File photo: Former Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh Kamal Nath. Photograph:( Zee News Network )
Former Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, Kamalnath’s use of the word 'item' is an example in case. He would not dare to use this word for women politicians who either hail from political families or belong to established backgrounds.
Women are not immune to misogyny in public life. In politics, the open targeting just makes it clear the deep patriarchal bias that runs in our society despite laws in place. The harassment becomes more blatant for those women who do not descend from political families. Former Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, Kamalnath’s use of the word 'item' is an example in case. He would not dare to use this word for women politicians who either hail from political families or belong to established backgrounds.
These words are reserved for women without patriarchal patronage. The sexual slur works as an expression of power and putting the woman in her place through the prism of class and caste. It is this slur which often leads to sexual violence in rural areas where its used as a tool to enforce socially constructed hierarchies. But this is only one part of sexual violence and misogyny in Indian politics.
Success in public life and attainment of public stature does not mean the end of such slurs. It moves from the domain of harassment and ridicule to character assassination. It involves running down of women for not having a child or not being married or treating her ambition and aggressiveness as a sign of unrestrained sexuality. This continues even today despite women making immense contribution in Indian politics.
It is also not as if India has not seen its fair share of women politicians in both pre-independence and post-Independence India. Sarojini Naidu, Vijay Lakshmi Pandit, Raj Kumari Amrit Kau, Lakshmi Sehgal, Bhikaji Cama and Begum Jahanara Shahnawaz are a few who made the cut in the Indian politics. In post-independent India, Indira Gandhi, Nandini Sathpathy, Mamta Banerjee, Jayalalitha, Mayawati, Sushma Swaraj, Sonia Gandhi, Nirmala Sitaraman, Vijay Raje Scindia, Mehbooba Mufti, Vasundhara Raje Scindia and Maneka Gandhi are some of the examples.
"Kamal Nath (@OfficeOfKNath) used the word ‘item’ for Imarti Devi. This is one example where politicians use sexual slurs even when they deny it to enforce social hierarchies," says @kartikeya_1975.— WION (@WIONews) October 22, 2020
Read more here: https://t.co/EDBF7H5jcU pic.twitter.com/tZWdgZHSe7
Barring few, most of these politicians came from political families. The women who became powerful were often run down as graceless and unrestrained. Criticism of this kind was heaped on them regardless of whether they came from both established and non-established backgrounds just because they became powerful. These women are Indira Gandhi, Mamata Banerjee, Jayalalitha, Mayawati, Vasundhara Raje Scindia, Mehbooba Mufti and Sonia Gandhi.
Vasundhara Raje Scindia was attacked with a jibe of 8 PM no CM when she became Chief Minister of Rajasthan for the first time. It was as if she was the only politician in Rajasthan who was enjoyed a drink or two. Late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi after 1971 was first compared with Durga and then a control freak who could not be dictated by men. She made an easy transition from Goddess to a witch, categories which either eulogise or demonise women.
Indira Gandhi got away with lot because of her stature and background but many politicians like Mayawati, Mamta Banerjee and Jayalalitha could not. When they came into their own, they were branded as mercurial, uncontrollable, fickle, suspicious, and extremely temperamental. All three women CMs had to undergo such labelling whereas no one could brand, Narendra Modi or Naveen Patnaik like this. Mayawati and Jayalalitha's success was explained because of their respective Godfathers and not out their innate strength.
Sonia Gandhi had to undergo a different sort of a trolling. When Late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi became unpopular in late 1980s, Sonia Gandhi’s name was dragged in public and was blamed for Rajiv Gandhi’s political decisions. Shashi Tharoor was attacked by then PM candidate Modi for having and expensive 50 crore girlfriend. It did not damage Modi politically
Other women politicians like Sushma Swaraj also had to undergo personality trolling. Senior BJP leader Sushma Swaraj was reduced to her bright bindi, Union Minister Smriti Irani for her sindoor and Pratibha Patil for her dupatta. Nirmala Sitharaman's rise is being attributed to her mentor and not because she is right for the job.
Misogyny runs deep in the Indian politics but there exists a flip side to it too - which is that women also participate in pushing patriarchal values in all occupations. Sonia Gandhi’s love for her son Rahul Gandhi or Indira Gandhi pushing her sons in politics or adhering to traditional constituencies by women rather than trying to resist them has been a failure.
To walk with the conservative vote, women in Indian politics have also perpetuated old feudal patriarchal system of loyalties for political end. Gender reform in India requires simultaneous caste reforms as in its absence gender parity would become restricted to a class of women. It is for this reason that misogyny in India has been able to flourish.