In our generation, the late Aruna Asaf Ali once told me, even emancipated women were secretly conformist. They took a certain righteous pleasure in saying they were in the political movement for freedom to support their father, brother or husband. Such indifference to the power differential between males and females within their families meant, she said, that women continued to accept male-defined hierarchies in mainstream politics after Independence. One now realises they were not the only ones.
Up until the new millennium, globally, democratic politics saw men inheriting the top post either through a politically-powerful family or the party. In 2020, a collective dream of women of several generations —leading with their own agenda from the front — has begun to take shape. It is most clearly visible in the rise of a leader like Jacinda Kate Laurell Ardern, voted in for a second term as the Prime Minister of New Zealand, with a landslide 64-seat victory for her Labour Party.
Mentoring matters a great deal in politics. The earlier it begins, the better. Today’s young women need not wait in the wings for their turn. Ardern began early. As president of the International Union of Socialist Youth, she gathered political wisdom, travelling extensively, meeting other youth leaders from the US, Jordan, Israel, China and Algeria. She was mentored by two strong women. In 2008, she was introduced to her country’s mainstream politics by her aunt, Marie Ardern, a long-time member of the Labour Party. She began as a researcher for PM Helen Clark. Ardern describes Clark as her “political hero”. And she describes herself as a social democrat, progressive, republican and feminist.
Women in Indian politics have mostly adhered to unwritten rules. Even the fiery ones, like Indira Gandhi, with her covered head and long-sleeved blouses, and Sushma Swaraj, with her vermilion-streaked hair tied in a bun. In this way, both were able to defend themselves against the twin bogeymen of promiscuity and/or utter domesticity unleashed against female politicians during elections.
Ardern’s career has created a more robust template for the New Political Woman in the 21st century. She has unflinchingly faced challenges that male politicians seldom do but all young women encounter: How will marital partnership and parenthood mesh with political work? Ardern chose partnership outside of traditional matrimony for herself and is today, after Benazir Bhutto, the second head of state to have had a baby in office. In her political decision-making, she has espoused causes that acknowledge her own trajectories. The empathy she thus gained has helped her take all women along, with all pro-women, pro-democracy and progressive men around her. Her landslide victory is proof that in 2020, there are many in her tiny nation who, like her (or even us Indians), have inherited complex, mixed racial histories and multiple family narratives, and seek a healthy synthesis between disparate things.
It is important for us to see Ardern as a representative of a post-racial, developed world. She confirms that even for a developing democracy like ours, the old-style blind casteist arithmetic has been relegated to the background. What young leaders and voters must focus on is the cold facts on the ground — rozgar, shiksha and universal healthcare. Another lesson is a quality women possess much more than men — tolerance and the capacity to be inclusive. After her election, PM Ardern extended a hand of friendship to the opposition Green Party. She did not need their numbers. But she recognised that they were valuable allies in the fight for environmental protection. Our young leaders could take a leaf out of her book for creating future alliances with pro-democracy, liberal feminists across genders and repudiate the misogynist, casteist and communal rhetoric of their opponents.
Ardern’s success proves that democracies today need politicians, male or female, who can represent a host of races, castes and tribes that live together as a nation. Even as the incumbent PM facing elections, Ardern was able to keep her nation united in the fight against COVID-19. Unlike the Delhi Durbar, which quietly watched the Delhi riots after the rabble-rousing rhetoric of young BJP leaders, Ardern rushed to the spot after the anti-Islamic Christchurch shootings. With her appeals for peace and swift punishments for the accused, she was able to not just douse the fires but also unite the nation.
The Oedipal violence behind rape threats to female relatives of outspoken critics of the Hindutva doctrine, of minorities, even cricketers playing badly in a season, is not just indicative of a clash between generations. It goes deeper — it is a clash between promoters of national integration and the isolationists who now come in all ages. And in politics, they fear and hate all who are liberal and gender-neutral in their political agendas.
Ardern shows that it is possible to contest and win elections without “Howdys” and “Abki-baars”. Demanding environmental protection is to her “my generation’s nuclear-free moment”. She quips bluntly, “I do not tend to have communications with Donald Trump.” Her landslide victory is proof of her large support base. Encouraged by that, she has since been frankly speaking truth to power, supporting minority rights everywhere from Israel-Palestine, to China’s Uyghurs and has offered to mediate and help Myanmar resolve the Rohingya problem.
Today, in India, we all look for ideological heroism such as this, even while we are being taught to see pragmatic women politicians demanding compassion, inclusion and balance as weak and foolish, or removed from the grassroots. Memorably, Ardern carried her baby to the ultra-sedate UN General Assembly Session, so she could feed it on time. A brilliant gesture that put all potential critics of breastfeeding for infants and mothers’ human rights immediately on the defensive. With this, she turned an age-old negative into positive and she did not need to use a jumla like “aapda se avasar (opportunity in adversity)”.
What aapda? You get the drift.
This article first appeared in the print edition on October 30, 2020 under the title ‘Jacinda’s way’. The writer is a senior journalist and former chairperson, Prasar Bharati.
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