The Scandalous Life of Women in Politics

Posted: May 30, 2011

Life for Indian women in politics is tough, despite women power seen in the 2011 Assembly Election. A look at how Bollywood treats female politicians.

By Amrita Rajan

In addition to the President of India and the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, not to mention Sonia Gandhi, the results of the 2011 Assembly Elections mean that four of India’s states are now governed by women. You’d think this was a wonderful moment for women in our country’s history, but only if you don’t read any further. Says the Globe and Mail:




They are extraordinary individuals, these women – a former film star, a woman from the “untouchable” caste who grew up in a slum, a rabble-rouser in flip-flops whose skull was once splintered by the Communists she has implacably opposed. But when they are considered as a group, their ascension to power offers a number of insights into change in India.

Indeed. As a female politician, if you’re married, then everyone wants to know how your husband and other family members are profiting from your election. If you’re single, they speculate on who you screwed to get to the top. In the rare instance where you’re single and they can’t find any link-ups, you must be an angry ballbuster who can’t get along with anybody. Look at a movie like Hu Tu Tu – it manages to combine pretty much every negative trope of female politicians into the awful character of Malti Barve (Suhasini Muley), who cheats on her husband, neglects her daughter, ruins the country and turns poets into vegetables as an encore!

If you’re single, they speculate on who you screwed to get to the top. In the rare instance where you’re single and they can’t find any link-ups, you must be an angry ballbuster who can’t get along with anybody.

What’s wrong with women in politics?

Not even Indira Gandhi, the epitome of political royalty, was immune to the “what is wrong with this woman in politics” question. In Gulzar’s Aandhi, a movie supposedly based on her life, the protagonist Aarti Devi (Suchitra Sen) is forced to contend with dirty tricks that include lewd posters on the campaign trail. In reality, Indira Gandhi dealt with far more detailed rumor-mongering late into her career, long after she became the most powerful person in India. Like her male counterparts, there were plenty of corruption charges. Unlike them, however, her sex life was also grounds for debate. M.O. Mathai, her father’s aide and her own political critic, even alleged in print that she was carrying on an affair with her personal yoga guru, Dhirendra Brahmachari.

But at least Mrs. Gandhi was a once-married-mother-of-two, a status that comes with a certain amount of protection (example: Sheila Dixit). How about those women, and there is no shortage of them in Indian politics, who are single?

There is a scene in Prakash Jha’s blockbuster Raajneeti, in which a woman with political aspirations goes to work on the powerful man in charge with barely a how-do-you-do, her pornstar moans interspersed with repeated pleas for an election ticket. Jha is a filmmaker who’s spent considerable time in politics in the Hindi belt, specifically Bihar. And while it’s hard to imagine that he knows many politicians who look like Arjun Rampal, or even Shruti Seth, the concept of women earning a ticket on their back must be familiar.

It doesn’t matter whether you did or not. If you’re a woman getting ahead in that kind of testosterone-charged neighborhood, everybody is sure there must be something more to it than plain hard work.

Women in power; Really?

After all, that’s the common assumption. It doesn’t matter whether you did or not. If you’re a woman getting ahead in that kind of testosterone-charged neighborhood, everybody is sure there must be something more to it than plain hard work. It is true that without the support of powerful mentors or hailing from a political family, trading sexual favors is one way of getting ahead in a system that is overwhelmingly male-centric and far from meritocratic. Just recently, Patrick French proved the national gut feeling correct when he determined that the vast majority of women in the Indian Parliament made it there through family connections. (Many of their male counterparts do the same, though allegations of using sex to climb up the ladder are rare).

Jayaprada is an example of a different sort; a movie star famous for several risque performances in multiple Indian languages, now turned Uttar Pradesh politician notorious for one of the nastiest elections campaigns ever fought anywhere. She accused her rivals of distributing fake naked pictures of her while they strongly implied that the only reason she got a ticket was because she was Amar Singh’s mistress. And even though she won the election, once the Samajwadi Party parted ways with Amar Singh, they promptly kicked her out despite the care she took to thank Mulayam Singh Yadav at every opportunity and the hard work she put in. No matter what she did, in the end it all came down to her closest male advisor.

Nor is she a special case thanks to her national glamour-doll days in the 1980s. Uttar Pradesh’s current Chief Minister Mayawati might have never put on an apsara costume, but when Kanshi Ram became her political mentor, rumours blazed that he was interested in more than her political talent until she was forced to physically distance herself to protect both their reputations.

The most successful of these ladies, as of 2011 at least, have apparently found a way to turn their weakness into strength:

[T]hese single women leaders never miss a chance to use their ‘family-free’ status as evidence of their commitment to politics. Mamata Banerjee, who lives with her mother, declared, on the eve of the West Bengal poll results, “I don’t have any other family…they (pointing to the crowds) are all the family that I have.” Mayawati’s rallying cry has been, “Chamari hoon, kunwari hoon, tumhari hoon (I am a cobbler’s daughter, I am single, I am yours),” listing her singlehood as a USP, right after her Dalit credentials. “Jayalalitha’s speech after she won was about the mandate against the ‘dynasty of corruption’,” says Kesavan.

Thirty years ago, news magazines in the West were still predicting the failure of the Indian state on an annual basis. Twenty years ago, everybody was confident that no lower-caste woman could actually succeed in Indian politics in the next 50 years, whatever her upper caste sisters might achieve. India has proven them all wrong. It is entirely possible, therefore, that we might see female politicians treated with respect in our lifetime. Or the same amount of respect as their male colleagues. That’ll work too.

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