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Maternal politics

The Mayawati-Maneka faceoff touches on the eternal dilemma of powerful women

Written by The Indian Express |
April 6, 2009 12:31:23 pm

Stopped from meeting her son Varun Gandhi in prison more than the permissible twice a week,Maneka Gandhi accused UP Chief Minister Mayawati of being incapable of understanding a mother’s feelings. A few months back,Union Minister for Women and Child Development Renuka Chowdhury launched a similarly wild attack on Mayawati for her inability to think like a woman and a mother over the Arushi Talwar case. This time too,Maneka Gandhi’s low blow seeks to present Mayawati as some sort of unnatural,desexed creature of political ambition alone. For her part,Mayawati turned the insult around,invoking Mother Teresa and counselling Maneka on parenting.

Women in Indian politics (and anywhere else,to different degrees — recall Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin in the United States) have to present themselves in ways palatable to patriarchal ideas of femininity. They usually relate in familial terms — Jayalalithaa is Amma,Sonia Gandhi is always the dutiful daughter-in-law. Or more rarely,they shun domestic associations altogether,as Mamata Banerjee does — but this also lays them open to the accusation of being power-crazed automatons.

Mayawati,all said and done,has built a powerful party machine with minimum fuss about her gender — though her rivals claim she merely walked in to inhabit her political mentor Kanshi Ram’s oppositional politics,there is no denying that she made the BSP the force it is today,cannily shifting her political pitch to extend her appeal,envisioning a grand plan of nationwide domination. As far as is possible in Indian politics,she’s a free agent without a last name. Maneka Gandhi,on the other hand,is defined by family,she has theatrically thrown herself into every role that a patriarchal society would instinctively embrace — wronged daughter-in-law,cast-out widow (who wanted her husband’s death anniversary marked as Vidhwa Diwas),earth mother. It is not surprising that she would launch her attack on a political opponent several times her political size,in terms that define her — terms that have been used to control and diminish powerful women for centuries.

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