August 08, 2020
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Elections In India: From Ridicule To Sexual Innuendos, Why It's A Nightmare For Women Candidates

Indian politics remain a male dominated domain. So much so that women candidates aspiring to be an MP or MLA have to endure sexist comments and even fend off perverted men during their campaign trail

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Elections In India: From Ridicule To Sexual Innuendos, Why It's A Nightmare For Women Candidates
Star Power
Locket Chatterjee, a well-known actress of Bengal and BJP’s Hooghly candidate, during campaigning
Photograph by Sandipan Chatterjee
Elections In India: From Ridicule To Sexual Innuendos, Why It's A Nightmare For Women Candidates

“We want Ali and we want Bajrangbali. But we don’t want Anarkali.”

— Abdullah Azam Khan

These unsubtle words were said about Jaya Prada, BJP candidate from Rampur, one of the women contesting to get into India’s Parliament. And they were spoken by the son of someone who has even less subtle words to his credit, Samajwadi Party candidate Azam Khan. One fact that strikes you straight off: ‘secular’ politics is by no means a guarantor of a non-sexist worldview—a gender-neutral, if not actually pro-women one. The way those words mined the ‘naachnewaali’ stereotype flows obviously from Jaya Prada’s erstwhile career as a film actress. But you would be mistaken to think male-supremacist attitudes kick in only when women candidates come with a ‘glamour quotient’, an easy way to tarnish them as non-serious politicians. Take the articulate Ranjeet Ranjan, as serious a politician as you want, with fine speeches to her credit in Lok Sabha debates. Now, she may have made a powerful statement by riding a Harley Davidson to Parliament but admits she wouldn’t dream of doing so while campaigning in her socially conservative constituency, Supaul in Bihar.

The conclusion is inescapable: it’s all-pervasive. Just like in every other sector in public life, a kind of force works against women in politics that males won’t ever face. This entrenched misogyny is persistent and present all the time, and it ranges from benign neglect to outright malevolence. The fact that India has had, and still has, powerful women in leadership positions hardly negates that truth. For, each one of them has faced it—from Indira Gandhi, to Jayalalithaa, to Mayawati now. And the worst humiliations come when women enter that rough and tumble of election campaigns. What apparently powerful women go through in public is no different from what anonymous women face on a daily basis. Nagma Morarji had a nightmare of an outing in Meerut in 2014 (see Jump Cut), Rabri Devi was told that she should have “stayed in a ghoonghat”, Chandrani Murmu of the BJD has just faced the ignominy of a morphed video.

Shweta Shalini, BJP spokesperson and advisor to Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, tells Outlook that it is not easy for a woman in any field but it’s even tougher in politics as it is still a hardcore man’s domain. A woman leader is always judged through the prism of her gender, and that is seen as her core competence. “Why should Priyanka Gandhi’s sarees and resemblance to her grandmother make the only news? A woman politician has to be recognised as a leader first and then as a woman. Her work, and not her looks or clothes, should be talked about,” says Shalini. “In India all positive attributes are personified as goddesses...Lakshmi (prosperity), Saras­wati (knowledge) and Durga (strength). We need more representation for women.”

Women candidates have to dig in deep, bring an extra layer of fortitude to their electioneering. “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry,” Jaya Prada says about Abdullah’s comments. “His father called me Amrapali, he says Anarkali.” But despite the extreme humiliation of having words like “underwear” spoken from loudspeakers, she has vowed not to quit Rampur. The outspoken Ranjan, fighting a tough electoral battle to hold on to her seat on a Congress ticket as a Grand Alliance candidate, says: “I cannot ride a bike in my constituency. Being a woman, I have to be very careful about my image.” Some disgruntled RJD leaders are threatening to sabotage her campaign, but she is unfazed. “They think they can scare me because I am a woman but they don’t know me...I am not going to be cowed down,” she says.

Khushbu Sundar is another one not easily daunted. She recently slapped a man who groped her in a crowded election rally. “He probably expected me not to react. But I am someone who rea­cts instantly. Even when I was in the DMK, a similar thing had happened. Even then I turned around and slapped the offender,” says the plucky act­ress-turned-politician about the incident at Bangalore.

If sexual targeting is the extreme end, swimming against the tide of gender-scepticism is the norm. Ranjan says she has had to prove herself “doubly more” than a man to reach a position where she is res­pected. “Party workers try to dominate you when you are a novice. They try to plan your schedule as per their convenience. I have had party workers barging into my bedroom in earlier days,” says Ranjan.  

The promise of 33 per cent reservation of seats in assemblies and Parliament, when it actually fructifies, will bring on an avalanche of gender vio­lence, abstract or overt. The new woman aspirant will have to ring-fence herself in this age of social media trolls—only women with gall can safely navigate the choppy waters of Indian politics. Priyanka Chaturvedi, a doughty spokesperson of Congress till recently, quit the party after some UP leaders, who had misbehaved with her in Mathura earlier this month, were rei­nstated in time for elections (see column). “I was not willing to compromise my dignity,” she tells Outlook.

Photograph by Tribhuvan Tiwari

“There are problems like taking a loo break while being out on the road... But then, it is a problem not peculiar to women politicians but to all women,” says Atishi, AAP candidate for East Delhi.

Women candidates remain vulnerable to the patriarchal overreach of the political bosses, while also facing challenges on the campaign trail that their male counterparts wouldn’t. They are susceptible to being groped in crowded public places and bear the brunt of sexist and misogynistic remarks. Says Chaturvedi: “Azam Khan made highly derogatory remarks. The worst is that the others present there cheered. A woman can be att­acked because of her gender, her character assassinated and her credentials questioned so as to red­uce her value in eyes of the electorate.”

Parties being headed by women, say a Mamata Banerjee, a Jayalalithaa, a Mayawati or even Sonia Gandhi, does not abolish this skew— that’s no insurance against seeing women as “weaker” candidates, or against malevolent male behaviour, or the local sat­rap’s capacity to play boss. One reason is that, at the ground level, even the woman leader relies heavily on male lieutenants to run their parties. This gives men enormous clout in the choice of candidates, tailoring their campaign, deciding their future. 

Also, when most parties choose ‘winnability’ over fair representation, women lose out in the bargain—though statistics belie the diffidence parties have. For example, when Jayalalithaa won the first time in 1991, she was accompanied by 24 women MLAs, the highest in Tamil Nadu’s history. These numbers dwindled after her 1996 rout as she looked for more ‘winning’ candidates. Odhisa chief minister and BJD leader Naveen Patnaik has sought to set an example by giving 33 per cent of seats to women for the LS elections, but he chose not to extend that privilege in the assembly elections he is fighting simultaneously.

Dirty Picture

A Congress MLA kisses Nagma during the 2014 Lok Sabha polls in UP

It’s a struggle getting a ticket—having crossed the barrier of being judged for winnability at various levels and manoeuvring the lobbies. “A woman is likely to be offered a ticket from a weak seat where the party’s cadre is not strong. She will accept it in the spirit of challenge just to prove herself,” adds Nagma, recalling her experience of fighting from Meerut in 2014. After getting the ticket, the campaign trail looms. Like Khushbu, Nag­ma too had to slap a person at a rally for misbehaving with her.

A close-up look at a woman candidate’s campaign brings forth all the paradoxes. “The post of MLA or MP comes with a certain protective layer but the journey towards that is dotted with practical pitfalls,” says S. Jothi­mani, the Congress candidate from Karur in Tamil Nadu. “One has to acc­ept that we are operating in a male- dominated sphere where a woman will not be easily acc­epted as a leader. You have to send the message that you exp­ect the same respect as a man.”

Unlike many woman leaders who either parachuted into politics due to their family connections (read Kanimozhi, Supriya Sule, Misa Bharti, Dimple Yadav and Anitha Kumaraswamy) or celebrity status (Jaya Prada, Hema Malini, Smriti Irani and now Urmila Matondkar), Jothimani’s has been a long arduous climb from the grassroots. She entered politics as a 22-year-old, elected as a member of the K. Paramathi panchayat union in Karur district. She hopes to be third time lucky after having lost an ass­embly election (2011) and LS election (2014) on Congress tickets.

Tall, dark and thin, Jothimani (44) looks every bit the rustic Tamil girl with a disarming smile and easy manner. The villagers view her more as a ‘girl next door’, there’s none of the awe res­erved for a celebrity. As she traversed the whole day through the Paramathi union, there was no mistaking the warmth and homeliness with which Jothimani was rec­eived. “Her simplicity is what we like. We can call her any time of the day during a crisis. In contrast, the present MP (Lok Sabha deputy speaker Thambidurai) is so arrogant and unapproachable,” says Rajalakshmi of Palampuram village. But her emotional connect apart, there’s no mistaking that even Jothimani’s campaign is an all-male aff­air. The campaign route and stops had been determined by local DMK functionary Karunanidhi while two local DMK strongmen accompanied her.

That’s not always the case. In the narrow bylanes of Kondli, a Dalit-dominated segment of East Delhi constituency Sarika deftly negotiates the curves as she drives AAP candidate Atishi in an SUV. The soft-spoken Atishi, 37, says Sarika is not just her ‘saarathi’, she is also her aide, assistant and constant companion on the campaign trail. As Atishi gets off the car at a residential settlement, Sarika ensures only trusted party workers are around her, to make a protective ring.

Talking to Outlook, Atishi says she has not faced any major problems being a woman, maybe because “AAP is different from other political parties”. She does talk about jostling in crowded political rallies for which one needs a cover of some people. “There are practical problems like taking a loo break while being out on the road where public toilets may not be easily available. But then it is a problem not peculiar to women politicians but to all women,” she says.

Indeed, these are facts that should impel parties to give more tickets to women, says Atishi. “Women understand the concerns of women better. It’s the lived experience, there’s no substitute for it. Like a Dalit can und­erstand the problems faced by the community better. A woman can ens­ure basic concerns like safety, education and health. A man cannot address them adequately,” she adds, as Sarika steers her to her next campain meeting in the national capital.

The personal and physical odds can be taxing, though. Take Priya Dutt, former Congress MP from Mumbai North Central. She might have inherited her father Sunil Dutt’s political legacy but it had to be secured with sweat, blood—and mother’s milk. “When I fought my first election in 2005, I was pregnant. I got admitted to the hospital after filing my nomination and in two days I delivered my baby through C-section. Almost imme­diately, I had to come out and campaign because we had just that 15-day window for campaigning. So I had to go on a jeep and wave and do everything that happens in a campaign,” recalls Dutt.

But being a woman and a mother also had its benefits, as Dutt learnt. The women in her constituency und­erstood her delicate condition (she had to go home every two hours to feed the newborn). First, they were shocked that she had ventured out risking her health. “But I knew it doesn’t work like that and it won’t be possible. It was a very difficult time and I guess I went through it understanding what women go through, esp­ecially working women...Maybe, I had to go through that to realise their troubles,” she recollects.

For Jothimani, even during her first term as panchayat union member, it was a toss-up between politics and family and she chose the former. “People would show up at my door at six in the morning with local civic problems and often I would return home late after panchayat and party work. I chose Kamaraj’s path—stay single to concentrate fully on people.”

Khushbu recently slapped a man who groped her in a crowded election rally. “He probably expected me not to react. But I am someone who rea­cts instantly,” says the act­ress-turned-politician.

Khushbu, who entered politics after her film career, when her two young daughters were still in school, though draws strength from family. “But for the encouragement and help of my mother-in-law and mother, I couldn’t have done it. Today my daughters are teenagers who can take care of themselves, but ten years ago the family back-up was crucial.”

Often, a woman’s political ambition needs to be filtered through familial consent—even if the aspirant happens to be a celebrity. Pinky Pradhan, Odia actress and TV show host, has been there and done it all, most recently during the Bijepur byelection last year. But this is the first time she’s campaigning for herself—as the BJP candidate in Digapahandi, an assembly segment in the Aska Lok Sabha constituency. Given the conservative cultural norms of her constituency, where every woman covers her head with a ghoonghat, how did her in-laws receive the news of her nomination? “Fortunately, my in-laws have a modern and liberal worldview. They were all so happy about it. For the first time, I got the distinct sense that I have done them proud,” she says.

One can be ambivalent about the whole idea of celebrity candidates—esp­ecially when glamour is part of the persona—but they do start with a distinct advantage. So when Nushrat Jahan, Tollywood star and Trinamool Congress candidate from Bashirat, sings “Tomay hrid majhare rakhibo chere debo na…” (I’ll stay in your hearts and never let you go), the thousand-strong crowd in the nondescript Malatipur village in North 24 Parganas, goes berserk. Dressed in a cream Tangail cotton sari with a narrow red border and a matching backless red blouse, Nushrat, every inch the glamorous film star, paces the dais just like her party boss—Mamata Banerjee. The whistles, cheers and app­lause only get louder and wilder at every stop. Mamata’s gamble of fielding five film stars—three women and two men—evidently has a practical edge to it.

Jahan admits her star value is what’s getting the crowds. “That’s exactly what is happening. But now they are coming to see me with an intent that I would prove to be a leader and a better representative for them,” she says. Often history has proved otherwise—film stars do not always make excellent MPs or MLAs. The performance records of Bollywood stars like Hema Malini and Jaya Prada are patchy at the most.

But along with fans on the roads, there also come the trolls. Nushrat saw “bikini” pictures of her floating around online after her candidature was ann­ounced. She retorts: “The bik­ini photos were not mine. Come on, I don’t have a bikini body to show in the first place. Obviously they are morphed,” she tells Outlook.

Celebrityhood isn’t an automatic passport either. Bobbeeta Sharma, 52, the Congress candidate from Gauhati constituency in Assam, has been a popular face on television. She has dir­ected and produced several TV ser­ies, besides being a winner of beauty contest. But it took her years of political work. “Yes, it’s a challenge to get a nomination. Even after many years, one has to be lucky. It takes time because it’s basically a male-dominated field,” she says. “But I think after that phase, it’s not that difficult because of the gender. For people, it actually doesn’t matter if the candidate is a woman or a man.

In fact, on occasions, it’s an advantage being a woman on the field. Say, it’s easier for a woman to enter a house where the family would emb­race you. This may be more difficult for a man.”

On rare occasions, the lateral entry of women into the election arena comes from other sectors. Tamil Nadu’s VCK, a Dalit party, picked Dr Vasanthi Devi, a former university vice-chancellor, to take on Jayalalitha at R.K. Nagar in the 2016 assembly election when it fought alone. But that proved to be a solitary shot: Vasanthi Devi fell off the political graph and VCK too got enmeshed in the usual alliance politics.

Though dismissed as a fringe party, Tamil film director-turned-politician Seeman’s Naam Tamilar Iyakkam has gone beyond lip service and fielded 20 women out of 40 seats it is contesting. Seeman has picked activists who spearheaded protests; his North Chennai candidate Kaaliammal, a fisherwoman from Nagapattinam, was at the forefront of the farmer’s agitation against the extr­action of hydrocarbons in Neduvasal. Articulate and argumentative, she is making waves during her street-level campaigns promising sustainable growth, protecting the environment to ensure safe drinking water and getting rid of the huge garbage mountain that even Jayalalitha could not budge.

“Mere expansion of the port by disregarding its ecological impact will not guarantee livelihood. Only protecting our environment vigorously would. And when a woman talks about this with facts, figures and logic, people listen more attentively,” says Kaaliammal. Her approach dovetails with a panchayati raj study that found that elected women representatives are more likely to concentrate on health, education, woman and child welfare and environmental issues that directly affect the livelihood of the population. She admits she may not win this time but assures that she is here for the long haul and would keep trying. As more women walk into the elected houses, the sheer weight of their numbers and their performance would lead to attitudinal changes.

Jothimani says male attitudes are alr­eady changing. “In Assam, when I would ask the men to get off the jeep and give me privacy, so I could change by sanitary pad, they would look perplexed as if I am seeking a privilege. But these days they are more sensitive.”

Social scientist Shiv Visvanathan beli­eves Parliament is waiting for more women, because they can bring about a different kind of justice to the system. “There are different kinds of women in public life. Women like Priyanka Chaturvedi to Priyanka Gandhi to Jaya Prada, theirs is a creative presence. Priyanka Gandhi, for exa­mple, can give back as good as she gets to Narendra Modi. Then there are women who are surrogates to their husbands. They are mimics and there are quite a few of them,” he says.

Visvanathan roots for more Dalit women in Parliament who can articulate a new kind of justice. He says if a woman like Ela Bhatt, a Gandhian, was in Parliament, India would have had a peace movement by now. “Women like Aruna Roy and Medha Patkar would have contributed brilliantly to Parliament. They should be brought to the LS or RS. In their fight, these women will create a better world. Women like Sadhvi Pragya are an emb­arrassment to politics,” he adds.


Representation of women in lower house

  • Rwanda 61.3 % Highest in  the world
  • India 12.6 %

Women Candidates For Lok Sabha Elections

  • Trinamool 41 %
  • Biju Janata Dal 33 %

NTI, a Tamil Nadu party, has fielded 20 out of 40 seats it is contesting

Women Candidates by Big Two (First 3 phases)

  • BJP 12.1 %
  • Cong 12.0 %

(Graphic data by Gilles Vernierns, Ashoka University)

By Bhavna Vij-Aurora and G.C. Shekhar with inputs from Prachi Pinglay-Plumber, Probir Pramanik, Sandeep Sahu and Abdul Gani

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