A three-time chief minister of-the-difficult to govern Capital city, a seasoned politician, one of the senior most leaders for the Congress who has been given an extraordinarily daunting task of taking on powerful regional leaders and a ruling party in a vast and complex state. This is not a job for the fainthearted, yet when describing Sheila Dikshit, the Congress CM candidate for Uttar Pradesh, the overwhelming allusions were to her being the daughter-in-law of a powerful Brahmin leader from the state by her own party. As if her track record and administrative and political acumen counted for little and her sole qualification was her political legacy. In a country that has seen influential women leaders excel in politics, this is a signal disservice to them.
Where the Congress could have made a difference would have been to emphasise that the reason for her selection is her merit, not her lineage. Yet, this has been a traditional practice not just in India, but in the Subcontinent where political legitimacy is seen to be the result of the patriarchal genealogy of the woman.
Politics is a still an intricate labyrinth of male domination in which the deserving woman still needs the seal of male approval. In some ways, the media too has bought into this narrative, all too often defining a woman candidate for political office in terms of her relationship with a male benefactor.
Take the case of Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa with a long track record in governing a state dominated by male politicians. There are still sly references to her mentor, the late CM M. G. Ramachandran as though to say that all she has learnt in politics is from him and without his patronage she would be nowhere.
Even Mayawati, a largely self-made politician is always referred to as a protégé of Kanshi Ram, though her meteoric rise had much to do with her shrewd ability to discern the nuances of the complex web of caste and underprivileged in UP.
In many ways, women politicians themselves have fallen in with this discourse. The late Benazir Bhutto would invariably refer to her father as a qualification for the highest office, long after she had proved her credentials. In the 21st century where the meritocracy drives most professions and women are considered on a par with men in many fields, it is inexplicable that politics is held back by such backward shibboleths.
Just as a man is judged by his track record and not his family connections, women too should be accorded the same dignity and credibility. The Congress could have made a start here with UP.
It would have been something which could change the dynamics of gender politics.