Poor Naresh Agarwal. Even a pejorative “naachney gaaney wali” that he hurled at veteran actor-parliamentarian Jaya Bachchan, chosen over him for a Rajya Sabha seat, turns out to be plagiarised. The jury, though, is still out on who the original source of the jumla is. Was it the Jama Masjid’s Shahi Imam (who, according to some, first coined and used this term for another film actor-activist, Shabana Azmi), or does the copyright belong to Agarwal’s erstwhile colleague and senior Samajwadi Party leader, Azam Khan, who reportedly used it for another popular Bollywood star, Jayaprada.
There is little doubt, however, that the phenomenon of hugely successful women from the performing arts entering politics has triggered ugly culturally-loaded evaluations from men holding positions of power in various parties. According to a report of Inter Parliamentary Union — an organisation of parliamentary bodies world wide — that drew on data from 39 countries, sexism, harassment and violence against women parliamentarians are not something imagined by feminists. They are real and widespread. In India, there are several recent instances of ugly male behaviour towards women actors in the electoral arena. In 2014, the Congress candidate and well-known actor, Nagma, contesting the elections in Meerut, was reportedly subjected to ugly harassment by a local political leader. Another actor, Navnit Kaur Rana, accused a Member of Parliament from Maharashtra of making derogatory remarks against her for being a film actor. It is also not surprising that the veteran actor, Hema Malini, reportedly prefers canvassing from her Audi than come out and risk being abused or physically assaulted by fellow politicians or males from the jostling crowds.
As far as historical data goes, we can discern both in the north and south of the country, and at all levels of society, a great public attraction for a female performer who can, through song and dance, deal with the great moral ambivalence in Indian society about the physicality of love and sex. This phenomenon of the inescapable charms of a professional performing woman (the Nitya Sumangali in the South, the Devdasi in different parts of the country) seems to have merged and mutated successfully in our time, in films and popular politics. However, within both fields, basic decisions about gender-based roles of domination and subservience remain in male hands. Descriptions by Indian males of female artists, who enter and challenge them in their political or social turf, thus reflect the average Indian male’s sexist expectations of deference from women politicians. This is especially so for performing artists, traditionally associated with liberal sexual values and promiscuity. Azam Khan had actually said that he will be unable to practise real politics were he to focus on a mere “naachney gaaney wali”.
The art of “naachna gaana” gets a gender ascription in such verbal assaults and becomes reflective of the “naachney gaaneywali’s” sexuality. This is unlike the case of male performers, many of whom became successful politicians — NTR, MGR, Raj Babbar and Manoj Tiwari, to name a few — without their sexuality being subjected to an ugly “nudge-nudge-wink-wink”. “If a man is good at singing, he is called an ustad,” writes the singer Rita Kothari in her musical play on Begum Akhtar, “but if a woman is good at singing, she is called a bai”. You get the drift.
As Kate Millett once wrote, all political relationships are ultimately structured by power. So, women who defy the rules of traditional subservience and emerge as popular politicians are seen as threats to male dominance in politics. They ultimately threaten to erode the legitimacy of male dominance in all spheres of power. So, age-old sexist prejudices against women performers begin to be voiced to delegitimise the female-actor-politicians’ experience before any discussion on framing or amending laws on issues vital to women’s equality — like pornography, violence against women and girls, human rights, even healthcare — takes place. And when discussions begin, we see not just women parliamentarians, but also female judges and bureaucrats come up against what remain a set of male-developed pre-feminist ideas about acceptable female behaviour in a democracy.
Thus, the astoundingly sexist comments embedded in the discussions on violence against young girls during the debates following the rape and murder in Delhi in December 2012, and the frequent mudslinging against women leaders, especially during elections. We have had General V K Singh dubbing the media as “presstitutes”, Daya Shankar calling BSP leader Mayawati a “vaishya” (slut), Digvijay Singh referring to a certain politician as, “tunch maal”( pure property), and Sanjay Nirupam referring to actor-turned politician Smriti Irani as “thumke lagaane waali”.
All power teaches, and political power teaches politically. In the past six decades, experiences of Indian women in politics and as performers have greatly helped them develop a perspective about sexism, politics and power. Soon after Agarwal’s words against Jaya Bachchan, Sushma Swaraj, one of the most mature and respected leaders of the BJP, condemned them unequivocally. And Bachchan herself refused to be drawn into this abusive game. This reveals that within parties, senior women politicians will no longer allow the verbal bullying of men to go unchallenged. Subjects of such verbal assaults have realised that men, when they begin to lose power, could begin to lose control over their speech . And so they now wisely choose the dignity of women without blinking at the indignity of a coarse male discourse. Lage Raho Naresh Bhai!