Everyone knows how Noor Jahan, the twentieth wife of Mughal emperor Jahangir, used her sexual powers to virtually become one of India’s most powerful women. But post feminism, have women developed more scruples and disdain to use their charms to get ahead? Breaking the silence on a subject that’s now considered politically most incorrect, women politicians confess not much has changed in politics since Mughal times. “Everyone has to give something to get into power. Men give money and women usually give their bodies,” says Ramnika Gupta matter-of-factly. In her seventies, Ramnika is a member of the CPI(M), a tribal rights champion, former trade union leader and politician who—to use her own phrase—has “passed through the hands” of several men in her quest for political power.
That cuddle won her another reward: Sahay invited her to join the Bihar Pradesh Congress Committee, one of the most powerful posts at that time, which any man seeking political power would vie for. Which is probably why she agreed to visit the state Congress chief, Raju Mishra, in his home to put forward Sahay’s recommendation. This time, she says, she had to pay a higher price. She let him have his way and did not complain. “The only choice for a woman starting in politics is to either quit or accept the fact that she has to sleep with some of them at least,” she says. “You have to compromise until you are in a position to reject them.” What she could do, however, was to try and avoid being anywhere alone with the BPCC chief. For her compliance, he nominated her as Bihar’s representative at the Jaipur AICC meet in 1966.
Fed up with what she calls the “creeper culture”—women using sex to get a toehold in politics, or for easing the way for their husbands, fathers and brothers—Ramnika quit the Congress and joined the Socialist Party. “Thanks to Ram Manohar Lohia, the culture in the Socialist Party was very different,” reminisces Ramnika. “You were free to choose who you slept with. Nobody could force a woman to sleep with him if she didn’t want to.” But even so, she says, men you rejected sexually could make your political life a hell. Ramnika did not quite reject Shri Babu, a minister in the Socialist government in Bihar, but she dared to break off with him, leading to a bitter political conflict. She then sought asylum in the arms of the Congress chief minister Kedar Pande, even rejoining the Congress at his urging. “He wasn’t very charismatic, but at least I got protection from sexual assault, and he made me an MLC and later an INTUC leader.”
Former president of the Samata Party, Jaya Jaitly, agrees: “You have to earn your spurs in politics. You are undermining your own potential by relying on your good looks to get you places.” Things have changed quite a bit since the ’60s and ’70s, when Ramnika was trying to negotiate her own space in the political arena, but not that much. “It’s not quite the casting couch system of Bollywood, but yes, most women do need to use their sexual power, however mildly—batting their eyelids, flattery, beautification—to survive in politics. To get into the race, you need money. And women don’t have money.”
As sociologist Shoma Munshi puts it: “Men use money and success as power; women in turn use sex to gain power. How else would she negotiate in the very system which restricts her?” According to Shoma, sex and sexuality can be parlayed into power, but it’s a fleeting advantage and offers diminishing returns in comparison to other advantages.
Similarly, dancer Pratibha Prahlad says her relationship with the late Ramakrishna Hegde was often misinterpreted. “Far from opening doors for me, my relationship with him shut many doors. What I am as a dancer is because of my own abilities and hard work and nothing to do with him.”
“A woman is rarely condemned for using any of her other assets,whether it’s family background, fancy education or wealth, to her advantage,” points out Shoma. “Yet she is widely condemned if she uses sex. Can a woman not play hard, and play to win, by any rules necessary, like men do?” For Ramnika, the answer is clear: “Either do it without guilt or don’t.”
In your piece on women using their feminine wiles to climb the political ladder (Madam Pompadour’s Chessboard), no mention has been made of the greatest of them all—Mayawati, three times the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. It was common enough knowledge how she used the Kanshi Ram connection to become one of the most powerful politicians of India. Madhu Saxena, on e-mail
By projecting that there is an N.D. Tiwari in every party, the Outlook story proved an able defence of the man himself and the Congress. Dr Geeta Gupta, Delhi
This edition of Outlook was a great example of paid-for news content! C.M. Vishnunarayanan, Stanford
Please don’t grudge our politicians the little colour the poor things add to their lives after a hard day’s work at alleviating the suffering of the poor. The Indian politician, don’t we all know, is committed to inclusive growth! Dinesh Kumar, Chandigarh
Outlook didn’t have to publish unsavoury pictures to make its point, the story itself was damning enough. Shubhang Pandya, Ahmedabad
Apropos of ‘Madam Pompadour’s Chessboard’ (Jan 18). I appreciate the boldness of Ramnika Gupta, who has named politicians with whom she had to sleep to move up. Also, hats off to N.D. Tiwari for his prowess at 86! Gopal Ashrit, Bangalore
I wonder if women would have openly spoken of using sex in the early fifties or even as late as the eighties. Now, they brag about such things. But I don’t deny the fact that every woman has a right to lead life the way she wants. Kshama Shashidhar, Udupi
Outlook has heaped garbage on N.D. Tiwari. We should be proud we have leaders like him who are young at heart and with reproductive systems kicking even though their knees dodder. I think Tiwari’s only fault is that he got caught. P.C. Chadha, New Delhi
Time magazine is instantly identifiable by the red border on its cover. After reading the sleazy features on sex and politics, particularly the one by Sheela Reddy (Madame Pompadour’s Chessboard), I feel Outlook can carry a yellow border around it.
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