The names Indian male politicians have called their female counterparts ought to earn a separate entry in the Dictionary of Everyday Sexism. Naresh Agarwal, who has with agile footwork leapt from the SP to the BJP, went on to blame his decision on the ultimate insult: Not just a woman, but a woman who “danced and sang in films” had been chosen over him by the SP as a Rajya Sabha candidate. Only men are allowed to pull off this dance of democracy, believes the politician, whose promiscuity in choosing strange bedfellows is legendary. Jaya Bachchan chose not to respond to the jibe but it horrified Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj so much that she put out an angry tweet. It was left to other women leaders, such as Harsimrat Kaur Badal, to condemn the statement.
The casual misogyny of Indian politics is non-partisan; it is evident in the right as well as the left and centrist parties. Women leaders across the board, from Smriti Irani to Mayawati, have been derided, talked down to — and most recently — mocked at by a table-thumping boys’ club in Parliament for daring to laugh. In one of his earliest speeches as Prime Minister, Narendra Modi had, from the ramparts of the Red Fort, asked parents why they monitored their daughters’ habits ruthlessly, when they failed to check their sons’ behaviour. In a country where victim-blaming is a seasoned sport, the PM’s words struck a refreshing note. Having held all to a better standard, the PM and his party appear to have slipped up on internalising the message.
The Indian political class is overwhelming male, but the worrying thing is that it remains distressingly blind to its privilege and entitlement. That reflects in policy as well as the woefully small number of women in Indian political life. For the ones who have come up the hard way, there is always the sniggering allegation that they do not deserve it: That they are not kosher enough, whether they are actors or singers or wives. That disempowerment comes by way of jibes as well as violence, as Mayawati, Mamata Banerjee and Jayalalithaa experienced. When Canadian PM Justin Trudeau presented his first gender-balanced cabinet (15 women in a team of 31), he had explained: “Because it is 2015.” Instead of half-hearted apologies, Agarwal and his minders should realise: The time for disgraceful, loose, sexist talk is up.