October 21, 2020 1:10:23 am
The ugliness of the Indian male politician was on show again in Madhya Pradesh this week. In Gwalior to campaign for the coming bypolls, state Congress chief Kamal Nath sniggered before an audience at a woman leader from the BJP, who he wouldn’t deign to name. “You know her better. What an item she is,” he said, before breaking into derisive laughter. It’s a trick as old as entitled masculinity: If you are up against a woman, run her down with innuendo and the cheap shot, and swagger in the illusion that you have won the debate. In Indian politics, unfortunately, this sexist playbook is used generously by all political parties, and comes with little or no consequences — the Congress initially brazened it out in Nath’s defence, and even Rahul Gandhi’s disapproval has not inspired the former Madhya Pradesh chief minister to budge from his non-apology. Sexist abuse is, of course, deployed more fearlessly against women from marginalised communities. The target of Nath’s coarse attack was Imarti Devi, a woman from a Dalit family of labourers, who spent two decades in the Congress before she switched sides to the BJP in March this year, helping bring Nath’s government crashing down.
The few Indian women who dare to enter public life are reminded almost daily that they have crossed over into a hostile, male world, where the rules are loaded against them. From Mamata Banerjee to J Jayalalithaa and Smriti Irani, women leaders are routinely subject to demeaning language, even when they are careful not to transgress patriarchal norms. For years now, BSP leader Mayawati has been at the receiving end of dehumanising abuse. The internet, too, has emerged as a vicious space for women politicians. Even so, a morphed video of a young tribal BJD leader that went viral in Odisha ahead of the Lok Sabha elections last year marked a new low. Chandrani Murmu was eventually elected from Keonjhar parliamentary constituency. Investigations into the slanderous video have led the MP to accuse a channel run by a BJP leader of harassment.
If Indian politics is a negotiation with entrenched power structures and multiple bigotries, both instances underline how and why women continue to be at a disadvantage; and how easy it is to turn on the tap of prejudice to discredit women in public life. But Imarti Devi’s and Chandrani Murmu’s dogged persistence in the face of men who snigger and slander from behind the shield of their feudal privileges is also a sign — women politicians may be few in number, but they are not backing away from a hard fight.
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