The outrage OVER former BJP leader Dayashankar Singh’s sexist slur against Mayawati is significant because it brought together three powerful women leaders, who otherwise plough a lonely furrow as potential rivals. Jayalalithaa and Mamata Banerjee closed ranks with the BSP chief to defend her honour, not just as a Dalit icon but as a woman functioning in a competitive male-dominated environment. It was interesting to see how the narratives varied. The men thundered on about caste but the women bonded on another level as well to shape the beginnings of a sisterhood that will hopefully recast the gender dynamics in politics.
Mayawati herself took the issue beyond caste to gender. “What that BJP leader has said, he said it not to me but to his sister and daughter,’’ she declared and went on to say a special thank you to “women politicians across party lines’’ for their support.
The men must have felt a tad left out at this display of female camaraderie. What is noteworthy is that Mayawati deliberately made a calculated outreach to women politicians although her male colleagues had defended her equally vociferously. The woman-to-woman empathy that the incident has generated is hardly surprising. Most women politicians have faced physical and/or verbal abuse at some point in their career. Jayalalithaa, Mamata and Mayawati are no exception, which is why it was easy for them to make common cause.
Mayawati was almost physically attacked and killed by a mob supporting the Samajwadi Party (SP) when she pulled support from the Mulayam Singh Yadav government in UP in 1995. She had to hide inside a state guest house while goons bayed for her blood. She has not forgotten that trauma; nor will she ever forgive the SP for turning her vulnerability as a woman against her to humiliate and frighten her.
Jayalalithaa’s statement in defence of Mayawati was not just strongly worded, it was unusually emotional and personal. The Tamil Nadu chief minister has built a formidable reputation as a leader who is aloof and reserved. But Singh’s abuse obviously touched a chord. Jayalalithaa does not like to talk about the past but she did mention in the statement that she too has been “at the receiving end’’ of similar attacks as Mayawati. One particularly condemnable incident occurred in the Tamil Nadu assembly some years ago when she was physically assaulted and her clothes nearly torn. “My heart goes out to sister Mayawati ,” she said.
Unlike Jayalalithaa, Mamata Banerjee has been silent so far. But her man friday in Parliament, Derek O’Brien, was at the forefront of the opposition charge against the BJP and Singh in Parliament. In fact, O’Brien received the first flash on What’sApp, a video recording of the derogatory comments. He alerted Mayawati and then rallied other opposition leaders to corner the BJP. The command and control structure in the Trinamool Congress is such that O’Brien could not have done all this without Mamata’s total backing, probably under her direction as well.
Mamata too has been a victim of filthy abuse from her CPM opponents in West Bengal. Even as recently as 2011, during the assembly election campaign, prominent CPM leader Anil Basu was caught on camera hurling abuses similar to what Singh fired at Mayawati.
Most male politicians come from deeply conservative backgrounds where misogyny is a common failing and anti-women comments are quite normal. It didn’t matter earlier for two reasons. One, their profanities remained under the radar. Today, they go viral over social media, and become instant controversies. The other reason is that women are no longer ready to remain silent. The outcry in defence of Mayawati was both an assertion of caste and gender equality. Four states currently have women chief ministers and if Mayawati wins the 2017 UP assembly polls, the number will go up to five.
The coming together of Mayawati, Jayalalithaa and Mamata on a common platform may or may not be significant for the politics leading up to the 2019 general election. But it is very definitely a sign of things to come as women develop a new sense of self. Even Sharad Yadav, who has acquired a reputation for making disrespectful remarks against women, bowed to peer pressure and launched a strong defence of Mayawati.
Contrast this to what happened in 1997 when Mayawati was knocking at every door, including that of the National Commission for Women, to seek action against Mulayam Singh Yadav. No one spoke up for her then, unlike today. You’ve come a long way, baby!