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Invoking Regressing Symbols

By Kalpana Sharma

30 May, 2004
The Hindu

Ten days might not seem a long time in the life of a nation. But May 14 to 22, 2004 will long be remembered as some of the most dramatic, emotionally wringing, frustrating and amusing days that we have been through as a nation in a long while.

For from mid-morning of May 13, when it became clear that the Indian voter had decided to buck all predictions, to cock a snook at over-confident pollsters, and to use the secret ballot to express a preference no one predicted, the first act of the drama that followed got underway. The members of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) were thunder-struck. This was not Friday, the 13th. It was Thursday. So how did the day turn out so unlucky, they must have asked? But it was not just unlucky, it was devastatingly so. The prospect of resuming office as they thought they inevitably would, and as did most others, became an impossible dream by the end of the day.

Even the ungracious finally do concede defeat in an electoral system. But not this time. Yes, the NDA did accept that it was not in a position to form a government. But they did it without grace or humility. And they presumed that the best form of defence was not introspection and assessing what went wrong, but attacking their opponents. Hence, the familiar song of "foreign origin" began, building up to a chorus and then to a crescendo.

Anyone but Sonia, they said, referring to Sonia Gandhi, leader of the victorious Congress Party. No one except Sonia, replied the Congress Party. Both sides hung in. Tension mounted.

And then emerged the woman who imagined herself as the heroine of the day, the Rani of Jhansi who would lead her troops into victory. Not Sonia Gandhi, but Sushma Swaraj, she of the red sindhoor. With her prominent symbol of belonging to the "Hindu married ladies club" firmly in place, Ms Swaraj spoke in a trembling voice to television channels of her decision to resign from the Rajya Sabha should the unthinkable happen and Sonia Gandhi did become the Prime Minister. What is more, her husband had also decided to join her. "I cannot refer to her as `Madam Prime Minister' in Parliament," she said, or words to that effect.

Her statement went virtually unnoticed. The BJP's party faithful did not line up in front of Ms Swaraj's house begging her not to let down their trust in her by stepping down from the Upper House. Her opponents made fun of her. And it appeared as if Sonia Gandhi would indeed become the next Prime Minister.

So Ms Swaraj decided to become bolder, to go a step further, several steps further. She said she would wear sackcloth and ashes, shave off her long tresses and eat only channa (gram) if Sonia Gandhi became Prime Minister. In other words, despite being a married woman, she would don the robes of a widow. Few sensible people support the treatment given to widows within Hindu society. In many parts of the country, such regressive traditions have been discarded. Yet, Ms Swaraj used the most backward symbols of religion to register her protest.

Her sister in distress, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Uma Bharati, joined the chorus. She had already shaved her hair after becoming Chief Minister six months ago. So what could she do now? She would also resign, she said, and take sanyas.

Eventually, neither did what they promised. They can claim that Sonia backed down in the face of their threats. I rather doubt it. Few others believe that Ms Gandhi renounced power because two women in the country were planning to take regressive cultural steps to establish their protest against her.

We in India pride ourselves on being unique. If ever proof were required of that it was available over those 10 tumultuous days. In which other country would you have politics that provides such complete entertainment? In what part of the world would you find grown up women, who have been in the rough and tumble of politics, behaving like spoilt brats denied their favourite ice cream? Where else would you have a man, who until the 13th was lauded as a statesman, a man of moderation, a man of courage, going into a sombre silence even as the loony brigade of his party ensured that power would slip even further away in the face of such behaviour? Only in India!

Hopefully, for the moment at least, the Swaraj-Bharati antics will be relegated to the dustbin of history. Significantly, it was the electronic media that gave their statements prominence out of all proportion to their significance. The print media reported them without exaggerating their importance. Also, it is striking how "sacrifice" is always expected from women — no man from the BJP offered to resign, to go into sanyas, to eat only gram. But the entire episode has left a bad taste particularly as the symbolism of widowhood was used against a woman who was tragically widowed when her husband was brutally assassinated.

For Indian women, the absence of people from power who reinforce the most regressive traditions that relegate women to a secondary status, is no great tragedy. But even as "secularism" is in again, no more a dirty word, it is important to recognise that many political parties conveniently use such symbols of subservience. These symbols negate all efforts at promoting secular progressive values that grant women the same rights as all human beings — the right to hold their heads up high, the right to equality, the right to justice, the right to be heard and the right to be respected. Will Ms Gandhi use the opportunity granted to her by this election to push for changes that will make a real difference to the women of India?

E-mail the writer at: ksharma@thehindu.co.in