Elections in India are still dominated by the ‘boys club’ with the women politicians surviving mostly through patriarchal aids of self-representation. One look at the candidates’ list for the ongoing Assembly elections in Goa, Manipur, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand throws light on this deep abyss. Out of 2,979 candidates in all the five states, only 234 are women and only one candidate from the third gender. This makes for a bleak 8 per cent which does not come as a surprise when only 11 per cent of Indian Parliamentarians are women. While there is a greater presence of women in politics overseas, in India there is hardly an optimistic picture.
If how national media has been covering these elections is any measure, then anti-AFSPA activist Irom Sharmila, who is marking her debut in the ongoing Manipur elections, BJP leader Uma Bharti, Kannauj MP Dimple Yadav and Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi are hardly discussed as serious political participants. The only exception seems to be four-time UP chief minister and BSP chief Mayawati.
In the male political narratives, the women leaders are then choosing to represent themselves as shadow figures to fit into the acceptable patriarchal lens. During political rallies and their public appearances, they are often found to relate themselves with men. Dimple Yadav keeps reminding her allegiance to her husband and UP CM Akhilesh Yadav, Mayawati keeps invoking her mentor BSP ideologue Kanshi Ram and Priyanka Gandhi cites her family legacy. These women, in public domain, are acknowledged as mothers, daughters (in-law) and sisters, all of them roles that are acceptable in a patriarchal society.
The Dream Bahu
Dimple Yadav is the quintessential UP bahu, following in the footsteps of her husband – she is the MP of Akhilesh Yadav’s former constituency Kannauj – and is always seen in bright coloured sarees. A fair skin, loose hair, sometimes a pallu, a quarter-sleeved blouse, bindi and a welcoming smile are her markers. She is almost always referred to as Dimple bhabhi; Akhilesh Yadav being her strong identifier. Of course, even though the slogan for her ‘Vikas ki chaabhi, Dimple bhabhi’, there is more curiosity around how she looks, her dance performance at a family wedding, her height, weight, figure, love story details and contact details. In her public demeanour, Dimple, appears with much panache and grace, never shedding her bahu image. Her rally in her own constituency was with UP’s mother-in-law, Jaya Bachchan who is a Samajwadi Party MP in Rajya Sabha. Her sometimes sindoor-less appearance, though, breaks away from the trope of adarsh bahu, seemingly enforcing her posh and English-educated upbringing.
Even so, she continues to connect with the people as a fairly traditionally desirable woman who does as much as her husband and father-in-law say and is not a decision maker. She doesn’t project strength so much as compliance.The other Yadav bahu Aparna, Mulayam Singh’s younger son Prateek’s wife, too follows the code of conduct set by Dimple: a well worn saree, a bindi, an occasional pallu with hands folded in humility. She is often flanked by Dimple and her father-in-law but unsurprisingly, doesn’t catch enough limelight. Both the women are in stark contrast to their mother-in-law, Sadhana Gupta Yadav, who has never stepped into the arena. But the Yadav bahus are also in complete opposition, in every way, to Mayawati.
In her concession speech, US Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton chose to make her first post-election appearance sans make-up. A series of trolls followed her but her message was very clear: this was her, she was disappointed, and she no longer cares to please. In spite of defeat, it denoted strength at par with a winner. In the days after as well, she continued to meet people in her make-up-less strong self.
The projection of being a strong woman is similarly important for Mayawati, being surrounded by only men and being the only woman, a Dalit, in a leading position. Mayawati is a stark contrast to any female leader in the country. In a hierarchy of the oppressed, a Dalit woman would appear right at the end, laden with caste, class, gendered oppressions. Mayawati trumped them all.
Mayawati chooses to dress in monochromes with only a single nose-pin indicating femininity. One could argue that she needs to project herself as ‘one of them’ in order to maintain a stronghold in her own party. Her asexual image, however, serves the purpose of symbolising her unending service to her cause, a seriousness with which she treats it. Make up is associated, unfortunately, with a need to impress the opposite sex or assertion of sexuality. By negating it, Mayawati makes clear her intention is to not enter the space of conjugality or bring attention to her sexuality. Mayawati is one of the few women leaders whose name doesn’t elicit a search suggestion of ‘images’ from Google.
Her strength is also reflected in the occasional pink that she dons, sometimes adorned by diamonds. She has never made an attempt to hide her wealth and her enjoyment of that wealth, thus coming under fire for being a corrupt politician: which is like every other male or female politician, except Mayawati is a Dalit woman.
The term behenji adds to her image of being asexual and a person dedicated to service. An independent woman who has risen through ranks could possibly be threatening. The behenji tag, adds a certain softness and acceptability is added to her strength – she is the benevolent, older sister working towards protecting her brethren. Behenji elicits respect: a common person talking about her may not vote for her, but somehow understands behenji ne kaam toh kiya hai.
In Other News
Early on, as parties made announcements for the elections, Sheila Dikshit emerged as a prominent name. She was promised the chief ministerial position for Uttar Pradesh, should Congress win the elections. Flanked by Raj Babbar, the woman who ruled Delhi for 15 years, was for a moment at the helm of affairs. As an experienced politician, Dikshit was a smart card to woo voters initially and predictably, was overtaken by the Gandhi family scion Rahul as soon as the merger between Samajwadi Party and Congress was announced. Even though Dikshit isn’t as young as Yadav women, her projection of herself too was that of a bahu. In spite of the Dikshit tag, an upper caste surname prevalent in UP, she was cast as an outsider to UP. She countered that tag by calling herself the bahu of Uttar Pradesh. That trope didn’t last long for her as she faded away from the limelight.
It is difficult to spot more than three women in the 234 candidates. Barring a couple more, there is zero word on the 229 candidates who are not men. In the larger scheme of things, 229 is a small number to represent all the women from the five states. When they do, they can’t stand as women, but come piggybacking on names that associate them respectably with men. An iron fist comes down hard on the people but for a woman leader, she isn’t perfect until she spreads her aanchal and takes the woes of all in: like a mother would, like a sister would, like a daughter-in-law would.