By Kalpana Sharma
30 May, 2004
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
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 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
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
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?
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