers’ Editor of Scroll.in.