The old order had reluctantly yielded to the new in the Samajwadi Party. With Akhilesh Yadav at the helm, the party showed nimbleness and humility in sewing up alliances for the Lok Sabha election. The visible presence of Yadav’s wife and Kannauj MP, Dimple Yadav, in party fora, too, has been a welcome change from its testosterone-heavy optics. But the musty odour of feudalism still clings on to the party. True to that vein of patriarchal nastiness, party MLA and candidate for Rampur constituency Azam Khan has aimed a volley of sexist abuse at his rival Jaya Prada, a former actor. At a rally in Rampur last week, Khan, in an apparent reference to Jaya Prada’s association with the RSS, said: “It took you 17 years to understand her true face. But I realised in 17 days… that she wears khaki underwear.”
This is not the first time that Khan — or any other Samajwadi leader —has denigrated Jaya Prada (Khan once called Jaya Prada naachne gaane wali; the actor has also alleged that Khan circulated morphed images of her during an election campaign.) As the over-the-top infantilisation of Hema Malini’s campaign, or the furore over Trinamool Congress’s choice of candidates in Bengal reveal, women actors and performers are subject to the worst of prejudices and barbs when they enter politics. While barriers to women’s entry into politics remain extremely high, the ones who find their way in are relentlessly policed and put in place, revealing a larger discomfort with those who seek equal political power. Political leaders across the spectrum, from Mamata Banerjee to Smriti Irani and Mayawati, have been ridiculed in this manner.
But it is not only the SP that must choose between a dark, regressive past and a more equitable impulse. It’s a choice thrown up for Indian politics by the larger changes in Indian society — and the countervailing political assertion of women that is pushing back against patriarchal rigidity. While leaders such as the BJD’s Naveen Patnaik and Banerjee appear to have recognised and acknowledged that tectonic change, too many parties appear to find comfort in clinging on to a grubby, toxic masculinity. If the SP fails to censure Khan for the rancid political discourse he is guilty of, it will have taken a few steps backward on its rocky path to becoming a modern, more equal political party.