A budding female politician, fighting to secure a place for herself in the male-dominated politics of her country, decided to visit India for learning some new tricks. She saw how many women politicians have emerged as mass leaders in this country, one that is supposed to be a third-world nation beset with worst kind of gender injustice and patriarchy.
Compared to that, her western country, regarded as a haven for women’s liberties, produced few women leaders and those too, nowhere as strong as their Indian counterparts.
She arrived in India with the names of Mayawati, Mamata Banerjee, Sushma Swaraj, Nirmala Sitharaman, Sheila Dikshit, etc. in her mind. “How wonderful it would be to meet these ladies and find out how they have managed to emerge so strong in a patriarchal society that is hell bent on suppressing women’s freedoms,” she thinks.
Her starting point in the journey is the capital New Delhi. “What better place to learn about these women than the center of Indian politics – the capital,” surmises the budding politician. She decides that the best way to get a deeper understanding of how these ladies have reached the heights of success is the journalistic circle of Lutyens Delhi.
The exalted men and women who analyse and study Indian politics for a living would be her guide on this issue. Apart from this, the lady from the west also sought to use the good offices of these political junkies for reaching the persons of interest in her study.
With these ideas in mind, she arrives at one of the many watering holes that abound in Lutyens Delhi where the beautiful people from the media congregate in evenings to socialize. She is received with great warmth and, after basic acquaintance with the main characters present on the spot, settles down with a group of the leading journalists of the country around a table.
There was plenty of high-quality liquor and snacks to go along with it. After a short while, the alcohol started to take effect. Formal and dignified language started to give way to profanities and wild claims about the who’s who of Indian political and journalistic class.
But everything was in good spirits and the hospitality of these scribes remained undiminished. So, the lady from abroad decided to present her set of questions about the most powerful ladies of India as well as requests for help in reaching them.
The journalists responded heartily and started a feverish discussion about the women mentioned and their prospects in the upcoming elections. “It’s Mamata Banerjee who is dominating the scene at the moment, she could give Modi sleepless nights,” one opined. “But don’t overlook Mayawati. Who better than a dalit ki beti to challenge our chaiwalla PM?” another chimed in.
The young politician decided to expand the scope of the discussion from the potential challengers of Modi to all women playing a key role at the moment. “What about Sushma Swaraj and Nirmala Sitharaman? Those two seem to be a couple of very impressive ladies with high positions in power.”
“Oh, come on! Sushma has been reduced to dealing with petty issues of immigrants while our PM dictates the terms of India’s foreign policy. No wonder she has decided not to contest the next elections,” was the opinion of a top female editor.
“And Nirmala Sitharaman! Ha, she is the defence minister of this government, not the country,” said another top gun of Indian journalistic fraternity.
“But you know, none of these ladies are going to swing the election that much this time,” claimed a familiar analyst on Indian TV. “The real threat to Modi is Priyanka Gandhi.”
“Yes, she is gonna pose a much bigger challenge than either Mamata or Maya,” the lady editor said. “I mean look at her charisma and how she charms the entire audience that watches her. Modi must be fretting wildly after her entrance into the campaign.” Her eyes rolled around gleefully while saying “charisma” in a way you will only see when an Indian mother tells her son how much she likes the girl he wants to marry.
The point was further illustrated by another member of the esteemed party. “I seriously can’t imagine how Modi would cope with the massive impact she would have on the people. I mean, can you imagine how unappealing that uncouth Yogi would appear compared to Priyanka?”
A very senior and highly-respected editor added his wisdom to the conversation: “Yes, Yogi would be parading his cows, talking about shauchalaya, sanskriti, doing the aarati and other such stuff. Imagine the contrast between her and Priyanka and how the youth would respond to that.” There was a disdainful streak in the tone of this editor as he mentioned Yogi’s proclivities and a deliberate attempt to pronounce the Hindi words in such a way that would seem decidedly vulgar to the sort of people gathered there.
After such vociferous endorsement of Priyanka Gandhi’s credentials as an election winner, the visiting lady’s interest in her was piqued. She had some vague idea about her as a member of the Gandhi-Nehru family but was not familiar with her prowess in the electoral field.
“So, it would be right to say that Priyanka and not Mamata, Mayawati, Sushma Swaraj or Nirmala Sitharaman would be the most influential lady in these upcoming elections?” she queried.
“Definitely,” pat came the reply from one of her hosts. “She could be the biggest factor in determining the outcome of the upcoming elections.”
The visitor realised that she was getting invaluable pearls of wisdom from the most knowledgeable men and women in India’s editorial class. So, she decided to take a pen and diary and note down the important points.
“Let me record the strengths and weaknesses of all these women for future reference. I guess, I can use this knowledge in my own personal journey. After all, what better way to learn the tricks of the trade than by looking at what other successful people have done themselves.”
She first writes down the name of Mamata Banerjee and asks her new acquaintances to inform her about the reasons for her success. She gets a plentiful response from the men and women sitting with her.
“She has been a fierce street-fighter for nearly three decades who fought the brutal communist regime in Bengal for years despite the toughest odds.”
“All sorts of violence was inflicted on her party men and even she was once badly wounded by the goons of CPM. Yet, she kept fighting and remained on the scene.”
“By serving as a minister in both the NDA and UPA government, she proved her administrative credentials. By operating the railway ministry – one of the most important and tricky – her stature in Indian politics only increased. Having served nearly eight years as Chief Minister of West Bengal now makes her all the more qualified.”
“But it was mainly her readiness to take to the streets and be part of numerous agitations that proved the secret to her success. By using the issue of forcible acquisition of farmer’s land for an industrial plant and turning it into a major political fight, she dealt the death blow to the left.”
The lady from abroad summarized these points: “So, these are the qualities Mamata has: Three decades of political experience; eight years as Chief Minister; many years as a union minister; participation in numerous agitations; enduring ordeals such as violence against herself; constant desire to take to the streets; etc. That is impressive!”
Next on her list was Mayawati. The journalist group started enumerating her qualities and their guest noted them down. “Coming from a humble background; fighting against discrimination her community faces; giving up a plum bureaucratic post to jump into electoral politics; apprenticeship under a very smart politician – Kanshi Ram; fighting tough political battles in the unforgiving field of North Indian politics for nearly three decades; like Mamata, not backing down even when faced with violence against her; multiple terms as Chief Minister of India’s biggest state; good record on dealing with law and order issues; etc. She too is an incredible politician.”
Next was the turn of Sushma Swaraj. Despite the insistence of the group to not give her any importance, their guest insisted that a lady serving as India’s foreign minister can’t be ignored in her study. So, the list of qualities written down by the politician looked like this: long political career starting from early 1970s; organically rising from the bottom rung of student politics to top echelons of national government; participation in major national movements like Jayaprakash Narayan’s Total Revolution; fighting legal battles for civil liberties as a lawyer during Emergency period; serving decades as a legislator and minister; great record as an MP; arguably the best orator in Indian politics; etc. “Wow, she seems to have the most impressive CV of any politician in India.”
Then the focus was shifted onto Nirmala Sitharaman. Again, without great enthusiasm, the scribes mentioned her achievements. The politician duly recounted: “Experience of serving in organisations like PricewaterHouseCoopers and BBC; a stint in National Commission for Women; many years as an active spokesperson for BJP constantly representing her party in media; successful stint as commerce minister which led to her promotion to defence portfolio; becoming the first women defence minister of India. Again, very impressive.”
“But, wait a minute! What about the Congress Party? Surely, they must be having some good women politicians apart from members of the Gandhi family,” asked the young politician.
“Yes, of course!” came the response from one of the editors. “There is Sheila Dikshit who served as Chief Minister of Delhi for 15 years and before that, a parliamentarian, union minister, India’s representative on the United Nations Commission on Status of Women, a member of other important bodies and committees, etc. She even went to jail for some days as part of a protest.”
“Wow, all these women seem very inspiring to me,” remarked the foreigner. “But you say that none of these are as important as Priyanka Gandhi. C’mon, tell me about her great record in the political field. She must have done even more than the persons you have mentioned. I guess the list of her accomplishments would be even longer.”
“Well,” started one of respondents in a diminished and unsure tone, “She is the grand-daughter of Indira Gandhi and great grand-daughter of Jawahar Lal Nehru.” His voice kept getting slower and lower as he talked on, “Her father was Rajiv Gandhi and mother Sonia Gandhi and also her brother is Congress president currently.”
“Yes, I am aware of her family roots,” the guest said with a smile, “but what about her achievements and qualities that make her so powerful.”
After a few seconds of silence where all the honchos of media thought about the answer and looked at each other searchingly, one said: “Well, she resembles her grandmother a lot and that reminds people of her. So, that is a big quality.”
“That’s natural, people do look like their parents and grand-parents. But she must also have bigger accomplishments than the Mamatas and Sushmas of this world. Tell me about them,” she demanded.
“No, the thing is,” the female editor decided to volunteer for a response, “that resemblance is very important. People see Indira Gandhi in her and that is a big advantage.”
“But I heard that most Indians are below the age of 35, so they could not have any memories of Indira Gandhi,” the female inquisitor asked in a diffident voice.
“No, you don’t understand. When people look at her, they see the glimpses of Indira Gandhi!” another member of the group seated around the table said with a lot of emphasis. “Imagine what would go through the minds of all the people who would see her!”
“Can you just elaborate this point a bit. When people see her, they would realise that she has taken her looks from Indira Gandhi, so how would that affect the election taking place in 2019?” the lady persisted with her query.
“So, yes, most Indians have never seen Indira Gandhi and don’t remember her. But you know, she has a great record as PM,” another respondent tried to explain. At this moment he stopped and looking upwards said with a diffident voice, “well, of course, she also imposed an emergency to save her Prime Ministership and jailed the entire opposition and suspended democracy, and her economic policies caused inflation and kept India economically weak but, you know, she was a great PM and now, when people look at Priyanka, they would see that she resembles her.”
“So, you are saying that Priyanka’s looks would remind people that she is her granddaughter?”
“But Rahul is also a grand child of Indira Gandhi. Is it the case that Indians can’t figure that out because he doesn’t have same features?”
“No, that’s not the point. She also has other qualities like…um…, the way she waves her hands and the way she smiles and the way she looks around….um. The point is, she is more like Indira than Rahul in her appearance.”
“OK. Now tell me about her accomplishments so far. Surely, to be more powerful than the likes of Mamata and Maya, she must have been constantly fighting tough political battles at the ground level, taking part in agitations, campaigning over serious social issues, constantly raising her voice on matters of importance?”
“A…no, but she does campaign for her party in every Lok Sabha election and also in Uttar Pradesh assembly elections. She also…um…talks about…um…her family…occasionally and…a…yes, she does that.”
“So, she only campaigns for her party once in a while and yet becomes the most powerful female leader. Wow,” the young politician said with amazement. “That means she must be a great campaigner. I bet she is an even better orator than Sushma Swaraj!”
“No, not really. You see it’s not the oratory that matters…”
“Oh, so it must be the weight of her words. I bet she has a great amount of expertise born out of vast experience, like Sheila Dikshit or Sushma Swaraj. Just as these two ladies did in their careers, she must have held important administrative positions or may have served on bodies dealing with major socio-political issues. Maybe she was part of some important project and helped it get implemented. Please tell me about such great accomplishments of her life. They must be many in order to eclipse a person like Swaraj and Dikshit in importance.”
“Actually…she was a housewife and well…hasn’t really been active in public life…but…”
“So, I guess she must have continuously raised certain issues which Indian people care about and would have campaigned on them?”
“A…no, she only campaigns for her party and that too, only during national and UP assembly elections, generally in the constituency of her mother and brother. But…um…”
“You see, it’s unfair to compare her with Sushma or Sheila,” one member of the group spoke up to help his friend. “Because…she is from the Gandhi family and…I mean…she can’t work…I mean she can’t work like these ladies…I mean, I am not saying that she is entitled or anything. It’s just that she is above these women.”
“Can you just explain that?” the guest asked, not able to follow the logic of her hosts.
“Well, I mean, look at Hillary Clinton. She is the wife of a former President and she wasn’t expected to do anything and yet, she made such a big difference to her party’s fortunes.”
“But Hillary was a Senator and was constantly raising issues of relevance in American politics and society. And she actually lost the 2008 primary to Barack Obama. Many people think it was the fact that she was the other option that people chose Trump instead in 2016 elections.” The visitor said these in as mild and feeble a manner as possible in order to not give offence to her hosts.
“There you go. So, by not working like Hillary, she hasn’t been caught up in any controversy.”
“But you were just now citing the example of Hillary to prove that a member of a top political family doesn’t have to work to establish her credentials.”
“No, what I was saying was that, yes she hasn’t held any official position or been part of any active group dealing with a social or political issue, but she doesn’t need to. Because she has other qualities.”
“Well, she has that charisma I talked about?
“You mean the waving of hands and smiles and features like her grandmother?”
“Um…yes,” the answerer said with a great deal of diffidence.
“So, in the largest democracy of the world, decades of fighting and campaigning for social and political issues, going to jail, suffering serious attacks, serving in important positions, having great administrative experience, being part of major movements, having expertise in certain fields, all pale into comparison with facial features, smile and hand-waving?”
“No, no, that’s not what we mean. You see, the people love her. She doesn’t need to do all these hard yards and slog it out amidst the dirt and dust of Indian politics. Her presence is enough.”
“That’s precisely what I want to put a finger on. What is it that makes her so powerful that all you – the wisest men and women when it comes to understanding Indian politics – think that she is the most influential female politician in this vast country? If I can learn this trick, things would be so much easier for me.
“You know, in my country, people ask politicians what have they done in their political careers for the people, have they been constantly raising relevant issues, do they possess decent experience? It would be so great not to do any of that and just become powerful. Please, please tell me the secret of Priyanka’s success?”
“Well, as we have already explained, it’s that charisma.”
“The grandmother’s looks and waving of hands, etc?”
“A…yes,” one of the beautiful people of Indian media said with an air of uncertainty.
“So,” the visitor announced, “the largest democracy in the world values looking like grandmother and smiles and hand-waving more than hard work, struggle, experience, expertise, public service, etc. I wasn’t expecting this!” After making this remark with a big sigh, the lady left the subject and decided to just enjoy the food and drinks.