Saturday, Jun 03, 2023

Parent Company

Parent Company

A family-man image doesn’t fetch votes. So the politician parent is as good or bad as any.

Harpreet Kaur and Anusha Jogi were like most modern young women in India: they had decided views on who they should marry. Their parents had equally strong opinions on the matter, as parents generally do. But when those parents happen to be less parent and more politician, the only way out for these young women seems to have been premature death.

The two deaths within a fortnight of each other of the daughters of two rising politicians from different ends of the country, SGPC chief Bibi Jagir Kaur and Congress spokesman Ajit Jogi, have done little to change the growing impression that politicians make notoriously bad parents.

There has been a string of short-lived scandals in the last few years of negligent politicians, including chief ministers, legislators, and MPs who let their children and grandchildren get so out of hand that they could commit murder, rape, molestation and abduction with impunity.

"Unlike in the West, no politician in India notches up extra credits for being good fathers or mothers, so they tend to dump their parental responsibilities on either spouses or other relatives and get on with advancing their own political careers which is a 24-hour job," points out psephologist G.V.L. Narasimha Rao.

"I’m something of a grass widow," says Satvasheela, who married Congress leader Prithviraj Chavan when he was still an engineer running a small computers firm. "The man is there-sometimes-but he doesn’t exist in the home, his mind is always elsewhere." Satvasheela is concerned enough about their two children’s upbringing to insist that Prithviraj at least sign the report cards of the children, but as BJP MP Sushma Swaraj points out: "How many of the members of the Lok Sabha even know which class their children are studying in?"

Swaraj herself takes care to schedule her out-of-town tours and meetings according to her 16-year-old daughter’s examination datesheet, ruling out all trips until her daughter’s examinations are over. Balancing a political career and parenting is especially hard on a woman, she says, but she manages by hurrying home from every political meeting without lingering over the post-meeting gup-shup, making sure that she wakes up in time to send her daughter off to school with a good breakfast and by conscientiously keeping one evening a week exclusively for her daughter.

But politicians who are exemplary parents like Swaraj are usually from the middle class and reflect its values, according to Rao. "Most MPs come from a very different background and their families are a reflection of the society they spring from. I am sure in the light of their own upbringing and even their constituencies, these politicians would be regarded as very good family men who look after their wives and children. After all, do you know of any politician who has jettisoned a son or daughter or even a nephew because of being an embarrassment to them?" On the contrary, there’s a former Bihar legislator, Hemlata Yadav, who has carried maternal loyalty to the extent of sharing a prison sentence with her son.

"They are like fathers in any other profession-they groom their sons for the family dhanda and prepare their daughters for matrimonial alliances which will enhance their social status. The only difference: the nature of their job which inevitably exposes the children to clout, money power and criminality. These are considered perks of the job-the sons are more brazen than the fathers, and that’s because they aren’t answerable to a constituency," says Rao.

A bigger difference perhaps is the fact that most politicians’ families undergo a sensational transformation of lifestyle when their fathers come to power. "To see so much money and power enter their lives suddenly goes to their heads, especially for the sons, since the fathers are too busy politicking to enjoy their new wealth and clout," explains Rao.

With the daughters, access to better education and more exposure result in a new rebelliousness that politician-parents are too ill-equipped to deal with. "It’s a thin line we have to tread all the time between the money and power we need to wield to win elections and keeping this away from the home in order not to spoil the children," admits Chavan, whose own upbringing as the only son of two prominent Congress politicians has taught him how to keep the two apart.

Another parent who would agree with Chavan that political work and clout must not intrude into family life is the former mentor who nearly wiped out Chavan’s impressive political career-Sharad Pawar. "From the earliest years, my wife and I encouraged our daughter to build a career of her own," says Pawar whose only child married an IT professional of her parents’ choice. But in all other ways, Pawar’s daughter insists on leading a life of her own in Singapore where she runs a travel company.

Another star politician’s only daughter, Pratibha Advani, has been similarly encouraged to make her own way in the world. "I never felt that I’m a politician’s daughter and so should behave in a certain way," says Pratibha, who now lives with her parents following a failed marriage and works as a reporter on arts and culture for ani.

LIKE in most politicians’ homes, it is L.K. Advani’s wife, his "super home minister", who frees him from all domestic duties. But their daughter vouches that the little time Advani spends with them is time well-spent. "As a father," Pratibha says, "he’s absolutely great. I look at him and say, ‘Oh my god, how can a person be like this.’ I am an Internet freak, so every evening when he comes home, I have a joke ready for him, that’s our way of chilling out. Sometimes he likes a joke so much, he makes me repeat it in front of others. I can say anything I want to him, don’t hold anything back at all. He only looks strict, but he is not. He is there whenever I need him. He comes home for lunch, and we all watch TV together. The other day I had an eye problem and he came with me for my appointment, to the doctor’s amazement," she adds. "Once in a while he takes two-three days off and we all go off for a family holiday."

Pressed for time, shuttling between meetings, tours, constituencies and states, politician parents often resort to that beguiling chant: quality time. It’s quality time that, says Margaret Alva, helped her through the pressures of a political career while raising four children. "I spend all my Sundays at home with the family. We go to church together and have lunch together." Missed their mother? Yes, say the children, "but so what, we got space to grow".

"I was completely smug in imagining that just because I woke up at seven every morning to drive the children to school, I was giving them quality time," confesses Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar. "Then one day I heard about the time when my eldest daughter locked herself up in her bedroom and wept for three days because her mother wouldn’t let her keep a cat, and I was stunned. I never knew about it and when I asked her, she turned around and said: ‘How would you know? You were never there.’"

Aiyar enjoys a close and warm comradeship with each of his three daughters and disputes over books and political views liven up their home, but it hasn’t prevented any of them from saying to him at different times: "You were never there for me."

While socialising is an essential part of a politician’s life, Aiyar says wives and children rarely accompany them. "As a special privilege I’m sometimes allowed to step across the threshold and thank the hostess of the evening, but otherwise politicians’ wives rarely even step into their drawing room when he is entertaining. It’s the same when we campaign: my wife and Ranga Kumaramangalam’s wife are the only spouses who accompany their husbands on campaigns in Tamil Nadu. It’s considered somewhat immodest to flaunt your wife or children in polls."

Most politicians, Rao agrees, have a poor image of their own clan and discourage their wives and children, especially daughters, from associating with other politicians and their families. "They would prefer their daughters to marry into elite families to which they have earned access. Like Laloo Yadav’s tech-savvy son-in-law. As for their wives, even while most husbands keep them in purdah, they would have no hesitation in using them as proxies whenever necessary. For in their profession, politicians tend to distrust everyone, even their own brothers, and believe that only their wives would be capable of complete loyalty," explains Rao.

However, the new breed of "image-builders" are trying to persuade candidates to bring their wives and children out of purdah to promote their image as family men. But this trend of aping senatorial campaigns has few takers. Seasoned politicians are sceptical of projecting their devotion to the family and prefer instead to project their devotion to their constituency. As Pawar told one image-builder eager to cash in on his family life: "This year I complete my 33rd year of winning polls without a single defeat. Why should I change my image now?"

"This may work in the West," Swaraj explains, "where families are falling apart, but in India where the family is very much the norm how does it help if you are a family man to win polls? So you have a good family life. As the Americans say, Big Deal!"

A sentiment the electorate seems to share, as they remain patently reluctant to judge the parents by their fruit.