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Uma And Her Mad Sisters

By Sagarik Ghose

08 September, 2004
Indian Express

Uma Bharati rides again. This time on a train from Bhopal to Hubli, knee deep in screaming supporters and brandishing the tiranga. The agitator is in her element. She was never comfortable imprisoned in a chief ministerial institution anyway. Too many Mid Day Meal projects to organise and far too many IAS officers to transfer. Much more her style to be the tiranga-waving semi-lunatic holy woman, screaming out her dedication to her party gurujis. Hidden in the shadowy interiors of their air-conditioned offices, her male manipulators look approvingly on. They wipe their manicured hands on spotless kurta pyjamas and smile in benevolent scorn. Kitna kaam karti hai, hamari Uma. Bahut vote lati hai.

Uma Bharati is a symbol of the tragic fate of every Indian woman politician, most of whom have failed to emerge as either democratic or dignified. Uma Bharati, the female activist, is indistinguishable from Pravin Togadia, the male rabble-rouser. Mayawati as chief minister was as efficient or as inefficient as any male chief minister. Mamta Banerjee’s erratic behaviour bears a remarkable similarity to Bal Thackeray and Jayalalithaa is almost as reckless about human rights as Narendra Modi. Far from launching exciting initiatives to educate, clothe, shelter and dignify women, to give the woman the status of ‘‘individual’’, the Indian woman politician, in fact, is totally unaware of her own womanhood. ‘‘Gender’’ is a ministry. ‘‘Gender’’ is a womens’ cell. ‘‘Gender’’ is a slogan. But gender is still not an educated consciousness or a robust identity, the way ‘‘jat’’ or ‘‘rajput’’ are. Most Indian women politicians are in a hurry to behave as if they were men and probably secretly wish they were men. The appalling backwardness of our society is revealed in the fact that a woman is forced to behave as badly as a man to be taken seriously and that crucial governance issues like reproductive health are seen as ‘‘women’s problems’’.

Political scientist Ali A. Mazrui had an interesting phrase about the political careers of South Asian women. He called it the phenomenon of ‘‘female accession to male martyrdom’’. This is a situation where a woman attains high political office but only in succession to a heroic male relative, who is usually martyred. The process began with the 1959 assassination of SWRD Bandaranaike, prime minister of Sri Lanka. A year later, his widow Sirimavo became prime minister and today their daughter Chandrika is president. Nehru died in 1964, Indira became PM in 1966. Bhutto died in 1979, Benazir became PM in 1988 for the first time. Mujib-ur-Rehman was assassinated in 1975, his daughter Hasina became PM in 1997. Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in ’91 and er.. look where his widow is today.

However in India, distinct from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, the roots of democracy have sunk deeper and the political sphere has seen the rise of the underprivileged woman politician. These are women without powerful male relatives or a dynasty, women who haven’t necessarily inherited the mantle of a dead man, yet at the same time managed to climb the political ladder. Mamta Banerjee clawed her way up through student politics in the Youth Congress in West Bengal. Mayawati may have been initiated into politics by Kanshi Ram but soon struck out with her own aggressive brand of dalit politics. Uma Bharati rose through the ranks of the sangh mostly due to her extraordinary oratory.

Yet these plebian women are united by a single feature: a cultivated insanity. A manufactured lunacy, a strategic madness which probably protects them in the savagely unequal world they operate in, but does not allow them to grow into mature stateswomen. Mamta Banerjee stomps in and out of governments, sulks about portfolios and messes up ministries. Behenji’s single topic of conversation is manuwadi conspiracies. And Uma Bharati seems blissfully unaware of the highly retrograde role model she embodies. Equally regressive are the figures of ‘‘bharatiya bahu’’ Sushma Swaraj with the jogging track of sindoor in her middle part and ‘‘vidhva bahu’’ Sonia Gandhi dutifully serving her husband’s land.

There isn’t a single woman politician today who stands forth as a thinking, modern, progressive individual who is not afraid to make health, education and welfare the center of her politics, for fear that if she does so she will be regarded as (shock! horror!) ‘‘too much of woman’’. Those who do to any limited extent, perhaps people like Brinda Karat or Jaya Jaitly, are unfortunately, political lightweights. Sheila Dikshit is perhaps the only exception. Even she hasn’t found it easy to survive in Delhi’s political akhara.

So why does India not have any modern woman politicians? Simply because there is no demand for one. Women in India are still not a vote bank. Just as the poor are not a vote bank. Today, you can stand up and say, Yadavs, unite or Dalits unite. But will you ever hear anyone saying, poor families unite or women unite? No, you wouldn’t. In stark contrast to, say, self help groups or micro credit groups or social sector groups, there has been no mass mobilisation of women in the context of parliamentary politics in India. The massive tectonic shift in Indian politics has been towards caste, not gender. The masses who actively participate or make decisions in politics in India are men. At voting time, women do as their husbands tell them, or as their caste leaders instruct or as their party bosses dictate. Under the metaphorical banyan tree, men talk politics and women discuss health. If only we realised how intimately inter-connected health and politics are, we would not be so foolishly segregated. Party high commands are reluctant to give women tickets. Women members are reduced to a ‘‘womens’ cell’’ in most parties, even in the ‘‘progressive’’ CPM. A highly educated politician like Vasundhara Raje could not afford to openly condemn sati. The brutal patriarchy of India’s politics is consolidated by women politicians themselves. The rise of the poor woman politician could have become an enormous forward movement in democratisation. Instead, swamped by costumed caricatures, millions of India’s hardworking, sensible and level-headed women remain deprived of any political representation.






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